There is racism everywhere. What I’m most familiar with is white-on-black racism, as it occurs in Europe (since this is where I live) and North America (since that is where lots is written about it). It has always been blatantly obvious to me that racism is very different on the two continents.
In Europe racism is often about fear. Fear of the “other”, of the “unknown”. Although Europe as a continent is pretty heterogeneous culturally and linguistically, we all traditionally look quite similar, believe in the same divinity and have a broadly similar system of values. Enter the “other”: someone who doesn’t look like us, speak like us, dress like us and holds values that may be alien to us. Clashes were inevitably going to occur.
While the United States suffers from some of the same symptoms and problems as Europe, it appears to be, as the “melting pot”, more comfortable with tolerating, even when not embracing, differences. American racism is in a way a “purer” form of the illness. It stems from a long-held belief that the value of people is determined by the colour of their skin. The traditional stance being that black people may talk the same language as us, believe in the same god as us, have the same values as us, but they’re not like us ... because they’re black.
The experience of my friend K is illustrative: Having lived several years in different European countries, she moved to the US. Her black colleagues were baffled when she did not want to join the African-American club at work, telling them that since she was not, in fact, African-American, she did not feel the affinity that united the members of the club. In the US "blackness" can be much more as well as much less than "just" skin colour. It is a shared identity that relies heavily on a joint heritage of discrimination and survival. At the same time, it "labels" people as presumably sharing that identity purely based on their skin colour. K told me she had never "felt as black" as she did in the States.
Europe’s answer to the problem so far has basically been threefold: (1) Ignore it. (2) If someone suggests that there is a problem, deny it. (3) If you absolutely have to admit that there is a problem, tell people to stop it. Tell them not to be racist. Then go back to (1).
Not the subtlest or most sophisticated of approaches, I would dare say.
The United States has tentatively embraced affirmative action instead.* Some of the main reasons were summarised by Justice O’Connor of the US Supreme Court from the testimony of Michigan Law School Professor Richard Lempert in Grutter v Bollinger et al, 123 S.Ct 2325 (2003). According to Prof Lempert the school sought
“... students with diverse interests and backgrounds to enhance classroom discussion and the educational experience both inside and outside the classroom. ... When asked about the policy’s ‘commitment to racial and ethnic diversity with special reference to the inclusion of students from groups which have been historically discriminated against,’ Lempert explained that this language [purported] to include students who may bring to the Law School a perspective different from that of members of groups which have not been the victims of such discrimination.”
Now I may be a bit dim, but I don’t actually see how someone’s skin colour enhances the educational experience of those around her. Nor do I see how the fact that people with skin colour like hers have been discriminated against in the past makes automatically her “perspective” different.
However, I DO see that the argument put forward above is perfectly valid where the individual in question truly brings “diversity” and a “different perspective” to a university class, workplace etc, because she IS in fact different – different NOT by colour, BUT by culture, custom, religion, etc.
In other words, affirmative action sounds like a better tool to attack the European than the American brand of racism. Why has it not even been considered here?
* “Tentatively” not only because not everyone believes that affirmative action works, but also because some measures have been struck down by the Supreme Court as contrary to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Predictably the Court has been bitterly divided in some of these decisions, including in Grutter v Bollinger.