Something that annoys me: the notion that Americans are uniquely racist

Everywhere in the world, it seems the American election is news.

While staying at a ramshackle, $5 a night inn on the eastern shore of the small Carribean Island of Trinidad this past July, I met a couple of perfectly nice government workers of Indian descent who wanted right away to talk about it. When they asked whether we liked Obama, I of course said yes.

They smiled at each other knowingly, then one said: Americans don’t know how corrupt African presidents are, which is why they’re willing to vote for one. They knew, they said, because they had African presidents for decades.

I could appreciate their criticisms of their government but not the racist strain of it.

And yet, it is Americans who are pilloried as racists for possibly-maybe-not wanting to elect Obama because of his race, which has not actually been borne out.

We all have seen the stories that election polls might be over-reporting Obama support because voters would like to appear less racist to pollsters than they are in the voting booth. A friend of mine told me yesterday she read an article that suggested the opposite: that people who are afraid to vocally support a black man would do so in private. Either way, it is counter-productive speculation on the part of the media.

For any country to elect a minority is a feat but that it should happen in America is not surprising, given that, in general, this country has been more willing to deal with its racial demons over the past forty-years than our European brethren.  Granted, we have a ways to go, but everybody does.  Many people have a much longer ways.

Could anyone imagine any European country having a non-white person as president or prime-minister. A person of North African descent in France? A person of Turk descent in Germany? A person of Indian descent in Britain? (Check out the Kirwan Institute blog for more on this).  As much as I love Paris, the city’s streets and subways–unlike in New York–were astoundingly racially uniform when I was there, unless maybe you go to the poorest Arrondissements in the northeast.

A New York Times article from June tells a similar story:

Having always thought it was more racially enlightened than strife-torn America, France finds itself facing the prospect that it has actually fallen behind on that score. Incidents like the ones over the weekend bring to mind the rioting that exploded across France three years ago. Since it abolished slavery 160 years ago, the country has officially declared itself to be colorblind — but seeing Mr. Obama, a new generation of French blacks is arguing that it’s high time here for precisely the sort of frank discussions that in America have preceded the nomination of a major black candidate.

If anything, Obama can serve as motivation for Europe.

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About elainemeyer
I'm a writer and editor. I work in communications at the Columbia School of Public Health, where I write about epidemiologic research. In the past I've worked as a reporter and studied journalism and history in school.

6 Responses to Something that annoys me: the notion that Americans are uniquely racist

  1. hm says:

    excellent and hopeful assessment!
    we have been doing something right!

  2. Jon F. says:

    Completely agree that Americans are not uniquely racist.

    Having experienced European racism, though, I’d say it’s a little more veiled and less aggressive there. And while I’m not sure how I feel about the potential repercussions of the Bradley effect in this race, it’s still clear that certain Americans have had no problem announcing to the world that they hate muslims and that they think Barack Obama is one. At the same time, it’s wonderful to see that he’s been able to campaign successfully in spite of the use of his middle name or his ‘affilitation’ with Jeremiah Wright as things against him, usually targeted at the supposed racist in every American. In Virginia, traditionally Southern and supposedly racist, Obama has a chance of taking the state, and I’ve seen countless reports on former Republicans who admitted they would normally have had bias against a candidate because of their race saying that they’re thinking about voting for Obama.

    In the same way that I don’t think Europeans should be calling us racists, I don’t think it’s fair to compare their situation to ours. European immigration is a much more recent affair, and their minority numbers (at least in France), are comparatively small. If they don’t elect a black president there soon, it’s most likely because there still aren’t many black people in France. We’ve had a long (though troubled) history with our minorities. There’s a reason Paris still looks pretty white.

    And even if we have made great progress, I would say that there is still much work to be done. Hearing some of the McCain-Palin supporters talk about Obama is truly sickening, and if the Europeans have one thing on us, it’s that at least their ethnic minorities live in somewhat decent conditions (well, most of them). It’s not perfect, but they don’t compare on things like health; the infant mortality rate in Harlem is higher than that in Bangladesh. Of course, that also has a lot to do with our social policies, but the two are very much related. In Iran, they still stone homosexuals; however, I hope it’s not justification for us banning gay marriage, as we shouldn’t settle for being the lesser of two evils.

  3. elainemeyer says:

    There’s a reason Paris still looks pretty white.
    yes, because all of the minorities live in the banlieues.

    This post seems to make a lot of excuses for a situation that France could overcome if it was willing to try. Like you say, being the lesser of an evil is no justification for the status quo.

    Hearing some of the McCain-Palin supporters talk about Obama is truly sickening,
    I wonder what it would be like to hear Le-Pen supporters talk about Muslims. or jews. Probably not too different.

  4. Jon F. says:

    Poor minorities in Paris live in banlieues just as poor minorities in New York live in Harlem/Bed-Stuy/Corona, etc. They’re not banned from the city, and they come to the richer areas like in the US. It’s a question of the makeup of the minorities, most of whom are from North African descent and tend to blend in. Blacks in France, according to the estimates in the article you linked, amount to between 4 and 6% of the population. Way less than in the US. Since you lived in Paris, you must know what I’m talking about.

    I wasn’t making excuses, just giving a few reasons, and questioning, with good reason, the idea that America is more enlightened on the topic than the French. I actually agree with that proposition, but I think that the idea that the French are racists is also something that Americans have loved to say in order to spread the blame. Having lived in both countries for a long time, I can’t say convincingly that one is better than the other. However, the institutional racism in this country is incomparable to that in France. Things like the health statistic I mentioned earlier, like the statistic about the number of French blacks with college degrees compared to American blacks (in the article you linked), like Hurricane Katrina’s exposition of the conditions African-Americans faced in New Orleans show that even if we do elect a black president, we probably don’t want to toot our own horns just yet.

    I don’t think there’s any use being negative about this. I’m just happy that Obama is going to win, and that he’s going to change our reputation around the world on more than just race, which is what we should be worried about. And Le Pen, as despicable as he is, wasn’t anywhere near as close to the presidency as McCain-Palin. He squeaked through because of fragmenting withing the other parties, perhaps one of main downfalls of a multi-party system.

  5. elainemeyer says:

    Your examples–Harlem, Corona, and Bed-Stuy–are much more integrated into NYC than the banlieus into Paris, and they are more diverse. (And Corona is a majority Hispanic population anyway…)

    And I don’t usually go out of my way to be particular about this stuff, but you haven’t really shown that there is a causal effect between racism and infant mortality. yes, health care is bad in this country for a lot of people, but there are poor whites who have the same problems.

    As for institutional racism, i remember hearing the unemployment rate in France among blacks of north african descent and muslims was much greater than white french people.

    Look, I obviously never meant to have a racist-off in all of this,but American is a MUCH bigger country than the European countries and MUCH more diverse. The more people of different stripes you have in one nation, the more potential there is for a nation to fracture or see violence, and what is so amazing about the US is that this doesn’t happen, anymore. Not only that, but this country is about to elect (knock on wood) a black president.

    I just get frustrated when I hear of people abroad saying Americans cannot elect a black man because they are racist, when those countries are so far from doing that themselves.

  6. Jon F. says:

    I don’t find that those neighborhoods are “much more integrated”, unless you find the presence of the periph to be huge obstacle. Train lines run to Creteil or St Denis, and those who live in the banlieues (a bad term anyway, it just means suburbs, let’s use cite instead) have no problem getting to central Paris. Paris is bigger than just the arrondissements, as you well know. And I’m well aware that Corona is majority Hispanic, I just wanted a separate example for that ethnicity, since we were talking about Arabs and blacks in France.

    It is also well-documented that the effects of racism have a lot to do with the health conditions of blacks. The causal relationship is quite simple: racism has a lot to do with the poverty that many of them live in, and the ghettoization that causes their living situation. These poor concentrated pockets of black people don’t have access to grocery stores, hospitals, health care, good schools, etc. All of these things lead to issues like infant mortality (a problem that results from lack of education during pregnancy, and lack of attention from medical staff throughout the pregnancy and in the few weeks after). I’m not making these things up. And while whites have similar problems in poorer pockets of the country, there’s something in endemic in these very poor black communities that causes the statistics to show great differences even between poor whites and poor blacks. Katrina was just the tip of the iceberg. While I again don’t dispute that things aren’t great for blacks and arabs in France, I know where I’d rather be a minority. At least there I’d get health care and a good education.

    “The more people of different stripes you have in one nation, the more potential there is for a nation to fracture or see violence.” — This, however, is very unsubstantiated. I think that history has shown both scenarios to be true. The problem in Europe is that there is an overwhelming majority and very little apparent diversity, which also leads to violence and oppression. At the same time, diversity, and the power of fractured groups, can lead to a balance of powers by giving large minority groups a voice. Let’s not forget that many of the black voices in American politics have come from majority-minority districts, which I’d like to think paved the way for Barack Obama.

    Again, I agree with you that Americans aren’t as racist as some people may make them out to be. But at the same time, this spreading of the idea that the French are antisemites and racists is also harmful. Having experienced both cultures, I’m not sure I’d say either is better. And when you say those countries are far from electing a minority president, I have to say that they’re demographically incomparable.

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