Researching Race and Racism

By Martin Bulmer; John Solomos | Go to book overview

10

Race, a word too much?

The French dilemma

Sophie Body-Gendrot

Despite different historical and ideological constructions, and although the identities of the established and of the outsiders vary as well as the latter's strategies and tools to address problems of 'otherness' and of racism, the societal processes of integration/exclusion are remarkably similar throughout developed countries.

My first awareness of 'similarities' relative to the actors I was studying, that is, populations differing by their numbers, codes of references and ideologies from the majorities in the societies they lived in, came when I completed my Ph.D. dissertation in 1983 at the Institute of Political Science in Paris. I had done fieldwork in New York for several years, looking at local conflicts involving actors with different ethnic and racial identities, but the controversies over public schools, jobs and housing had also class and ideological components. As I was about to complete this 800-page dissertation, I became aware of the similarities in the claims made by different types of have-nots in France, i.e. youth of postcolonial origin, instrumentalizing violence to become visible in the eyes of policy-makers and to influence local decisions concerning their marginalized neighborhoods, their future and the racism they said they were the victims of.

The African-Americans I had interviewed in Ocean-Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn or the Puerto Ricans on the Lower East Side in Manhattan were regarded as newcomers in the cities where they lived. So were these French youth, although their fathers had usually settled in France in the 1960s or sometimes before. They lived in segregated public housing projects at the periphery of cities and, economically, they were at the bottom of the ladder. They had no political clout and as a tool of last resort, it seemed to me, they used intimidation and the 'culture of riot' to reverse a situation of powerlessness and boredom, and the obstacles they faced when they tried to express their 'voices' in the public space as any French person would. In return, as soon as their mobilizations gained some visibility, their opponents socially constructed their 'race' or rather their ethnicity as a visible marker of their 'difference' and of their incapacity to melt into the mainstream. But besides a nationalist posture, the stakes of the opposition also concerned class and power. Were the established majorities ready to share some of their power

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