An Open Letter from Paris: Race Still Matters
In 1945, French philosopher Jean Paul-Sartre reflected on his visit to America and wrote, “In this land of freedom and equality there live thirteen million untouchables. They wait on your table, they polish your shoes, they operate your elevator, they carry your suitcases into your compartment, but they have nothing to do with you, nor you with them.” Sartre describes America in the age of Jim Crow, a system of racial apartheid that gained its legitimacy from both its legal codes and its religious formulas (primarily through Christian religious practices). Ironically, while this was an age of reason and civility for the majority (namely, whites), this was an age of absurdity and brutality for African-Americans as they faced down cultural humiliation, lynching, social disrespect, and fear. In America, I have watched many people become visibly hostile when recounting this history, a visceral reaction and verbal response that signify, “Well, that was the past.”
America is anything but “post-racial” or “colorblind,” although this is continually maintained in much of the present political debate. While past legal forms of racial bigotry may have passed (old Jim Crow), I am painfully aware that racial rhetoric and practices continue to re-assert themselves in new socio-economic disguises, which makes the past all the more relevant to our present and to the future. I especially see this as I turn to our current electoral season where racial minorities, poor people of color, and immigrants are targets for venomous verbal attacks as well as unfair public policies. As we ponder who we will elect in November, we must remember that we will either build a nation where all can live freely and with opportunity or where only some will receive the kinds of opportunity that enable self-actualization and flourishing. A part of cultivating a more just nation is to acknowledge that race matters. Or perhaps I should say: race still matters.
Allow me to reflect a bit on my time in Paris and why America must stay honest and humble about its racial past in order to open itself up to a more just, compassionate present and future.
I am currently on my Sabbatical in Paris, and I have been struck by the re-emergence of old colonial racisms in France. Although black American writer James Baldwin writes about Paris as the first time he felt like a human being as a black man in the 1960s, he grew into an awareness of the many “untouchables” that resided within French borders. These untouchables were Algerians who at one time were French colonial subjects. Algerian cultural thinker Franz Fanon was a brilliant and compelling philosophical voice that led in the Algerian Revolution, reminding France that its colonial subjects would seize their independence and freedom by any means necessary. Algerians won their formal independence. But now, four decades later, racial hierarchies in France have merely transmuted into different forms of racial intolerance and institutional exclusion among minority communities.
And this exclusion is often highly gendered. For instance, I had the opportunity to visit the outskirts of Paris, known as the banlieue or the suburban ghetto. This area is compacted with housing projects where over 10 million people live, a disproportionate number being North Africans and Arabs. The banlieue is characterized by chronic poverty and almost a complete absence of opportunity. Its topography expresses a sense of loss and helplessness although many parents hope for a brighter future for their children. Because single mothers head a high percentage of these families, these women remain under unbelievable stress to make ends meet. In fact, because these women are locked out of the formal service economy in France, many are restricted to informal service work such as domestic work. I was somewhat taken aback while living in Paris to see that the majority of domestic workers (particularly “nannies” for wealthy Parisian families) are North African or women of color, where the pay is profoundly inequitable and abusive.
And let’s be clear, these African and Arab “immigrants” in the banlieue are not “first generationers” who have just arrived in France. They are third generation. Their grandparents were brought to France by the government to fulfill menial, cheap jobs that the middle class French didn’t perform at that time. They came to France and worked hard, built their families, and contributed to the overall economy. And as ideological wars begin to transpire on immigration and work during the later part of the 20th century in France (similar to America’s rhetoric about immigrants taking all the jobs today), they were incrementally forced out of the formal economy, exacerbating their economic positioning and marginalizing them to the suburban ghettos. Even when turning to political discourse in France today, the citizenship and “Frenchness” of third generation North African and Arabs are perpetually questioned and debated. In fact, children of the banlieue called France out on its racial hypocrisy when they helped to win the 1998 World Cup for the nation, these same children locked out of France’s educational, social and economic institutions. France’s past as a colonial power has everything to do with its present as this country continues to re-invent institutional forms of racial bigotry.
This observation of France’s racial complexities brings me full circle back to my initial inquiry about America’s racial “past.” America’s “past” continues to affect our present. It is our present. While Jim Crow laws of the 1960s are gone, other institutional forms of racial bigotry remain present (i.e. mass incarceration/prison industrial complex). It is present in our national discussion and state policies of public assistance in which minority women are constantly named in conservative discourse as the face of poverty, which remains erroneous, as white women are overwhelmingly the recipients of public assistance in real numbers. It is present in Mitt Romney’s secret rant (made public recently) that “47% of Obama’s supporters depend on government assistance,” which is highly charged with racial and classed-based prejudice. It is in our shaping of immigration policy wherein Mexican immigrants are targeted as dangerous foreigners taking over “American” jobs with little to no discussion on the ways in which corporations bring Mexican workers to America in order to “cheapen” the labor pool. Even more deceptive, no one talks about the number one cause of job erosion and impoverishment of hardworking farmers and agricultural producers in Mexico which led many of them to the US in the first place: the 1996 NAFTA treaty which directed almost all corn production to transnational US corporations, corporations small farmers could not compete with, leaving such farmers to economic devastation and dislocation. Melissa Harris-Perry is right. Nothing is more risky than being poor in this country (and world for that matter). Behind America’s “present” lurks its “past,” and we must speak honestly and out loud about these persisting racial injustices if America is to maximize itself as a nation of opportunity.
However, despite racial inequalities, America is possible.
Paraphrasing James Baldwin, to love America is to critique her even more harshly, for you know what she can be. The ideal of America is not fulfilled on today but our desire to achieve it makes it possible on tomorrow. As we enter the final stages of the presidential elections, I have concluded that my vote is a vote for freedom, equality, and justice. A vote to participate in truth-telling concerning America’s many discriminating demons. A vote that expresses a hope that we can build a more compassionate, just society.
Let your advocacy (as well as vote) say the same.
With Love & Continued Struggle,
Keri Day is currently the Assistant Professor of Theological and Social Ethics & Director of Black Church Studies at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She writes on a broad range of interests such as religion and politics, critical race theory, and womanist/feminist studies. Her work has been published in a number of nationally regarded journals such as Princeton Theological Review Journal and The International Journal of Black Theology. Her first book was recently published, entitled Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and The Struggle to Thrive in America (Orbis Books). Invoking the Poor People’s Campaign Movement, this book explores poverty among black women in America and ways that black churches can address such poverty. She also has been a guest writer for The Feminist Wire and the United Methodist Circuit Rider.