James Baldwin went to France to live -- there would be a different air there, he thought. Everything wouldn't be about race there. This both was and was not the case, it turned out, and he was to see clearly that the prejudice from which he fled had roots in the European ancestry of white Americans from which it was not possible to run.
Josephine Baker was another refugee, accepting work as a dancer in Paris in part to get away from the racism she encountered everywhere in America. She succeeded beyond anybody's expectations -- a European superstar, a secret Resistance worker during the war. She returned once in a while to America, to see if anything had changed, and created her own very early lunch-counter sit-in campaign a full decade before anyone else had thought of such a thing. Her treatment over this was so harsh that she returned to France in disgust.
France would be a haven for ideas, creativity, and just for living. The brave ideals of brotherhood and freedom that made its revolution so much more radical than the American War for Independence called to people still, and people came. American intellectuals and artists, both black and white, came and stayed.
So did people from Africa, from all the countries that had been French colonies. And it was evident, as time went on, that it was easier for French society to absorb a gifted writer or a brilliant performer than a penniless Muslim family of twelve. The self-regard for which France is famous -- the clear insistence on linguistic and cultural purity, the impatience with the clumsy presence of the stranger, the tradition of autocracy that changed classes and broadened, but did not end, in 1789, so that the French are comfortable with a heavy hand in government -- all these make it easy to dress neglect of minority realities in the protective clothing of citizenship. Just as it is easy to do that here. No hijabs allowed for Muslim girls, a recent ruling stated, and it disingenuously included the wearing of large crosses by Christian girls in that prohibition, as if to demonstrate that this was not what it patently was: a move against the values of the growing Muslim immigrant community. An attempt to enforce a uniformity that no longer exists, and hasn't for some time.
And so this week we read every morning of more and more rioting in French cities. Cars are burned by gangs of young people: cars their neighbors will need. A school is burned, and many stores: schools and stores they will need. We read about it, see the flames and hear the angry shouts on the television news. We feel the adrenaline and shake our heads. We remember the same thing here: the fires here destroyed the very things the young people would need, destroyed the shops in their own neighborhoods, their clinics, the ones in their own neighborhoods. Hurt themselves most of all.
The early voices in this spate of violence in France focussed on calls for its harsh suppression. There have been many arrests, and millions of dollars in property destruction. The government still calls upon the rioters to stop, and now it is joined in that call by judicial fatwas from French Imams. A curfew is in place and the angry young people are implored to abide by it. Police struggle carefully to restore order, and their way is difficult.
But wise heads are already going to work on finding ways to make the children of immigrants feel that they are welcome and valued, that society has a stake in their success as adults. Once the colonial past is over, it must be left behind completely: its two-tiered view of humanity can't survive in a democracy. It creates isolated minorities who learn by bitter default to glory in their own isolation. If society has no care for the minorities in its midst, they won't feel a corresponding loyalty back. And if their culture and religious faith are not respected, they will catch fire.
It could -- and it can -- be otherwise, James Baldwin prophesied:
The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and you will trust me more than you do now. And we can trust each other. I do believe, I really do believe in the New Jerusalem, I really do believe that we can all become better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous – and people are not yet willing to pay it.
from the film Baldwin, directed by Karen Thorsen