France's Approach to Fighting Racism: Pretty Words and Magical Thinking

05/07/2015 01:39 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.

As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had been lecturing on youth and delinquency. I asked, in my broken French, if the dynamics he described had any relation to racial or ethnic belonging. "We don't have that kind of problem here," he said, adding: "This isn't the United States." Embarrassed and flustered, I nodded and continued taking notes. After class, one of the only other black students pulled me aside: "We do have those kinds of problems here. Hang out with me and I'll tell you about it."


My new friend was from Cameroon and had moved to France along with her sister and brother several years prior. Over the course of the semester, her family basically adopted me, inviting me to dinners, showing me the area and telling me about their lives. I learned that despite the fact that each of them had white French partners and white close friends, they nonetheless experienced racism. But, as I learned in that sociology class that day, many French people denied that racism was actually a problem in their supposedly colorblind society.

Twelve years later, I am now a sociologist and professor finishing a book on racism and the legacies of slavery in France. And while some things have changed here, many French people are still in denial. Over the past decade, French minority groups have made important gains. 2005 was a water-shed year for raising consciousness about the weight of racism in France. In addition to the riots sparked by the death of French minority youth fleeing the police, new anti-racist groups emerged, such as the Representative Council of Black Associations and Indigenes de la République. There is now a national day of memory for slavery and the slavey trade (May 10th) thanks to a law proposed by Christiana Taubira, now France's first black (and female) Minister of Justice. New, powerful minority voices have emerged in the public sphere, including filmmaker, TV personality and activist Rokhaya Diallo and scholar-activist Maboula Soumahoro (who spearheaded France's first "Black History Month" in 2012).

Ten years after the riots, the police involved in chasing Zyed Benna, Bouna Traore and their friends are finally being tried for negligence. Ten years later, it is more difficult for the French to deny the plight of ethnic and racial minorities -- though some, especially conservatives, deny this reality daily.

Yet, despite these transformations, the French government seems to have almost entirely abdicated its responsibility for dealing with racism. In terms of policy, French "anti-racism" is a total disaster. Instead of formulating anti-racist policies and collecting anti-discrimination statistics, the country contents itself with anti-racist discourse and magical thinking. In 2011, the U.N. issued a report condemning France for its "racist climate" and lack of "real political will" to address racial discrimination. In 2013, French politicians took steps to remove the word "race" from its laws, apparently guided by the magical belief that changing words is enough to fight racism.

In France, it is illegal for the government to include race or ethnicity on the census, as doing so is framed as a violation of so-called "Republican" values, which insist that the French Republic is "indivisible" and should not be distinguished in terms of race or ethnic origin. The problem with this is that the majority population fails to acknowledge that the Republic has been making racial and ethnic distinctions for a very long time. This, too, stems from denial and ignorance. The truth is that French people who cherish dominant interpretations of "colorblind" Republicanism help maintain the racial status quo. By refusing to support the collection of statistics that could be used to generate policies and measure their effectiveness, they undermine the work of minorities and activists who are working hard to counteract the tide of Republican denial.

While some argue that France doesn't need more data to fight racism, this almost argument is never made concerning sexism. Most people are aware that sexism exists, but it would be absurd to say: "We already know sexism exists and therefore don't need data on gender discrimination.."Yet, this is the same kind of magical thinking that prevails in much of the so-called "anti-racist" discourse one encounters in France.

Some of France's most visible "anti-racist groups" have continually opposed anti-discrimination statistics. Just this week, I appeared on France24 to debate the issue with Hadrien Lenoir, a representative of SOS Racisme -- one of the most vocal critics of ethnoracial statistics. During the lively debate, Lenoir presented SOS Racisme as supporting such statistics "in research" -- as long as they're not collected by the government. What he did not admit is that SOS Racisme virulently opposed the cutting edge work of French scholars who produced, for the first time, a large scale study of discrimination in France using ethnoracial statistics. Even if the group claims to have changed its position, the reality is that most French research is sponsored by the government. Thus, expressing support for ethnoracial stats "in research" as long as the government is not involved is nonsensical in a nation where most research is funded by the state. These are the kinds of mind-boggling contradictions that anyone studying French racism has to confront--contradictions that, for many years, made me never want to study race in France again.

It is true that some French people still deny that racism exists--despite the many studies that have documented discrimination. But other groups, like SOSRacisme, actually use their fear of racism in the government to argue against the collection of ethnoracial statistics. They point to the racism of the government during the Vichy regime of World War II as proof that the state cannot be trusted. Most recently, when Robert Menard, a far-right mayor of the town of Beziers, admitted to ethnoracially profiling Muslim children, groups like SOSRacisme argued that this, too, was proof that the government had no business counting people by race or religion. Of course, in making this argument, they draw a false equivalence anti-racist and racist usage of statistics.

In my view, the lesson gleaned from Menard's racism is simple: People in power will gather data to profile minorities whether or not the government calls itself colorblind. Indeed, 13 Black and Arab men are currently suing the French state itself for engaging in racial profiling.

The more time I spend in France, the more it seems to me that some French people (especially politicians) are extraordinarily skilled at talking about principles that they have no intention of doing anything about. Perhaps the French are stuck because they are far too philosophical and not at all practical when it comes to anti-discrimination. I don't doubt the sincerity of most anti-racist groups that oppose policies that would actually expose and address racism. I have not always had the policy positions I have now. Certainly when I started my research in France, I did not have strong opinions. While I always saw myself as anti-racist, I was not informed enough to have a clear sense of whether ethnoracial statistics or "American-style" policies were needed in France. But after spending nearly three years living in France and interviewing over 100 French activists and ordinary people, my views began to change. It became increasingly obvious that the French population is mired in ignorance about the social and historical reality of race. Even moreso than in the United States, French discourse "about race" is incredibly superficial, asociological and ahistorical. Of course they don't know how to fight racism.

I denounce white supremacy in the United States on a daily basis and I have no illusions that numbers will save the day. But it matters that activists and scholars in the United States can point to statistics within communities, organizations and institutions to measure just how much has changed -- and just how much has not. It matters that we can use these numbers to inform policies and measure their effectiveness (or lack thereof). No, these statistics are not a panacea. Yes, black people and other minorities continue to experience the on-going racial tyranny of white supremacy. But the numbers help combat the denial and magical thinking frequently found among white people and other dominant groups -- denial that would have you believe that centuries of race-making can be undone with beautiful principles and kumbaya colorblindness.

For a country that presents itself as secular, France nonetheless asserts religious conviction in the power of words to erase social and historical realities. In terms of dealing (or rather, not dealing) with racism, France is like a country that prefers faith-based healing over modern medicine for its ailing children. To take the analogy even further -- the French political establishment is like a parent who infected their own children with an illness -- only to refuse diagnostic tests and treatment.

It's amazing, really -- this intransigent, irrational belief that the language of "colorblindness" can actually undo centuries of race-making. The French seem to believe, that through the magical power of language alone, they can talk racism into oblivion. Nevermind the fact that France spent centuries establishing racial hierarchies at home and in its colonial empire for the purpose of enriching the state. Some truly believe that words like "Republic" and "citizenship" and "indivisible" can suddenly undo processes that were produced and institutionalized over the course of four hundred years.

In my view, French magical thinking about race is reinforced by the near total ignorance of the population with regard to its racial past. The French are struggling, in part, because they do not have widely read sociologists or historians of race. During my time in France this spring, I've met young French scholars of race who are doing really important, desperately needed work. But the political and intellectual landscape in which they must work is absolutely depressing. Not only does the French academy lack serious programs in race, but it is also overwhelmingly white and elite. One does not need statistics to see this. Enter any French elite university and you will find very few minority professors, chairs of departments or administrators. There are only a few books that could fall under the umbrella of "Black Studies" in France. Not only is there nothing even approaching "post-colonial studies" -- the history of colonialism itself is mostly a non-lieu de memoire : barely taught in schools, mostly forgotten and marginalized in the nation's collective memory. There is no French equivalent of W.E.B. Du Bois (who essentially founded urban sociology in the United States and pioneered studies of race, racism and whiteness). And there has not yet emerged a French equivalent of Kimberlé Crenshaw or Patricia Hill Collins -- scholars who have revolutionized entire fields of thought through their contributions to Black Feminist scholarship and critical race theory. Yes, the Nardal Sisters and Cesaire and Fanon exist, but French scholars of color are still mostly ignored by white French people. Indeed, negritude was far more influential outside of hexagonal France than within it.

The only thing most French people seem to know about race is that racial categories were used against the Jews during WW II. That's it. If you ask French people to tell you about racism in French colonialism, racial exclusion in the metropole prior to WW II, most probably would have little to say. Most French people can't explain in any degree of detail where the concept of race came from, how racism perpetuates itself over time or how it is institutionalized. How could they? They do not (and, with few exceptions, cannot) learn about these things at school. But they think they can "fight" racism in a context of near complete social and historical ignorance about what race means and where it came from.

If there was ever a case study in the epistemology of ignorance -- and its relationship to white supremacy -- France is it. As I argue in the book I'm finishing now, white supremacy and racial ignorance are both key to understanding race in France. Already in the United States, racial ignorance and denial run wide and deep. And yet, despite these challenges, we have intellectual resources and minority networks the French can't even dream of. And I don't say this to brag -- it's not like these intellectual resources have saved us. They haven't. But they matter. They help.

I don't think most people (French or otherwise) understand that it takes centuries of diligent activism, statistical tracking, policy making and scholarship to even begin to address the damage of racism. The U.S. case shows that it is extremely difficult to confront and combat racism, even when you have the intellectual resources and data. But the French case shows that it is impossible to effectively identify and challenge racism without these things.

Further, French chauvinism prevents many people here from actually embracing a global understanding of racial processes and white supremacy. References to race in the United States or the UK are portrayed as too foreign -- imposing an "anglosaxon" lens. White French people will sometimes say that their country can't learn anything about race from the United States because the two societies are so different. And yet, the same people point to the continued existence of racism in the U.S. as "proof" that our approach to using ethnoracial statistics "hasn't helped". But if the U.S. is "too different" to teach anything to the French about race, then it cannot also be used by the French as "evidence" that ethnoracial statistics are a bad idea. It is intellectually dishonest to claim that one can't learn anything from another society, yet also use that same society to justify one's position. Further, the fact that France does not collect ethnoracial data means that it is impossible to seriously compare the situation of minorities in most spheres of life (e.g. housing and employment discrimination, political representation and so on). But the French think that they don't need data to say that their society is less racist than the U.S. -- all they need are Republican words. Thus, instead of learning from other nations that have a much longer history of studying race, many of the French prefer their colorblind ignorance.

The bottom line is that from what I have seen, the French majority population does not think racism affecting people of color is important. The reason the French majority population doesn't think racism is important is because they have not been made to believe it is important. French people of color currently lack the political power and internal organization to compel the majority population to care about addressing racism. And, the French government's role in suppressing ethnoracial statistics continues to undermine people of color who are organizing to fight racism.

The irony of all this is that the French are currently moving forward with an intelligence law that rivals the Patriot Act in its blatant disregard for civil liberties. The French government wants to collect data on almost everything French people think, write or say but - but no data on racism! When it comes to fighting terror, the French know very well that knowledge is power. But when it comes to fighting racism? Data? Knowledge? Not necessary.

Too many French people seem to imagine that if they close their eyes to race, click their heels three times and repeat the words "Liberty", "Equality" and "Brotherhood", the boogeyman of racism will simply vanish and disappear. No systematic data or policies necessary. Only pretty, magical, colorblind words.