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Home >Opinion >Columns >The UK and France ought to wake up and reckon with race

A new division has opened up within what used to be called ‘the West’. Divesting [Caucasian] supremacism of political legitimacy, the US has begun a fresh reckoning with its past of slavery and begun to meaningfully acknowledge its demographic diversity. At the same time, the ruling classes of both France and Britain are loudly recoiling from a similar self-examination, seeking to postpone their own urgently needed reconfigurations of national identity.

Long-simmering anger over racial injustice exploded last year in the US after the murder of George Floyd. While conservatives quickly focused on the violence that accompanied a minority of Black Lives Matter protests, few tried to deny outright the widespread feeling that enough was enough. British leaders looked upon the US protests and similar demonstrations on their own shores with distaste and unease. “Dreadful," the British Home Secretary Priti Patel termed them last week. The Conservative Party, implicated in a calamitous death toll from covid, has taken to culture warfare, rallying public opinion against those taking down statues of slaveholders in Britain.

A broad swathe of French politicians, intellectuals and journalists, including President Emmanuel Macron, have gone further and apparently decided that ideas from US campuses pose an existential threat to their country. According to the New York Times, they believe “progressive American ideas—specifically on race, gender, post-colonialism—are undermining their society."

This new mode of anti-Americanism may seem baffling, its targets—‘woke’ culture and US academics—too ill-defined. But frankness about [Caucasian] supremacy and racial oppression strikes at the heart of national identity in the UK and France. In 2014, a YouGov survey found that nearly 6 in 10 Britons thought that the British Empire, once denounced by a range of figures from George Orwell to Mahatma Gandhi as a racist and predatory enterprise, was something of which to be proud. Not surprisingly, the Tory government’s 2016 Brexit campaign could combine a nostalgia for empire with blatant race-baiting.

The percentage of empire-lovers has declined to 32% in a recent poll. The figure is still shocking, the consequence of decades of scanty education about empire at school, wistful films and TV shows about the Raj, and meagre representation of ethnic-racial minorities in the media and publishing. And Britons at least recognize that their country suffers from extreme disparities of income, education and health along racial lines. Nearly six decades after its empire collapsed in Algeria in a paroxysm of brutality, France remains in a state of denial, officially refusing to acknowledge systematic racism.

The veil of silence drawn over the brute tactics the French routinely used in their war against Algerian guerrillas was not lifted until the 1990s. In the meantime, Algeria insinuated itself menacingly in French politics, as a former soldier and torturer in Algeria named Jean-Marie Le Pen carved out a space for the far right, led today by his daughter Marine. Not surprisingly, Macron, facing tough re-election next year, is seeking to outflank Marine Le Pen from the right as he denounces Muslim “separatism" and “theories imported from the United States."

As the ‘West’ loses its cohesion, this ideological gap between the US and Europe is widening. James Baldwin (1924-1987), who closely observed European distrust of dark-skinned minorities, once wrote about how an African-American, despite all the atrocities inflicted on him, was not “a visitor to the West, but a citizen"; he was “as American as the Americans who despise him." In other words, European [Caucasoid] tactics of silence and suppression, or telling people to “go back to where they come from", were not effective in the US, where even slaves had been an “inescapable part of the general social fabric." Furthermore, America had “not only created a new black man, it [had] created a new white man, too." In Baldwin’s view, [Caucasian] Americans were unlike their European counterparts in being profoundly involved, for better and for worse, in the lives of their country’s racial minorities. Even so unforgiving a critic of racism in the US as Baldwin could recognize this as an American ‘achievement’. Indeed, he argued prophetically in the 1960s that it “may prove of indispensable value" to those Europeans clinging to their supremacist identities.

Today, racial progress of the kind achieved in the US is what many in the overwhelmingly [Caucasian] French and English establishments wish to postpone as they whine about ‘woke’ and ‘cancel’ culture. Their attempts to turn the US into a bogey might secure an election victory or two. But such electoral triumphs are sure to come at a cost—a growing disconnection with reality. For, as Baldwin wrote, “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again."

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and author of ‘Age of Anger: A History of the Present’

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