Monday, November 10, 2008

OK Europe, its your turn to deal with racism

Inspired by the success of Barack Obama a group of prominent French figures, including First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, published an open letter in French newspapers on Sunday titled "Oui, nous pouvons!" (the French translation of Obama's "Yes, we can!" slogan) calling for France to confront racism within their society and to provide equal opportunities for France's millions of Black and Arab citizens. I say it's about time.

In working on this site, I read a lot of European media. In the months leading up to the election it grew more and more annoying to read the sanctimonious opinion pieces in the European press saying that America had to elect Obama to prove that we weren't really racists. It's a statement that ignores some pretty ugly facts in Europe. While the European Union prides itself on respecting diversity, the European attitude towards diversity seems to be that it’s great so long as you’re white and some sort of Christian (though preferably not one of those Eastern Rite sorts). Let's take a quick look around the continent.

In France generations of people, French citizens from France's former colonial empire in Africa are warehoused in sprawling slums known as "Cit├ęs" on the edges of major metropolitan areas, isolated from French culture in general with practically no hope of ever advancing in society (residents say that to put an African-sounding name on a resume is a guarantee that it will wind up in the trash). These are the same places that exploded violently into riots during the summer of 2005. In Germany there is a similar situation with hordes of Turkish "guest workers" brought in on restrictive visas to serve as cheap labor for the German economy. Like in France they live in housing projects on the edge of German society, a situation that only promotes feelings of anger and isolation - keep in mind that the 9/11 attacks were planned not only in the caves of Afghanistan, but also the slums of Hamburg. In Italy Silvio Berlusconi returned to power by putting together a coalition of neo-fascist and openly racist parties (like the anti-immigrant Northern League), this year there has been a growing tendency to blame a host of societal problems, like rising street crime, on Italy's Roma (Gypsy) population. And there's Switzerland where one party ran this ad during the last national elections:

You don't have to speak French to get the message there. It's unthinkable that a reputable political party could run such an ad in the United States. And that gets to my main point that in Europe Barack Obama would have done well to get himself elected to a town council. Even in France, where millions can trace their heritage to former African colonies, just one member of their 555-seat lower house of parliament (equivalent to our House of Representatives) is Black. The sad truth is that across Europe, despite their respect for diversity and their scolding of America, non-Whites are practically non-existent in government, and no European commentators would say that they think their country would make a Barack Obama president (or prime minister) anytime soon.

That's why it is good to see Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy's challenge to French society, and to hear similar talk brewing in Great Britain as well. By the measure of the Euro-pundits we've "proven" we're not racists. Europe, it's your turn now.
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