Accepting Diversity Is Hard but Necessary

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, November 11, 2005

Multiculturalism is such an easy target. The word itself has the whiff of politically correct bureaucracy, as if it had been coined by committee. The very concept lacks rigor, since it seems to require deciding exactly what qualifies as a "culture." And if you want to make fun of the whole idea, all you need is Google and a little patience. Eventually you'll find, say, an elementary school where one Muslim kid enrolled and suddenly the curriculum was changed to include a unit on Ramadan.

If you look closely at what just happened in France, though, you'll stop laughing.

The riots in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities ought to wipe the smirk from the lips of even multiculturalism's smuggest critics. Those who lobby against bilingual education or get upset when their children learn about Cinco de Mayo should look at France and realize that multiculturalism is a lot like democracy -- it's the worst system except for all the others.

The French example presents an ideal laboratory experiment. France, like the United States, bases its sense of nationhood on a set of Enlightenment ideas about the rights of individuals in a society. France, much more than this country, also draws identity from language and an ancient cultural heritage.

But then immigrants began to arrive -- mostly former colonials from North and West Africa, people with darker skin and a different cultural and religious heritage. France essentially said to the immigrants: "Look, these are our ideals -- liberty, equality, fraternity . We're not adding diversity to the list."

It was a deliberate decision, of the kind that opponents of multiculturalism in the United States would have our country make: As a matter of policy, the French refused to acknowledge that cultural and religious differences even existed. That's why news reports about the riots have had a certain empirical vagueness, making it hard to tell just who these young men are who have set fire to their neighborhoods, and where their families came from, whether all are Muslim or just some of them. In France, it's against the law to keep statistics based on race or ethnicity.

But the fact that no one knows the precise number of Muslims living in France today doesn't mean those Muslims don't exist: There are about 5 million of them by most estimates. The fact that you forbid Muslim families to send their girls to schools in head scarves, as the French government decreed, doesn't stop those families from wanting to cover their girls' hair.

Just because no one knows how many first- or second-generation Moroccans or Senegalese live on the grim periphery of the City of Light doesn't mean they aren't there. Just because you don't know precisely how many of them are unemployed doesn't mean there's no job discrimination. And just because the upper echelons of French society are lily white -- business, government, the elite universities -- that doesn't negate the reality that all can see, if they bother to pay attention.

According to the French government, ethnic or religious or racial enclaves do not exist in France. But now no one can deny that for the past two weeks these nonexistent slums have been consumed by very real flames.

The failed French experiment proves that you can't make differences and disparities disappear simply by ignoring them. Other countries have tried that approach and likewise have failed. When I covered Brazil in the late 1980s, I was struck by how residents of the violent, desperate shantytowns were mostly black and the powerful people who ran the society were almost all white -- yet people insisted there was no racism. Now, belatedly, Brazil is beginning to try to redress more than a century of unacknowledged discrimination.

People of different races, backgrounds, cultures, histories and languages can indeed live together productively and with common purpose. I know that because we do it here in the United States. It's a messy process, because it means we have to argue a lot, and many of us resent all the constant conflict and negotiation that's involved in getting along with one another. But we manage quite well, especially if you compare our society to those, like France, that cover their ears and go "na-na-na-na-na" to avoid hearing complicated truths.

So let's end all this "English-first" nonsense and embrace Spanish as our second language, since that's what it is. Let's learn more about those 5,000 years of Chinese history. Let's have the dates of Ramadan and Eid noted on our calendars. Let's remind ourselves of a big, important lesson that we've already learned, and that we can teach the world: Multiculturalism works.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company