(Image by Alan O’Rourke of CC license via) used under
Every coupled friend I have here in Germany is, as of this year, a parent. And looking upon the names bestowed upon the new generation, I must say I like them all. Or at least, I don’t hate any of them. This is impressive when considering that, if my partner and I ever want to get into a fight, we simply start discussing names we would hypothetically pick for a child. Just give us five minutes and soon we’ll be shouting, “Bo-ring!” “Flaky!” “Hideous!”
And then we run up against the unanswerable question: Is it harder to have a mundane (a.k.a. boring) name or an unusual (a.k.a. weird) name?
While I enjoy the sound of my own name—as many if not most people do—I haven’t enjoyed seeing Emily end up in the top ten of the most popular U.S. baby names for the past three decades. Emily was the first name a sociologist in Freakonomics came up with when asked to list “typical white girl names” in the U.S. One hot summer in Upstate New York, I worked in a room with five other Emilys, all my age. One friend had so many Emilys in his life that he added permanent descriptors to differentiate us. (I was “Home Emily.”) Matt Groening was definitely on to something when he listed meeting-another-kid-with-your-name as one of childhood’s greatest traumas.
This is why I see the appeal of extraordinary names. After all, the whole point of giving a child their own name—as opposed to, say, calling them Person or Daughter No. 1—is to distinguish them from others. To have them, and not four other people, look up when you call them. In my years as a school teacher, I had a much easier time remembering Xenia, Letitia and Suma than Tom, Jim and Kate. I’m also grateful to parents who opt to avoid the sound-combinations that happen to be trending, reducing the likelihood of my having to remember which student is Julie and which is Julia, or whether the boy in front of me is Leon, Leo, or Leonard. I regularly confuse Kristen Stewart and Kristin Scott Thomas, but I’ll never forget Quvenzhané Wallis till the day I die.
Black Americans are renowned for frequently giving their children names that sound vaguely African with modern flourishes, from Baratunde and Beyoncé to Kwame and Malia. I spent a good deal of my childhood on Long Island and in Baltimore where I had classmates and friends named Chiwanna, LaTaesha, Zeeyaré, and Teyonté. South African comedian Trevor Noah has poked fun at how very not African such names sound where he comes from, but the attempt to reconstruct cultural ties, however inaccurate, is perhaps most understandable in the context of those whose ancestors were violently removed from their culture:
Looking down on extraordinary names can have xenophobic undertones. After all, the pre-1960s model of blending into middle class America resulted in immigrants named Wei-Li and Helmut swiftly transforming into Winnie and Herbert. An insistence that it’s cruel to name your child something unusual suggests something wrong with diversity or being a minority.
“That kid is gonna get teased so bad!” is the usual response to an extraordinary name. But wouldn’t it be better to teach your child how to react to schoolyard teasing with self-confidence and empowerment rather than avoid anything that might make them remarkable? Studies show the Boy Named Sue Effect is real. That is, my friends Lucrezia, Baldur and Bronwyn are more likely to have strong and sturdy personalities than my friends Matt, Matt and Matt.
As one psychologist explained in The New York Times:
Researchers have studied men with cross-gender names like Leslie. They haven’t found anything negative — no psychological or social problems — or any correlations with either masculinity or effeminacy. But they have found one major positive factor: a better sense of self-control. It’s not that you fight more, but that you learn how to let stuff roll off your back.
Then again, some endeavors to be different do seem less defensible than others. As noted before, a study in 2010 showed that teachers here in Germany are more likely to give lower grades and presume unruly behavior of kids named Cindy, Mandy or Kevin because they are assumed to come from anti-intellectual, anti-social homes. These names are common among children born in the Eighties and Nineties in the former East Germany where Hollywood had a strong influence, Kevin having boomed right after the international success of Home Alone. Smashing stereotypes about the people from behind the Iron Curtain is admirable, but destigmatizing Macauley Culkin feels less necessary.
And what about the potential for sounding pretentious? German punk singer Nina Hagen named her daughter Cosma Shiva after having allegedly seen a UFO while pregnant. The most compelling argument against picking a name from a distant culture I’ve heard comes from a fellow Long Islander with an Indian first name and a Jewish surname given by her Jewish dad and mother whose parents hail from Chennai:
I don’t think it’s offensive when a white couple reaches around the world for a name. I think it’s tacky. If you want to name your kid something foreign and exotic, then get to know someone foreign and exotic, and marry them. Otherwise, stick to what you know well. You’re trying to sound deep and yet your relationship to the culture isn’t deep. It’s shallow.
Not to immediately insult Dhani Harrison, but she has a point.
Having no cultural context for a name can be very problematic. What if the foreign name you’ve picked “just because it sounds nice” is widely known abroad as the name of a brutal dictator, infamous celebrity, or literary villain? If a WASPy American couple stumbled upon “Mohammad” or “Fidel” for the first time and decided to give it to their son just for the sound of it, they would be looked upon with a good deal of suspicion. In Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife, a man returning home to China after a trip to the U.S. tricks his rival into taking on the name Judas when dealing with Western businessmen, promising him that it is the name of very well-known, powerful historical figure.
And controversy aside, phonetics often don’t translate easily across cultures. Not only are my favorite English names often butchered by German accents, but most of the German names that sound loveliest to me and my American family elicit horrified looks from my contemporaries in Berlin. (Apparently “Hannelore” is one of the ugliest names anyone could ever think of in Germany today.)
This proves, however, that it is often nothing more than a matter of taste. One person’s tacky is another person’s terrific, and there is little we can do to change that.
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Dolphin International Bhd, a company involved in the design, development, fabrication and sale of palm oil machinery, is scheduled to be listed in Main Market of Bursa Malaysia on 9th June 2015. The Initial Public Offering (IPO) consists of 46 million new ordinary shares at an IPO price of […]
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The following is from a PBS interview. If you are a few years away from retirement, I urge you to take a look at the full article linked below. Pay special attention to the Social Security strategy.
Boston University economist Larry Kotlikoff has spent every week, for more than two years, answering questions about what is likely your largest financial asset — your Social Security benefits. His Social Security original 34 “secrets”, his additional secrets, his Social Security “mistakes” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. Find a complete list of his columns here. And keep sending us your Social Security questions.
Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version. His new book, “Get What’s Yours — the Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security Benefits,” (co-authored with Paul Solman and Making Sen$e Medicare columnist Phil Moeller) was published in February by Simon & Schuster.
Every question in personal finance begins and ends with our living standard. If I retire early, how much more do I need to save today to prevent my living standard from dropping at retirement? If I contribute more to a 401(k) will I be able to lower my lifetime taxes and raise my living standard? If I get an MBA will the payoff exceed the costs so I can have a permanently higher living standard? If I take a mortgage with points does that raise or lower my sustainable spending power? If I wait to take my Social Security retirement benefit will the higher benefits make up for the waiting and let me spend more now as well as later? And the list goes on.
Let me illustrate the power of economics, mathematical algorithms and modern computers to safely raise your sustainable living standard.
Meet John and Jane Smith, a married California couple who are both age 56. The two plan to work till age 62, take their Social Security benefits at that age and spend down their retirement account assets – John’s 401(k) and Janes’ IRAs — smoothly starting at 65. John makes ,000 and Jane makes ,000. They have ,000 in a checking account. John has a 0,000 401(k) and Jane has a 0,000 traditional IRA. Their 0,000 home is paid off, but keeping it up is expensive. Annual property taxes run ,500. Homeowners insurance costs another ,500 per year, and the upkeep averages ,000 annually. John is contributing ,000 per year to his retirement account. His employer is matching the ,000 contribution. Jane isn’t contributing anything anymore to her IRA.
I ran John and Jane through my company’s ESPlannerBASIC software. It shows that the Smiths can spend ,058 each year (valued in today’s dollars) after paying all their federal FICA and federal and state income taxes, their life insurance premiums, their Medicare Part B premiums and their housing costs.
I’m now going to take you though 10 magic tricks that produce, in terms of the resulting higher living standard, the equivalent of their finding 3,000 on the street!
You might want to spend a few minutes reading this article. 10 WAYS TO SAFELY RAISE YOUR STANDARD OF LIVING IN RETIREMENT
Filed under: At Work, Retirement, Social Security Tagged: living standard, Retirement, Social Security
Before there was wide-spread acceptance of same-sex “marriage,” many health plans permitted enrollment of same-sex partners, generally if they complied with state formal union laws. But all that is changing as more states approve same-sex marriage and the SCOTUS may provide uniform approval.
Given that men and women must be legally married to enroll each in a health plan, applying the same standard to gay couples seems appropriate and fair. If that were not the case shouldn’t cohabitating straight couples be permitted health benefits as a married couple?
Obtaining the right to marry doesn’t seem to be sufficient for some in the gay community. They want to play by their own rules; have it both ways as it were. I’m all for fair, but that means fair to all, to gay and straight couples, to employers and to fellow workers helping pay the bill … unless we believe anyone should be allowed to declare a couples union and collect benefits as if they were married under the law.
Now, some employers who offer benefits targeting same-sex partners say it is only fair to require those couples to marry where legal, just as their straight co-workers must do to extend coverage.
That is causing some consternation among gay and lesbian employees and their advocates, who say they could be vulnerable to discrimination. Because marriage certificates are public, the documents may end up “outing” an employee, says Selisse Berry, chief executive of Out and Equal, a workplace advocacy group for gay and lesbian employees. The majority of U.S. states lack antidiscrimination protection for gay and lesbian employees, so workers can be fired for their sexuality, advocates say. Excerpt from Wall Street Journal 5-13-15
Filed under: At Work, Employee Benefits, Healthcare Tagged: same sex benefits, WPrightnow
The Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) decreased 0.8 percent over the last 12 months to an index level of 231.520 (1982-84=100). For the month of April the index rose 0.2 percent prior to seasonal adjustment.
234.241 is the average CPI-W for July, August and September 2014. To have a Social Security COLA in 2016 the average CPI-W for July, August and September 2015 must exceed that average…. we have a long way to go
All Go Anywhere
May 22, 2015 by
In December 1973, at the beginning of my second winter teaching skiing, my father gave me a slim picture book from 1936 that he’d rediscovered in his parents’ garage. SKI FEVER by Norman Vaughan. Fifty Cents. Fifty pages. Nipples on wooden ski tips. Pole baskets like personal-size pizzas. An unabashed paean to what was then the new sport of downhill skiing. My dad’s note read, in part, “I remember that my buddy Eugene and I devoured the contents before our first big ski weekend at Big Bear, where reality submerged fantasy.” He would have been 13.
It is a marvelous, barely organized mélange. Part primer on the technique of the day, part alpine journal listing results of the just-completed Winter Olympics in Garmisch (the first Games to include downhill skiing events), part glossary, part drool-worthy travelogue – with sparkling black-and-white images from Davos to Sugar Hill – it was all innocent hyperbole for “this new sport that is taking the country by storm!”
Vaughan himself was a kind of adventurer little seen today. He dropped out of Harvard in 1928 when he learned about Admiral Richard Byrd’s planned expedition to Antarctica. He famously talked his way onto the expedition as a dog musher, despite the fact he had never handled a dog team in his life. Byrd named a mountain for him in Antarctica, and Vaughan climbed it on his 90th birthday. He once drove a snowmobile from Alaska across Canada to his native Massachusetts. He lived to be 100.
One of the many short essay contributions in SKI FEVER is by a Bill Cunningham and is titled “All Go Anywhere.” “Now we go anywhere, up mountains, cross-country, down trails, and have a heap more fun.” In 1936, this meant “instead of sitting by the fire every winter week-end, we can all go on a snow train or jump into the car and join the ski caravan.” Another piece refers to skis as “the winged boards.”
Dad did in fact learn to ski and together with my mother introduced my sibs and me to skiing at Mammoth Mountain in the 1950s. (Whoa. That was closer, way closer, to the era of SKI FEVER than it is to the present day.) He came to visit us in Bend this winter, from his native southern California to our new home in the Pacific Northwest. He drove by himself in his Ford C-Max hybrid. “My first car was a Ford. And my last car is a Ford,” he told me proudly when he bought this new one. He is 91. His wife made him clear the trip with his doctor. He has a pacemaker. He has had at least one stent threaded up an artery to the vicinity of his heart. He ambulates on two artificial hips and at least one artificial knee. (I’ve lost track.) Oh, and he has only one eye. Back in his seventies he suffered a detached retina, which failed to respond, ultimately, to various fixes. That’s when he gave up skiing, to his sadness and mine. The three-dimensional balance just wasn’t there.
I thought of Dad yesterday, my last day of this ski season, as I winged around Mt. Bachelor’s sublime folds, its gullies and cornices masquerading as rogue waves, stopped in time. The snow was perfect. The combination of day-and-night melt/freeze cycles, the warm afternoon temps, the angle of the spring sun as it arced from east to west, all worked to marinate the surface just so. I could go anywhere, anywhere imagination and leg strength would take me.
At our table in Bend Dad told stories I’d never heard before about a camping trip his family had taken (DD, Poppy and the three boys) up the Oregon coast in the 1930s. Poppy had built a chuckwagon-style kitchen and lashed it to the trunk of their sedan. And stories about an epic drive he had undertaken at age 13, alone with the same Eugene W. Lott (their parents must have been extraordinarily trusting), up and back the length of California in a Model T Ford Dad had bought for . They slept in farmers’ fields and drove in reverse up the steepest grades of the Trinity Alps. It must have been near this time, maybe even the following winter, that the two of them tried out their skiing fantasies on the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains.
When Dad got home this March he sent an enthusiastic email to the family that detailed the particulars of his “sojourn”: 10 days; 2,099 miles; 47 gallons of gas at an average 44 miles per gallon; his observations on the good life in Bend (the trees, the view of Bachelor’s voluptuous curves); his stops in Eugene and Santa Cruz and Modesto. He was thrilled with the cockpit of his C-Max, the cruise control set to 55, the radio playing classical music, the miles sliding blissfully by. With ageless delight, he dubbed the whole adventure “Paradise on Wheels.”
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
My perspective on David Letterman is a little different, I think, than most of his other frequent-but-really-not-that-big-a-deal guests. For one thing, while I can still be freshly awestruck by his intelligence and his creative genius, I like his humanity even more. The thing I like most about Dave is Dave. Plus, I had been a […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
How many times do we have to sing the same old song? State public employee pensions are unaffordable. The issue is not who is funding or not funding pensions. The issue is who is going to pay for pension promises that should never have been made. There is only one answer; taxpayers either through direct tax increases or reduced services. The fact is public employee benefits are jeopardizing your financial security.
Court Pension Smackdown Toughens Job for U.S. Governors, Mayors – Bloomberg Politics on Bloomberg.com
The Illinois Supreme Court’s rejection Friday of a measure meant to make the state’s pensions solvent is the most powerful reminder yet that it’s a brutal time to be the chief executive of a fiscally challenged city or state.
The court’s ruling that the state constitution bans anyreduction in worker retirement benefits was the latest victory for an American labor movement that’s otherwise been on a long losing streak. It signals that governors and mayors, Republicans and Democrats alike, may be unable to avoid the politically unpalatable choice of tax increases or service cuts.
“It’s a problem from hell,” said Graham Wilson, chairman of the political science department at Boston University and director of the school’s Initiative on Cities project. “The only thing that works is to get everyone around the table and convince them that it’s better to make a deal now than down the road, when it’s even tougher.”
“If Illinois were a company, it would probably have to file for bankruptcy.”
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner Just hours after learning of the ruling, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner stood inside the Chicago Theater and delivered his assessment of the fiscal health of the third-largest state and its worst-in-the-U.S. 1 billion pension shortfall.
“If Illinois were a company, it would probably have to file for bankruptcy,” Rauner, a first-term Republican, told hundreds of employees of a management and technology consulting company gathered for their annual meeting.
Across the nation, state and local governments are grappling with pension deficits that exceed a combined trillion, according to a Moody’s Investors Service report last year. Closing that gap by reducing payments to retirees would violate union contracts in many states and even constitutional guarantees.
“I don’t know what they expect citizens to do,” said David Crane, a lecturer in public policy at Stanford University who worked as a special adviser to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It creates a climate of desperation. Forcing them to pay an ever-growing pension debt is devastating.”
In Illinois, Chicago faces billion in unfunded pension liabilities that threaten its solvency. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, drew a distinction between the rejected law and a separate agreement his administration negotiated with some city unions whose members will pay more for fewer benefits.
“That reform is not affected by today’s ruling, as we believe our plan fully complies with the state constitution because it fundamentally preserves and protects worker pensions,” Emanuel said in a statement Friday.
His optimism aside, those who follow the city’s financial struggles said its credit rating could very well take another hit. In February, Moody’s cut the city’s .3 billion of general obligations to Baa2, two steps above junk, citing the retirement costs.
Chicago still has legal arguments to defend its labor deals, said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a nonprofit watchdog group that follows the city’s finances. Even so, he said, “The state of Illinois, the city of Chicago, and Chicago public schools now face even greater pressure on top of their worst-in-the-nation credit ratings.”
Leaders have to be careful not to cut so much that they drive off tax-paying residents and businesses, said Richard Ciccarone, chief executive officer of Merritt Research Services LLC, which analyzes municipal finance.
“You’re jeopardizing then the ability to make that city attractive to taxpayers that will be left holding that bag,” said Ciccarone, who is based in Chicago.
In some cases, state constitutions weren’t enough to prevent cuts to public pensions. In municipal bankruptcy cases in Detroit and California, judges ruled that federal law can override state bans on reducing pensions.
Rauner said he wasn’t surprised by the Illinois ruling, telling reporters that the measure “violates basic contract law.” His own pension proposal, which is central to his budget for the coming fiscal year, is legal because it wouldn’t reduce currently promised benefits, he said.
A coalition of public-worker unions that pressed the legal challenge applauded the decision.
“With the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling, we urge lawmakers to join us in developing a fair and constitutional solution to pension funding,” state AFL-CIO President Michael T. Carrigan said in a statement. “We remain ready to work with anyone of good faith to do so.”
The ruling raised the prospect of further downgrades by credit-rating firms. Investors already have been punishing Illinois. Its 10-year bonds yield about 3.7 percent, the highest since November and the most among the 20 states tracked by Bloomberg.
The Illinois bill was signed by former Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, in late 2013. A judge blocked the measure before it took effect after public-worker unions sued.
During arguments before the court in March, Solicitor General Carolyn Shapiro argued the state should be able to make laws to protect public welfare and safety during fiscal crisis.
But the judge who voided the law concluded it violated a provision of Illinois’s constitution that bars the diminishment of public-worker retirement benefits. The seven-member high court agreed.
“We do not mean to minimize the gravity of the state’s problems or the magnitude of the difficulty facing our elected representatives,” Justice Lloyd Karmeier wrote. “It is our obligation, just as it is theirs, to ensure that the law is followed.”
With the Illinois legislature’s spring session set to end in less than a month, Rauner has little time to help craft a solution. In his conversation with reporters, he expressed confidence about the prospects of passing a new pension plan before lawmakers adjourn.
“With focus, it’s very doable,” he said. “We have been at this for a while. People know the issues.”
Filed under: Government, Politics, Retirement Tagged: Illinois, public pensions, punlic unions
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I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.
As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had been lecturing on youth and delinquency. I asked, in my broken French, if the dynamics he described had any relation to racial or ethnic belonging. “We don’t have that kind of problem here,” he said, adding: “This isn’t the United States.” Embarrassed and flustered, I nodded and continued taking notes. After class, one of the only other black students pulled me aside: “We do have those kinds of problems here. Hang out with me and I’ll tell you about it.”
My new friend was from Cameroon and had moved to France along with her sister and brother several years prior. Over the course of the semester, her family basically adopted me, inviting me to dinners, showing me the area and telling me about their lives. I learned that despite the fact that each of them had white French partners and white close friends, they nonetheless experienced racism. But, as I learned in that sociology class that day, many French people denied that racism was actually a problem in their supposedly colorblind society.
Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, two teenagers who died on October 27th in 2005 after being chased by police officers. Photo courtesy of Le Monde.
Twelve years later, I am now a sociologist and professor finishing a book on racism and the legacies of slavery in France. And while some things have changed here, many French people are still in denial. Over the past decade, French minority groups have made important gains. 2005 was a water-shed year for raising consciousness about the weight of racism in France. In addition to the riots sparked by the death of French minority youth fleeing the police, new anti-racist groups emerged, such as the Representative Council of Black Associations and Indigenes de la République. There is now a national day of memory for slavery and the slavey trade (May 10th) thanks to a law proposed by Christiane Taubira, now France’s first black (and female) Minister of Justice. New, powerful minority voices have emerged in the public sphere, including filmmaker, TV personality and activist Rokhaya Diallo and scholar-activist Maboula Soumahoro (who spearheaded France’s first “Black History Month” in 2012).
Ten years after the riots, the police involved in chasing Zyed Benna, Bouna Traore and their friends are finally being tried for negligence. Ten years later, it is more difficult for the French to deny the plight of ethnic and racial minorities — though some, especially conservatives, deny this reality daily.
Yet, despite these transformations, the French government seems to have almost entirely abdicated its responsibility for dealing with racism. In terms of policy, French “anti-racism” is a total disaster. Instead of formulating anti-racist policies and collecting anti-discrimination statistics, the country contents itself with anti-racist discourse and magical thinking. In 2011, the U.N. issued a report condemning France for its “racist climate” and lack of “real political will” to address racial discrimination. In 2013, French politicians took steps to remove the word “race” from its laws, apparently guided by the magical belief that changing words is enough to fight racism.
In France, it is illegal for the government to include race or ethnicity on the census, as doing so is framed as a violation of so-called “Republican” values, which insist that the French Republic is “indivisible” and should not be distinguished in terms of race or ethnic origin. The problem with this is that the majority population fails to acknowledge that the Republic has been making racial and ethnic distinctions for a very long time. This, too, stems from denial and ignorance. The truth is that French people who cherish dominant interpretations of “colorblind” Republicanism help maintain the racial status quo. By refusing to support the collection of statistics that could be used to generate policies and measure their effectiveness, they undermine the work of minorities and activists who are working hard to counteract the tide of Republican denial.
While some argue that France doesn’t need more data to fight racism, this almost argument is never made concerning sexism. Most people are aware that sexism exists, but it would be absurd to say: “We already know sexism exists and therefore don’t need data on gender discrimination..”Yet, this is the same kind of magical thinking that prevails in much of the so-called “anti-racist” discourse one encounters in France.
Some of France’s most visible “anti-racist groups” have continually opposed anti-discrimination statistics. Just this week, I appeared on France24 to debate the issue with Hadrien Lenoir, a representative of SOS Racisme — one of the most vocal critics of ethnoracial statistics. During the lively debate, Lenoir presented SOS Racisme as supporting such statistics “in research” — as long as they’re not collected by the government. What he did not admit is that SOS Racisme virulently opposed the cutting edge work of French scholars who produced, for the first time, a large scale study of discrimination in France using ethnoracial statistics. Even if the group claims to have changed its position, the reality is that most French research is sponsored by the government. Thus, expressing support for ethnoracial stats “in research” as long as the government is not involved is nonsensical in a nation where most research is funded by the state. These are the kinds of mind-boggling contradictions that anyone studying French racism has to confront–contradictions that, for many years, made me never want to study race in France again.
It is true that some French people still deny that racism exists–despite the many studies that have documented discrimination. But other groups, like SOSRacisme, actually use their fear of racism in the government to argue against the collection of ethnoracial statistics. They point to the racism of the government during the Vichy regime of World War II as proof that the state cannot be trusted. Most recently, when Robert Menard, a far-right mayor of the town of Beziers, admitted to ethnoracially profiling Muslim children, groups like SOSRacisme argued that this, too, was proof that the government had no business counting people by race or religion. Of course, in making this argument, they draw a false equivalence anti-racist and racist usage of statistics.
In my view, the lesson gleaned from Menard’s racism is simple: People in power will gather data to profile minorities whether or not the government calls itself colorblind. Indeed, 13 Black and Arab men are currently suing the French state itself for engaging in racial profiling.
The more time I spend in France, the more it seems to me that some French people (especially politicians) are extraordinarily skilled at talking about principles that they have no intention of doing anything about. Perhaps the French are stuck because they are far too philosophical and not at all practical when it comes to anti-discrimination. I don’t doubt the sincerity of most anti-racist groups that oppose policies that would actually expose and address racism. I have not always had the policy positions I have now. Certainly when I started my research in France, I did not have strong opinions. While I always saw myself as anti-racist, I was not informed enough to have a clear sense of whether ethnoracial statistics or “American-style” policies were needed in France. But after spending nearly three years living in France and interviewing over 100 French activists and ordinary people, my views began to change. It became increasingly obvious that the French population is mired in ignorance about the social and historical reality of race. Even moreso than in the United States, French discourse “about race” is incredibly superficial, asociological and ahistorical. Of course they don’t know how to fight racism.
I denounce white supremacy in the United States on a daily basis and I have no illusions that numbers will save the day. But it matters that activists and scholars in the United States can point to statistics within communities, organizations and institutions to measure just how much has changed — and just how much has not. It matters that we can use these numbers to inform policies and measure their effectiveness (or lack thereof). No, these statistics are not a panacea. Yes, black people and other minorities continue to experience the on-going racial tyranny of white supremacy. But the numbers help combat the denial and magical thinking frequently found among white people and other dominant groups — denial that would have you believe that centuries of race-making can be undone with beautiful principles and kumbaya colorblindness.
For a country that presents itself as secular, France nonetheless asserts religious conviction in the power of words to erase social and historical realities. In terms of dealing (or rather, not dealing) with racism, France is like a country that prefers faith-based healing over modern medicine for its ailing children. To take the analogy even further — the French political establishment is like a parent who infected their own children with an illness — only to refuse diagnostic tests and treatment.
It’s amazing, really — this intransigent, irrational belief that the language of “colorblindness” can actually undo centuries of race-making. The French seem to believe, that through the magical power of language alone, they can talk racism into oblivion. Nevermind the fact that France spent centuries establishing racial hierarchies at home and in its colonial empire for the purpose of enriching the state. Some truly believe that words like “Republic” and “citizenship” and “indivisible” can suddenly undo processes that were produced and institutionalized over the course of four hundred years.
In my view, French magical thinking about race is reinforced by the near total ignorance of the population with regard to its racial past. The French are struggling, in part, because they do not have widely read sociologists or historians of race. During my time in France this spring, I’ve met young French scholars of race who are doing really important, desperately needed work. But the political and intellectual landscape in which they must work is absolutely depressing. Not only does the French academy lack serious programs in race, but it is also overwhelmingly white and elite. One does not need statistics to see this. Enter any French elite university and you will find very few minority professors, chairs of departments or administrators. There are only a few books that could fall under the umbrella of “Black Studies” in France. Not only is there nothing even approaching “post-colonial studies” — the history of colonialism itself is mostly a non-lieu de memoire : barely taught in schools, mostly forgotten and marginalized in the nation’s collective memory. There is no French equivalent of W.E.B. Du Bois (who essentially founded urban sociology in the United States and pioneered studies of race, racism and whiteness). And there has not yet emerged a French equivalent of Kimberlé Crenshaw or Patricia Hill Collins — scholars who have revolutionized entire fields of thought through their contributions to Black Feminist scholarship and critical race theory. Yes, the Nardal Sisters and Cesaire and Fanon exist, but French scholars of color are still mostly ignored by white French people. Indeed, negritude was far more influential outside of hexagonal France than within it.
The only thing most French people seem to know about race is that racial categories were used against the Jews during WW II. That’s it. If you ask French people to tell you about racism in French colonialism, racial exclusion in the metropole prior to WW II, most probably would have little to say. Most French people can’t explain in any degree of detail where the concept of race came from, how racism perpetuates itself over time or how it is institutionalized. How could they? They do not (and, with few exceptions, cannot) learn about these things at school. But they think they can “fight” racism in a context of near complete social and historical ignorance about what race means and where it came from.
If there was ever a case study in the epistemology of ignorance — and its relationship to white supremacy — France is it. As I argue in the book I’m finishing now, white supremacy and racial ignorance are both key to understanding race in France. Already in the United States, racial ignorance and denial run wide and deep. And yet, despite these challenges, we have intellectual resources and minority networks the French can’t even dream of. And I don’t say this to brag — it’s not like these intellectual resources have saved us. They haven’t. But they matter. They help.
I don’t think most people (French or otherwise) understand that it takes centuries of diligent activism, statistical tracking, policy making and scholarship to even begin to address the damage of racism. The U.S. case shows that it is extremely difficult to confront and combat racism, even when you have the intellectual resources and data. But the French case shows that it is impossible to effectively identify and challenge racism without these things.
Further, French chauvinism prevents many people here from actually embracing a global understanding of racial processes and white supremacy. References to race in the United States or the UK are portrayed as too foreign — imposing an “anglosaxon” lens. White French people will sometimes say that their country can’t learn anything about race from the United States because the two societies are so different. And yet, the same people point to the continued existence of racism in the U.S. as “proof” that our approach to using ethnoracial statistics “hasn’t helped”. But if the U.S. is “too different” to teach anything to the French about race, then it cannot also be used by the French as “evidence” that ethnoracial statistics are a bad idea. It is intellectually dishonest to claim that one can’t learn anything from another society, yet also use that same society to justify one’s position. Further, the fact that France does not collect ethnoracial data means that it is impossible to seriously compare the situation of minorities in most spheres of life (e.g. housing and employment discrimination, political representation and so on). But the French think that they don’t need data to say that their society is less racist than the U.S. — all they need are Republican words. Thus, instead of learning from other nations that have a much longer history of studying race, many of the French prefer their colorblind ignorance.
The bottom line is that from what I have seen, the French majority population does not think racism affecting people of color is important. The reason the French majority population doesn’t think racism is important is because they have not been made to believe it is important. French people of color currently lack the political power and internal organization to compel the majority population to care about addressing racism. And, the French government’s role in suppressing ethnoracial statistics continues to undermine people of color who are organizing to fight racism.
The irony of all this is that the French are currently moving forward with an intelligence law that rivals the Patriot Act in its blatant disregard for civil liberties. The French government wants to collect data on almost everything French people think, write or say but – no data on racism! When it comes to fighting terror, the French know very well that knowledge is power. But when it comes to fighting racism? Data? Knowledge? Not necessary.
Too many French people seem to imagine that if they close their eyes to race, click their heels three times and repeat the words “Liberty”, “Equality” and “Brotherhood”, the boogeyman of racism will simply vanish and disappear. No systematic data or policies necessary. Only pretty, magical, colorblind words.
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