As happens every so often (in 2005, for example), riots have erupted in France over the last week. These are occasioned by the killing of 17-year-old Nahel M. by police in Nanterre after a traffic stop. The police claimed, as they often do in the US as well, that the driver tried to run them over as he pulled away. But cell phone video indicates that Nahel started driving when an officer threatened to put a bullet in his head with no conceivable justification, and that he was driving away from rather than toward the officers.
On Friday, a presidential spokesman characterized Nahel's killing as an “individual act” that doesn't at all represent the values of the French police, adding that “this is not the revolt of neighborhoods, this is not about disenfranchised neighborhoods. These are the acts of a delinquent minority.” In other words, neither the acts of the police nor of the rioters engage the "system" at all, only unaccountably bent individuals. French president Emmanuel Macron blames social media, the laziest explanatory approach imaginable.
The French Foreign Ministry says that “any accusation of systemic racism or discrimination by the police in France is totally unfounded. France, and its police forces, fight with determination against racism and all forms of discrimination. There can be no doubt about this commitment."
Regarding systemic racism in the United States, Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a typical and relevantly similar formulation. “Well, it’s a bunch of horse manure. I mean, give me a break,” he said in 2021. “This country has had more opportunity for more people than any country in the history of the world and it doesn’t matter where you trace your ancestry from. We’ve had people that have been able to succeed and all and here’s the problem with things like critical race theory that they’re peddling.”
Complex questions arise about conscious and unconscious attitudes, and about individual and collective responsibilities. But we don't have to answer all these questions to make some fundamental points.
France and the US, albeit in different ways, have racist histories and racist contemporary realities. I don't understand how or why one could deny this. The history of French colonialism runs for centuries. Here's a passage from a letter written in 1843 by a French colonel in Algeria: “All populations who do not accept our conditions must be despoiled. Everything must be seized, devastated, without age or sex distinction: grass must not grow any more where the French army has set foot. This is how, my dear friend, we must make war against Arabs: kill all men over the age of fifteen, take all their women and children, load them onto naval vessels, send them to the Marquesas Islands or elsewhere. In one word, annihilate everything that will not crawl beneath our feet like dogs.”
Nahel M. was born in France, and was of Algerian descent.
It’s incomprehensible that the French state can come straight out of that history and then insist that French society isn’t racist. The universalism and secularism declared by French society should lead directly to the most serious attempts to address what are devastating problems. Instead it functions as a sheer attempt to conceal the truth, which meanwhile is burning your cities.
These societies are structurally racist (or in the case of France in particular, anti-immigrant), which is easily shown by income and education levels, healthcare provisions, incarceration rates, and many other measures. They are historically racist: chattel slavery and brutal colonialist legacy of death and exploitation. (Let's say the word “Haiti” with regard to both countries, for example.) That's systemic enough for anyone.
That the US is committed to equal rights by its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution expresses a beautiful aspiration, as does the equivalent declaration of universal rights in France: they mark out a task that’s taking centuries to perform. But the idea that these phrases describe the current system or situation makes them counter-aspirational, as it were. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." When Jefferson wrote that, he wasn't a president, and he was a slave-owner. He wasn't saying "I don't have a racist bone in my body" or "things are perfect just the way they are." He was calling for a revolution. But when Macron or DeSantis appeal to the founding principles of their republics, they do it in a spirit of "let's pretend this is already true." I don't see how they think that can possibly help.
It's hard to be accused of racism, though worse things can happen to a person, like getting killed by the police. But that it makes you feel defensive doesn't show it's false, and sometimes one has to engage in a process of reflection even to know what one does believe. Racism can be unconscious in part because it's hard to face in oneself.
But I don't understand the extreme defensiveness triggered by the accusation that one's society is systemically racist. That leaves you with whatever individual attitudes you have, though again it suggests that some reflection might be in order. These countries have racist histories from which they're still struggling fitfully to emerge and they have current racial inequalities. What’s the percentage in denying all that?
“France and its police forces fight with determination against all forms of discrimination,” or “In America, it doesn't matter at all where you trace your ancestry from”: those sentences, taken as descriptions rather than as hopes, appear to express inspiring values, but actually express a commitment to conceal racist brutality. This concealment preserves racist brutality in both societies. It expresses and nurtures systemic bigotry even as it negates or denies it.
Then the riots take on a directly expressive quality: deny this, Macron. Maybe DeSantis will get another chance, too, to pretend he's not a racist in a racist society.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell