OP-EDS

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November 10, 2005

The parallels between Hyde Park and France

For nearly two weeks, riots have plagued France. Since the electrocution deaths of two Muslim youths provoked an uproar on October 27, unrest has spread from the suburbs of Paris as far as Belgium. French president Jacques Chirac has called a 12-day state of emergency to restore order to an imploded nation.

“So what,” says a typical American voice. “France has never been all that good at protecting itself, and they certainly haven’t done much for us lately.” And perhaps, if there were something inherently French about the rioting, the voice would have a point. But in this era of globalization, and especially in light of all the devastation the United States has suffered this summer, it’s hard for me to look at the Parisian riots as a purely national issue.

Between 9/11/01 and this summer, the primary fear on the minds of most Americans – or at least the officials running our country – was a narrowly defined extra-national one: extremist Islamic terrorism. With technology and methodology unique to our era, a few individuals succeeded in scaring the world’s most powerful nation into drastically scaling back the freedoms upon which it was founded and discriminating against all Muslims, American or not.

But this summer, more familiar, and internal fears have stolen back some of the United States’ collective attention. Hurricane Katrina not only reminded us how terrorizing nature can be, it also exposed racial and class divides that have always lingered beneath the surface of American daily life, and present as great a threat to our country as any external menace.

Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the path toward racial equality and harmony has hardly been a straightforward and promising one; while our nation has taken many steps in the right direction, it has taken just as many pains to hide the inequalities that still persist. Every so often, a Rodney King, an Amadou Diallo or a “Straight Thuggin’” party reminds us just how racist we still are as a society, and how easy it is not to admit it.

But if civil rights leaders were able to guide us from the blatant racial inequality of the 1950s through a decade of unprecedented progress, surely a new wave of thinkers can rescue us from the dreadful but candy-coated race and class relations of 21st century America. Surely? Perhaps.

As a first step, let’s have more gutsy movies like Crash, that at the very least expose how discriminatory we still are. Let’s have more recognition that class and race struggles, though manifested locally, transcend national borders in our globalized world. And let’s have more dialogues like the one this past Tuesday, called as a reaction to the now notorious May house party, where views both extreme and profound reached at least 300 UofCers.

The administration deserves significant credit for Tuesday’s event, but as valuable as the dialogue was, its participants were entirely self-selecting. For any real change to occur, the university needs to find a way to involve the members of the community who didn’t attend Tuesday’s dialogue in the discussion. Late in the debate, [please find name] proposed that the administration include discussions on race and class in the core curriculum, and with some careful guidelines, I think this would be a great first step toward combatting racism on campus.

A strict classroom-based structure would not fit the bill, but neither would, say, mandatory community service. What we need is something in between: a required and regular dialogue for all members of the university community, including faculty and graduate students, devoid of papers and grades, but with a moderator determined to lead the discussion toward genuine opinions (extreme or not) and away from canned but meaningless catch-phrases.

These dialogues would not only expose students to new ideas and force those privileged enough to have avoided thinking about race to at least start contemplating it, but also generate new (less strictly intellectual) ways to improve race relations in the community. As a first step, mandatory discussion of race and class would generate subsequent steps impossible to take without a foundation of community-wide exposure to diverse ideas.

Until, with real debate, we can coax racism out from under the surface of society and force people of all backgrounds to deal with race, discrimination will never disappear. The media will preoccupy itself with race mainly when youths die of electrocution or hold overtly racist parties, but racism will ride on viciously between these occasional, but increasingly crippling moments in the spotlight.

While the racism in France is fundamentally different from the racism in the United States, they are alike in the tendency of those in power to cover all but the most obvious levels of discrimination in a veil. And though the University of Chicago cannot change American society by itself, it is in a unique position, as an elite institution of higher learning, to send people into powerful positions in society with heightened consciousness of race.

Hyde Park’s cars and buildings may never burn visibly at the hands of rioters, but until the administration takes action that goes beyond reaction, our community will burn uncontrollably at the hands of racism.