- Coda: In Living Color
The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.
When Du Bois made this proclamation, he wasn’t only talking about the United States. As a graduate student in Europe, Du Bois watched the partition and exploitation of Africa. He saw the U.S. treat the Philippines and Puerto Rico with the same brutal imperialism as European colonial powers.
Less than 100 years later, the historian John Hope Franklin restated Du Bois’ dictum for the next century: “Without any pretense of originality or prescience … I venture to state categorically that the problem of the 21st century will be the problem of the color line.”
For Franklin, the fact that racism persisted was obvious; that the state wasn’t seriously fighting it was clearer still. “A color-blind society eludes us,” Franklin writes in The Color Line, because, in part, “we do not wish to find it.”
This myth of colorblind societies is a global one. It’s a fiction that lets those in power avoid confronting the yawning wealth and opportunity gaps that exist across the color line.
No country clings to this fantasy of colorblindness quite like France. With its secular, republican spirit of egalité, the French government refuses to count race, religion, or ethnicity in its censuses. In a country where much of the minority population lives impoverished in exurban banlieues, there’s no way to measure racial disparities in employment, education, or health outcomes. Not analyzing— or even discussing—race doesn’t mean there’s no racism, but it does obscure racialized poverty and other inequalities.
In this issue, Hisham Aidi writes about political parties, inspired by the Black Power movement and critical race theory in the U.S., that are trying to inject race into French politics—much to the chagrin of mainstream parties. Aidi writes that France—which provided refuge to many black American writers, artists, and dissidents in the mid-20th century—has found it “easier to support minority agitation abroad than at home.”
Across the Atlantic, Brazil has also struggled to confront its institutionalized racism. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery, abolishing the institution in 1888. But unlike in the U.S., there was never legal segregation. Brazilian society also embraced interracial marriage, making mestizaje, or the cultural and biological mixture of different peoples, a part of the Brazilian national identity. In these pages, political scientist Tianna S. Paschel quotes a Brazilian diplomat who told the U.N. in 1979, “Even though there is a multiplicity of races that live within our borders, racial problems simply do not exist in Brazil.”
This, of course, is not remotely true, but for many Brazilians, it has remained part of the national narrative. Daniela Gomes, an activist from São Paulo who makes up one half of our Conversation section, says that an average of 82 black people are killed in Brazil every day, many by the police. But despite accusations of extrajudicial killings, many black Brazilians say they have it better than [End Page 114] black citizens in the U.S. And, according to Gomes, that comparison impedes building awareness of anti-black racism. Since slavery, Gomes says, people have been told, “Don’t complain, because in the U.S. your brothers and sisters are worse than here.”
This resonated with her Conversation partner, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter–Toronto, Janaya Khan, who derided the idea that “because there was no formal law segregating black folks from everyone else that, suddenly, it’s better than the States.”
“Racism,” Khan explains, “just manifests itself differently.”
Khan blames the myth of Canada as a racial haven in part on the politics of multiculturalism. They, as Khan prefers to be referred to, says that while multiculturalism ostensibly “speaks to inclusivity,” what it really “does is shift the narrative away from race.” Canada may now have a Cultural Celebration Day, they says, but that doesn’t mean the country will “change the racial discrimination that’s written in immigration policies.”
In Canada, as in France, there’s...