Thomas J. Sugrue: Burn, Bébé, Burn

[Thomas J. Sugrue is Kahn Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis, selected as one of Princeton’s one hundred most influential books of the last hundred years. He was a visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris in 2002. During the 2005–2006 academic year, he is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.]

... France today looks more like America in July 1967 than most commentators want to admit. Despite the rhetoric of universal citizenship, Africans and Arabs suffer from high unemployment, deeply entrenched racial exclusion, and segregation in housing. Relations between young minorities and the police are bitter. A youthful generation—mostly migrants and second- and third-generation children of immigrants—led the rebellions. The one major difference between the two nations’ riots was the number of fatalities (a reminder of America’s gun-toting exceptionalism). Most of the French rioters were unarmed and, more important, the French police were restrained in their use of force. By contrast, law enforcement officials in the United States were responsible for most of the riot-related deaths. Yet a majority of French nationals—like their American counterparts in the 1960s—saw the riots as a breakdown of law and order, as a nihilistic rebellion, as anarchy in the streets. They demanded that the police be given stricter powers and that the rebellions be suppressed by any means necessary. It is likely that, as in the United States, French politics will be reshaped by even more vocal demands for law and order and efforts to expand the carceral state.

Like their French counterparts last fall, most of the 1960s rioters in the United States did not share a coherent vision. They were young and angry. No single leader emerged from the flames that engulfed America’s ghettos. But, however disorganized, the riots got the attention of the authorities. In the aftermath of 1967, the federal government and the private sector briefly increased spending in black neighborhoods. They expanded job-training programs for the “hard-core unemployed.” And federal officials adopted policies such as affirmative action as “riot insurance”—that is, to buy off black discontent. The most notable effect was a dramatic increase in the number of black police officers—probably the main reason why only a handful of riots, notably Los Angeles in 1992, have broken out in the United States over the last thirty-five years, even if police-community relations are still sour in many cities.

It is likely that as the French riots recede into memory, the French government will increase spending in the banlieues (indeed, the Chirac government has already pledged to increase its efforts to tackle the problem of youth unemployment). If those programs are sustained—rather than starved, as they have been in the United States since the 1970s—they might make a difference in the long run. But they are not enough. France must also respond to the simmering and unaddressed problems of police-community relations. As long as Arab and African youth perceive the police as the enemy, the situation will remain explosive. And most important, France must come to grips with the root causes of rioting—persistent exclusion and discrimination by race and ethnicity.

Above all, France must follow the (not very good) example of the United States, of pulling away the blinders of universalism and admitting that it has a deeply entrenched race problem. That is the most important lesson of the riots. In America, as in France, color blindness as a principle did not eliminate the everyday practice of discrimination or the institutionalization of racial and ethnic difference in housing and labor markets. Because French universalism has been blind to racial discrimination, the French government has been unwilling to gather statistics on race and ethnicity. Without official, reliable statistics, however, it will be very difficult for France to develop social policies that address the root causes of discrimination and exclusion. By contrast, social scientists, policymakers, and activists in the United States have used official government data on racial inequality in education, in housing, in health, and in employment, to devise policies to overcome exclusion and segregation. (The struggle against entrenched discrimination, educational and housing segregation, and racialized poverty in the United States has been uphill, particularly in the current political climate, but the climb would be even steeper in the absence of reliable data.) Gathering data by race and ethnicity does not mean accepting racial differences as fixed, permanent, and unchangeable, as advocates of color blindness fear. As the lesson of the United States makes painfully clear, racial differences will not go away just because they are invisible in the public sphere. Rather, as the riots demonstrated, they will get worse. We need to take account of race to eliminate racial inequality. Only then might the burning stop.

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