The dynamics of race and prejudice in a gated community in Florida resonate throughout the world because they are, in fact, global and human conditions. In Racism, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2000, sociologist Albert Memmi describes scenes in Paris and in Algeria that share significant similarities to the interactions between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Whether we encounter a group of kids on the Paris Metro or a stranger on a dark street in our neighborhood, race relations—and our instant and inevitable prejudicial responses—are inherent to our everyday lives.
Excerpt from Racism (pp. 129-31)
Why is racism so common? Because it is a very convenient tool of aggression.
I have already spoken at length of its expedience, but here are two more examples. I am in the Paris Metro on the Porte de la Chapelle line, with a friend who mentions that its nickname, for those who use it daily, is the “Third World line” or the “Africa–Asia line,” because one encounters so many immigrants from those continents on it. Exactly one Black person is in our car; he appears somewhat mentally deranged and is drumming with his hands on the subway seat, on the window, while nodding his head in rhythm. The other riders have that absent air common to subway riders the world over, but they seem a bit anxious about the gestures of this unfortunate man. My friend translates the general sentiment for me. “They are all somewhat odd,” she murmurs. I decode what she says: “In other words, he is making these impetuous motions because he is black.” If he were white, they would say, he is just a deranged man, but since he is black, they think first of all that here is a Black person. I asked my friend why. She thought seriously about her own reaction and responded in this way. She often takes this subway line, and she always feels a vague anxiety. And today? She admits that she does. And yes, she had thought first of the ethnic origin of our dancer. It is true, it is easy to give in to the temptation to think in biologically racialized terms; the color of the skin, the facial features, the hair all become anchor points for fear, which is then crystallized into hostility.
A second example, again in the Metro: a group of young North Africans loudly invades a subway car. They move around laughing and looking for attention, almost to the point of provocation. My traveling companion, a well-meaning and antiracist university professor, murmurs uneasily, “They shouldn’t do this . . . ” I ask him to explain. He tells me that he would like to protect these young people, in some way, from opinion that is already ill disposed toward them. As North Africans, they are suspect in advance. I have previously discussed this “advice” with respect to Jews: “Be discreet, don’t call attention to yourselves in a situation already turned against you.” My friend recognizes that, in spite of himself, he participates a little in the general sentiment: these are North Africans in Paris; they shouldn’t do this. . . . Whatever they do reflects on their status as immigrants. But clearly, here in the subway, it is not just a question of a specifically “North African” mode of behavior: these are adolescents, full of raw excess energy, maladroit in their growing bodies, not yet familiar with all social norms. They seek to dissipate their discomfort in the unwholesome pleasures of intimidating others who are adult, rich, or different, and they are ready for violence should any incident provide the occasion for it. Yet is this not the behavior of any gang of teenage street kids?
I have purposely chosen these two examples because each contains an element of biological difference. The second is more instructive since it contains two differences: age and ethnicity. These North Africans were both North African and younger than the other passengers. The ethnic difference was instinctively chosen as the focus for fear or anxiety, rather than the age difference; the latter would have been adequate but not as opportune, since it would not have enjoyed the more general sense of racialized ill feeling or hostility.
Today, everyone seems to condemn racism. At least, very few proclaim themselves to be racist. Indeed, those who do practice it, whether in word or deed, do not defend it as a philosophy. Most often, they explain their gestures and words as arising from something other than racism. One could be content with this, and even reassured, and still seek to understand the nature of the racist phenomenon, even though one’s ultimate understanding might be quite disturbing in the end and lead to more than mere indignation. It is necessary to treat racism as a matter of fact, provisionally setting aside all moralism and even, to a certain extent, all preoccupation with action.
Albert Memmi is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Paris, Nanterre, and the author of Racism.
“Memmi offers us a path with a lot of useful information.” —Discourse and Society