Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Of Frogs and (Black) Men

I had the singular misfortune of spending some leisure time with an inebriated Frenchman while in Chicago on business last week. As I had imbibed during the evening, I tried not to be too judgmental about his slurred speech and obvious disregard for personal space. Beyond his halitosis (and the occasional blast of spittle), it was his conversation that gave me considerable pause.

Even through his liquored haze, he was able to see the obvious. Making note of the fact that I was indeed of African descent, he shared with me his newfound allegiance to the African diaspora, stating that he felt closer to black Americans than he did to his fellow white Frenchmen. And in the advent of America's first black president, he declared "Africa is now in the lead!" Not content to leave bad enough alone, he plaintively added, "Please don't screw up!"

I should not have been surprised that the Gaul was able to transpose the fortune of a single (biracial) President-elect with that of an entire continent, or that he could interpose his life with the lives of people from cultures that he has doubtless taken no great pains to appreciate. For to be sure, on at least one occasion, the French have displayed a remarkable gift for tactical substitution. To a descendant of a nation gave the world a new phrase signifying duplicitous betrayal, Vichy French - a people who saw themselves as one with their Nazi occupiers - it would be small potatoes to see himself as one with all Africans, and me as interchangeable with Barack Obama.

The other thing that does not surprise, given the aforementioned Gallic penchant for duplicity, is the fact that France itself has a considerable distance to go before it is in a position to elect its own black president. According to reporting from the Associated Press, France is tied with Austria for for last place in the percentage of minorities holding parliament seats (0.5%). For its part, France also has only one black parliamentarian among 555 elected members of its lower house.

Part of the reason for this may be revealed by an AP quote from Jose Spencer, a native of Guinea-Bissau who has lived in France for 33 years.

"French people are more racist than the Americans because I know America well. I've been there several times, I've seen how people are there. It is different than here."
It is difficult to compare the relative level of racism between two cultures with divergent histories vis-a-vis the matter of race. But it's also difficult to imagine a nation that favored the election of Obama by outsized margins would have an especially difficult time reconciling its leftist leanings and stated egalitarian traditions with its present difficulties in assimilating racial minorities (as evidenced by the rioting that kept the exburbs of Paris ablaze a few years back.) Of course, such is of a piece with the struggle that the American Left has in dealing with the glaring disharmony between its rhetoric and its record on race.

Like so many American liberals, the frogs espouse their support for affirmative action-type programs to "make amends" for their own legacy of discrimination. And like their progressive brethren across the pond, the French Left is quite prepared to use the strong arm of the law to make its will manifest. What neither French nor American liberals seem willing to do is to create both an equality of both opportunity and of expectation for all citizens, irrespective of race. Instead, the American Left assumes that equality of outcomes is a suitable proxy for that of opportunity, while French liberals pretend that there is no race problem to be dealt with in the first place.

In retrospect, perhaps I should not be so hard on my acquaintance, as dealing with such dissonance-inducing contradictions would drive any man to drink.

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