Race Riots and Assimilation

Race Riots and Assimilation Race Riots and Assimilation Hooded youths carrying sticks walk in front of a burning car during clashes after two youths died in an motorbike accident with a police car in the northern suburbs of Paris Over at The Glittering Eye, Dave Schuler extends the argument he’s made in the comments of my tongue-in-cheek post on the fact that the media continues to ignore the ethnic-religious component of the rioting in France.

He argues that the problem goes beyond religion and is ultimately about assimilation and “giving the descendants of immigrants a stake in the country that’s the only one they’ve ever known.”

He’s right. Indeed, I allude to that even in my glib observation that, “Clearly, not much has been done over the past two years, since the last set of youth riots, to integrate the youths into French society.”

How to go about that, though, is the question. The politics of race and ethnicity is especially difficult in an era where we’re supposed to simultaneously pretend that cultural differences are immaterial and yet revel in the wonderful diversity that different cultures add.

Despite a history that includes slavery, racial apartheid (Jim Crow), and ethnic cleansing (the Indian wars), the United States has done relatively well in assimilating those from alien cultures into our own. Since the passage of the 14th Amendment, all who are born on American soil are automatically endowed with all the rights of citizenship and people are considered “Americans” by their fellows regardless of racial, religious, or ethnic background so long as they speak the language and obey the rules. That’s not the case in much of Western Europe where even a third generation German-born Turk is still a Turk, not a German.

Still, removing legal barriers to citizenship clearly isn’t enough. While not on the scale of the Muslim riots that are now in their second go-round in Paris or those that happened across Europe a couple years ago owing to some cartoons in a Danish paper, we’ve had our share of race riots in the United States even in the post-Civil Rights Act era. The riots following the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles are the most noteworthy, but there have been several lesser ones involving outraged blacks and Hispanics over perceived police brutality; those in Miami (1980), Crown Heights (1991), St. Petersburg (1996), and Benton Harbor, Michigan (2003) are the most notable.

To be sure, these are rare events. That those old enough to have lived through them remember them vividly is a testament to how unusual they are. Still, they happen.

The idea that we should deal with the “root causes” is all well and good but it’s not clear exactly how one goes about doing that. Nor should the fact that there are legitimate grievances be considered justification for mayhem.

Photo credit: The Age/Reuters

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Quite. I’m open to ideas other than birthright citizenship but I think it’s the best tool at hand.

    As I’ve written back at my place any number of times, the European states that have traditionally defined themselves ethnically are in a pickle. Too bad they haven’t come to the realization yet that our experience in this particular area is vastly more than theirs.

    One thing that ought to be mentioned: what’s going on in France isn’t just a sudden unexpected flareup. They’ve had carburnings and minor incidents all along for the last couple of years.

  2. Brian says:

    One of the problems there, as stated, is language. As long as everyone is not speaking the same language how can they be considered “one”. I have no problem with people speaking different languages. My wife (Swedish) and I (USA) speak several ourselves. But for day-to-day transactions here in the USA you need to be able to speak and understand English. I am not trying to be rascist or isolationist, just saying that to truly be a melting pot you need the ingredients to blend…and you all need to be able to read the recipe.

    And the recipe in France is written in French…

  3. DC Loser says:

    I haven’t seen anyone make the case the rioters in France don’t speak French. Practically all of them speak fluent French AFAIK, though of the modern patois of the ghetto where they live. They are the ones giving rise to the very angry French rap music that are very popular amongst that demographic.

  4. jpe says:

    Saying it’s all about assimilation, I think, misses the broader identity politics at work. America’s model, that of leaving people alone large, has proven very successful. By contrast, the assimilation-at-all-costs model of European identity has backfired time and time again.

  5. Bithead says:

    Quite. I’m open to ideas other than birthright citizenship but I think it’s the best tool at hand.

    The word you’re looking for is “Culture”.

    Past that, we need first to recognize that the people responsible for the rioting, are the rioters, and none other.

    So, here it is: If you (editorial you) insist on taking the blame for something incidental to those riots, the issue to take the blame for is not that we haven’t given them enough chance in the society, we’ve given repeated chances… that they’ve for the most part never taken us up on. It’s not that we haven’t given them a stake in society, it’s that we have not made clear that we expected them to live up to their responsibilities to society. Including, their behavior. Every time we’ve given then additional chances because of membership in a chosen subgroup, we’ve sent the signal that acting out of line is OK because they’re part of that particular sub-group that the left has decided needs ‘help’ and “understanding”.

    We in the west have allowed our minority populations to remain isolated in the cultures they’ve chosen to remain in, all in the name of “diversity”, of course… and in doing so, we’ve removed the chances for such people to thrive in our culture. As a result of those ‘extra chances’, they’re not members of the culture.

    They’re not expected to act like an American (or, French) citizen culturally, so why in the world should be be shocked when they meet our expectations and behave like something other than citizens, and try to take us over, culturally speaking?

  6. even a third generation German-born Turk is still a Turk, not a German.

    Germany has liberalized their citizenship law so that Turkish citizens born in Germany now have a much easier path to citizenship that was only recently the case.

    Whether they’re “assimilated” or socially-accepted as “Germans” is another matter, but legally their status becomes the same.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Germany has liberalized their citizenship law so that Turkish citizens born in Germany now have a much easier path to citizenship that was only recently the case.

    Interesting! I hadn’t heard.

  8. cas says:

    Some thoughts on the problem of “assimilation”:
    1.) First, there needs to be consensus by the assimilating society as to the cultural norms that the immigrants are accepting. I wonder if that is the case anymore (as it used to be), either in Western Europe, or in America, in this “multi-cultural” era.
    2.) Second, one of the fundamental justifications for the rise of government-sponsored (and financed) mandatory public schooling was to accomplish this “climatization” of the children of immigrants; it’s my belief that our (U.S.) current public school system is completely failing at this task, regardless of the “immigration status” of the parents of these children. I do not know how well the Western European, particularly the French, school systems, are doing on this task…

  9. Bithead says:

    Excellent points, cas.

    Boil them both down, however, and they come out , the both of them, to the idea that there are a large number of people within this country who figure our culture isn’t worth adopting. Usually, these are the same people who are actively calling for “cultural diversity”, and using the power of government to enforce it.

    Interestingly enough, many of these are educators in the government school system. Do you begin to see the scope of the problem? I mean, when a bunch of social liberals in charge of imparting our culture’s values to young minds full of mush seems on its face to be counterproductive at least. Add to this, the move of late to teach the values of other cultures, to the exclusion of our own, in the name of “diversity” and you have a surefire recipe for cultural disaster.

    I don’t know if I’m going to suggest that it was designed this way, but if someone was about destroying our culture here, and for minting war, as a result, they could hardly be more effective about it, than what has developed.