[Mb-civic] Accepting Diversity Is Hard but Necessary - Eugene
Robinson - Washington Post Op-Ed
swiggard at comcast.net
Fri Nov 11 07:54:10 PST 2005
Accepting Diversity Is Hard but Necessary
By Eugene Robinson
Friday, November 11, 2005; Page A25
Multiculturalism is such an easy target. The word itself has the whiff
of politically correct bureaucracy, as if it had been coined by
committee. The very concept lacks rigor, since it seems to require
deciding exactly what qualifies as a "culture." And if you want to make
fun of the whole idea, all you need is Google and a little patience.
Eventually you'll find, say, an elementary school where one Muslim kid
enrolled and suddenly the curriculum was changed to include a unit on
If you look closely at what just happened in France, though, you'll stop
The riots in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities ought to wipe
the smirk from the lips of even multiculturalism's smuggest critics.
Those who lobby against bilingual education or get upset when their
children learn about Cinco de Mayo should look at France and realize
that multiculturalism is a lot like democracy -- it's the worst system
except for all the others.
The French example presents an ideal laboratory experiment. France, like
the United States, bases its sense of nationhood on a set of
Enlightenment ideas about the rights of individuals in a society.
France, much more than this country, also draws identity from language
and an ancient cultural heritage.
But then immigrants began to arrive -- mostly former colonials from
North and West Africa, people with darker skin and a different cultural
and religious heritage. France essentially said to the immigrants:
"Look, these are our ideals -- liberty, equality, fraternity . We're not
adding diversity to the list."
It was a deliberate decision, of the kind that opponents of
multiculturalism in the United States would have our country make: As a
matter of policy, the French refused to acknowledge that cultural and
religious differences even existed. That's why news reports about the
riots have had a certain empirical vagueness, making it hard to tell
just who these young men are who have set fire to their neighborhoods,
and where their families came from, whether all are Muslim or just some
of them. In France, it's against the law to keep statistics based on
race or ethnicity.
But the fact that no one knows the precise number of Muslims living in
France today doesn't mean those Muslims don't exist: There are about 5
million of them by most estimates. The fact that you forbid Muslim
families to send their girls to schools in head scarves, as the French
government decreed, doesn't stop those families from wanting to cover
their girls' hair.
Just because no one knows how many first- or second-generation Moroccans
or Senegalese live on the grim periphery of the City of Light doesn't
mean they aren't there. Just because you don't know precisely how many
of them are unemployed doesn't mean there's no job discrimination. And
just because the upper echelons of French society are lily white --
business, government, the elite universities -- that doesn't negate the
reality that all can see, if they bother to pay attention.
According to the French government, ethnic or religious or racial
enclaves do not exist in France. But now no one can deny that for the
past two weeks these nonexistent slums have been consumed by very real
The failed French experiment proves that you can't make differences and
disparities disappear simply by ignoring them. Other countries have
tried that approach and likewise have failed. When I covered Brazil in
the late 1980s, I was struck by how residents of the violent, desperate
shantytowns were mostly black and the powerful people who ran the
society were almost all white -- yet people insisted there was no
racism. Now, belatedly, Brazil is beginning to try to redress more than
a century of unacknowledged discrimination.
People of different races, backgrounds, cultures, histories and
languages can indeed live together productively and with common purpose.
I know that because we do it here in the United States. It's a messy
process, because it means we have to argue a lot, and many of us resent
all the constant conflict and negotiation that's involved in getting
along with one another. But we manage quite well, especially if you
compare our society to those, like France, that cover their ears and go
"na-na-na-na-na" to avoid hearing complicated truths.
So let's end all this "English-first" nonsense and embrace Spanish as
our second language, since that's what it is. Let's learn more about
those 5,000 years of Chinese history. Let's have the dates of Ramadan
and Eid noted on our calendars. Let's remind ourselves of a big,
important lesson that we've already learned, and that we can teach the
world: Multiculturalism works.
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