Jeremiah Wright’s speech
Like any self-respecting white American liberal, I enjoy bouts of self-flagellation over the xenophobia and religiosity of my fellow Americans. So when Reverend Wright spoke at Rockefeller Chapel last Tuesday about how America is singularly racist and uniquely ignorant of other cultures, I might have been expected to lap his words up with gusto. But I’m getting kind of tired of hearing about America’s racism and ignorance.
This isn’t because I believe racism has been defeated here, that the election of Obama expiated our sins. But I do think that some who call America a bigot’s paradise, especially in Europe, are too eager to cast the first stone. Let me turn to a story about a black American’s experience in Belgium. This
guy, a student at the University of Michigan, was hanging out at a public pool with a French friend. After they left, the friend told him that he had overheard a teenage Belgian girl say to her friend, “I don’t want to get in the pool with that black guy in there; he’ll dirty it up.”
Right now, people all over Europe feel that their cultural integrity is threatened by mass immigration; the fact that culture is promoted by the state certainly contributes to the idea that there is a paradigmatic Italian, Frenchman, German, Spaniard, or Belgian, and that this model is being subverted by peoples who have their own cultures. The rise of far-right parties in some European countries is a testimony to the ways in which economics and prejudice intertwine in Europe. All of this has been said before, in much more sophisticated ways, by scholars in both America and Europe.
It’s not that Americans aren’t worried about mass immigration or some ideal vision of American culture.
But our acute awareness of race and our racial past is in stark contrast to official European attitudes. To use another (unfortunately also Belgian) example, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, outside Brussels, is supposed to document the Belgian colonial experience in the Congo. Yet up until recently there was no mention there of the 10 to 15 million Congolese killed for rubber. On the other hand, our National Slavery Museum’s sole objective is to document the horror America’s economic system abetted.
Let’s be clear: Just because we’ve built a museum doesn’t mean the job is done. The point is that years ago we started a conversation about the bleak history of our past and the complexities of living in a racially and culturally diverse country. The Europeans are just beginning to discuss what it means to live in a polyglot society. There are historical reasons for the relative newness of deep racial disputes in Europe: Because the Europeans kept their racial problems in the colonies, at arm’s length, they didn’t have to confront alien cultures and races on their home turfs until relatively recently. The world has ignorance and bigotry to spare, and America, at least in this respect, doesn’t claim a disproportionate share.