France takes race off the agenda

by Andy Gregg, Chief Executive, Race on the Agenda 

In a bizarre development the French National Assembly  has decided that the best way to improve race relations in France is to abolish the term “race” http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/rendezvous/2013/05/17/france-fights-racism-by-outlawing-race/.

The French have always had a fascination with Philosophy - often it is a type of Philosophy that we Brits find almost impervious because it is so full of abstract  jargon and self referential complexity. There is a tendency in some French philosophy to confuse a description of things with the thing  itself, to confuse words for the world and therefore to think that by redescribing something we can actually change the world.  Incidences of serious race crime and overt discrimination are increasing in France as they are in the rest of Europe. This is therefore a dangerous time to avoid action at the level of policy by merely trying to change the language. Lionel Tardy of the opposition UMP party exclaimed “You don’t change reality by changing words”. According to one comment to the Le Monde newspaper “we should also ban the word ‘disease’ and we would suddenly all be healthy”.

Of course it is true that racial differences have little or no scientific or genetic basis – we are all part of the same species, the human race. Rather than a genetic  approach race should s seen be seen as a kind of social construct.  However, most scholars agree that race has real material effects in the lives of people through institutionalized practices of power, preference and discrimination. Banning the use of the term race will make discussion of these aspects of social reality more difficult, if not impossible.

France operates an official “colour-blind” approach that forbids ethnic monitoring as well as any policy response that is based on racial difference such as positive or affirmative action. Instead they claim that every citizen is equal before the law. The difference between this as an abstract theory and the actual practice of obvious and undeniable institutional racism and discrimination is growing rapidly. Rather than colour-blind, it is arguable that this approach is just blind.