The Fire in France: Which American Solution?

Many journalists and commentators have cited French reluctance to adopt “the American solution” of affirmative action for its ethnic Arab and African minorities as a crucial factor in triggering the riots in France’s troubled suburbs this October and November.

Affirmative action is why the United States has enjoyed greater racial and social integration, and why France’s disaffected Muslim minority has turned to violence, according to much of the elite media (such as the New York Times and other major metro newspapers, the major networks, and CNN). USA Today, for example, called affirmative action “a policy prescription that could help move France’s immigrants and their descendants into mainstream society.” An NBC report noted “experts” arguing that affirmative action “ is just what is needed to level the playing field and to give the Arab and African immigrant families a kick-start to break the cycle of poverty…”

The truth, however, is that our progress towards racial harmony is not the result of affirmative action, a controversial approach (often employing race-based preferences or quotas) that was late-coming to the civil rights struggle. Rather, America’s pursuit of equal opportunity in education and employment, a growing societal acceptance of non-whites as social equals, and a free market economy that has generated millions of jobs, have been the keys to the emergence of a stable and prosperous black middle class.

So if the French are serious about assimilating their ethnic Arab and African minorities they will not turn to the “quick fix” of state-imposed affirmative action—or as the Europeans term it, “positive discrimination” —but, instead, will try the other “American solution,” racial equality based on access, inclusion and economic expansion.

The first giant step for the U.S. on the journey to greater social justice was a series of legal and political civil rights victories in the 1950s and 1960s removing barriers that prevented blacks from voting, attending quality schools, and finding and competing for decent jobs. Federal anti-discrimination laws followed, to insure that minorities received fair treatment in the job market. Affirmative action programs emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as a way to accelerate racial progress. Where voluntary in nature, they had some success, but generated opposition as violating the spirit of a merit-based society.

In contrast, France has yet to confront its corrosive racial and religious prejudice (including rampant anti-Semitism). A French government study found that youths with Arab-sounding names had their job applications rejected up to five times as often as those with traditional Gallic names. Addressing these iniquities is an unaddressed task—one best handled by enforcing tough, and currently non-existent, French anti-discrimination laws.

Then there is our halting, but persistent, progress towards heart-felt social equality. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders appealed to America’s sense of fairness and commitment to equality. They offered a vision of judging others “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” a vision well suited for a nation of immigrants. It meant accepting minorities not only in schools or the workplace, but also as social equals. As evidenced in the 2005 Gallup Minority Rights and Relations poll, America has made progress on this notion, judging from the attitudes expressed towards interracial dating (one proxy for the fundamental acceptance of other races). More than 70% of Americans surveyed approved of whites and blacks dating and some 95% of those between 18-29 wholeheartedly endorsed interracial romance. It is hard to imagine similar results in a poll of the French, who have been slow to address issues of intolerance.

A final factor has been the part America’s dynamic economy has played in fashioning a more inclusive society. Equal opportunity without economic opportunity is meaningless. Free market policies encouraging innovators and entrepreneurs have generated millions of new jobs in the U.S., “expanding the pie.” In comparison, France has discouraged initiative and closed markets to competition, resulting in a “zero sum” economy. Consequently, gains for one group come at the expense of another. There are successful free-market European models to emulate—Ireland comes to mind—but the French must first abandon decades of misguided economic policy.

True, the U.S. has yet to fully achieve its lofty goals of racial equality. Racism remains a virulent problem in many pockets of our society; Hurricane Katrina exposed the sad reality of poverty for many African-Americans and the work yet to be done. Nonetheless, however imperfectly, there is progress.

So which “American solution” will France adopt? Prime minister Dominique de Villepin proposes showering the volatile banlieus with multicultural rhetoric and state-subsidized jobs, while his rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, hints at “American-style affirmative action.” Neither approach will work; France’s leadership ignores the fundamental success factors in America’s long-horizon pursuit of racial and social justice—access, inclusion and economic expansion—in favor of immediate statist answers. France will suffer from that short sidedness; slighting the need for authentic and fundamental reform will not avert “the fire next time.”

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