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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Thursday, April 10, 2003

The NY Times And The Wide World Of Race Relations

Affirmative action in Brazil, and a bit of a puzzler - how do you have preferences for "blacks" in a proudly multi-racial society that has no definition of "black"?

As a byproduct of the debate, Brazilians are also being forced to define who is black, a process they find puzzling and alien. More than 300 terms are used to designate skin color — from the dark-skinned crioulo to the light-skinned brancarao — and racially mixed relationships are the norm rather than the exception. As a result, racial categories have never been defined as they were in more segregated countries.

College admission in Brazil is highly competitive, with many more applicants than places available, especially for prestigious public universities, and entrance examination scores count for everything. Of the 1.4 million students admitted to universities in Brazil each year, only 3 percent identify themselves as black, and only 18 percent come from the public schools, where most black Brazilians study.

...Under the new system for college admissions adopted here, all applicants declaring themselves to be of "African descent" on admission forms are considered to be black and given preferential treatment. But that has led to complaints of abuses, in which students who do not have dark skin or features considered African — including some of Asian or Jewish descent — have designated themselves as black to improve their chances of being admitted.

No one can agree, however, on a better system. In a televised campaign debate last year, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, now the country's president, was widely criticized when he maintained that "scientific criteria" could be used to determine who is black.

"A black person," Mr. Bastos said this week, "is someone who feels black and lives as a black. I don't believe there is any objective, scientific criteria."

And in France, a story that could have been titled "Young, Muslim, And... French?":

MARSEILLE, France, April 4 — To enter the Rue du Bon Pasteur in the heart of this Mediterranean port is to leave France. Or rather, it is to leave a France still fixed in the imagination of many, a land where French is spoken and the traditions of a secular society are enforced.

I am left at the starting gate - probably it is just a hangover from "The Three Musketeers", but I cannot think of France as a "secular society". As an aspiration, yes. As a reality, well...

That street reflects the political and social reality facing France. Demography has transformed the country, whose population is about 7 percent Arab and Muslim, the highest percentage in Western Europe.

The figures are more striking in Marseille, where about 10 percent is Arab and about 17 percent Muslim, a figure that is elevated by immigrants from the African former French colony of the Comoros.

"We are no longer a France of baguettes and berets, but a France of `Allah-u akbar' and mosques," said Mustapha Zergour, the director of Radio Gazelle, a station geared to the Arab community.

Complicating its troublesome place in society is that much of the Arab-Muslim population in France not only feels alienated from mainstream France but also split within itself — by ethnicity, history, religiosity, politics and class.

Muslims have lived here since the colonization of Algeria in the 1830's, and many have been integrated into middle-class life for decades. But with the Arab population surging in recent decades, France faces twin identity crises: that of the nation itself and that of its Muslims.

These show themselves in many of the same symptoms that can be found among challenged minorities anywhere — in lawlessness and joblessness, in broken families and in the abuse of women impossibly trying to appease the demands of competing cultures.

"I don't feel French," said Jamila Laaliou, 24, an employee of the Marché du Soleil, a covered food market by the mosque. "I have never felt French. Here I feel safe, because everyone is Arab. But the France outside is a France of racism, and the racism has gotten worse since Sept. 11."

...To help integrate Arabs and Muslims into French society, the center-right government has embarked on an ambitious project to create an official Islam for France.

Last Sunday, half of France's Muslim population went to the polls to elect representatives to a national Muslim council that will address issues like education, dress and work. The other half will vote next Sunday. Similar councils have long existed for Catholics, Protestants and Jews.

Emphasis added. Church and state separatists are, I imagine, either laughing out loud or rolling on the floor in horror. The government establishes by election the national councils for various religions? Gee, and I thought that giving churches a tax-exempt status,as we do in the US, was controversial. Get Cardinal Richilieu on the line!

...For [school principal] Mr. Pellegrini, the problem is larger: a feeling of alienation from French society. "The kids feel that somehow integration doesn't work," he said. "They know that doors will remain shut not because of their religion, but because of the way they talk, the places they come from and sometimes the color of their skin."

That is as close as the story comes to identifying the central problem. "American" is a state of mind; "French" is an ethnic identity, as is "German". One attempt to address this is through the EU and the creation of a broader "European" identification. Well, at one time, folks here thought of themselves as "New Yorkers", or "Georgians", and more strongly identified with their state than with their nation, so the change is possible. Good luck.

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