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Affirmative action for Europe

From our www.project-syndicate.org Human Rights series: Rick van der Ploeg is Professor of Economics at the European Institute in Florence and a member of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO. Heleen Mees is an independent adviser on European Union affairs in New York.

Heleen MeesRick van der Ploeg

by Heleen Mees and Rick van der Ploeg

The violence in France, fueled by staggering unemployment and ruthless policing, reflects the utter failure of the French model of social integration. But violence elsewhere in Europe, such as the London bombings of July and the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam in November 2004, had already made Europe's failure to integrate its minorities painfully clear.

As the riots in France fade, French politicians are agonizing about how to proceed. Forty years ago, after legal segregation of blacks and whites formally ended in America, the United States was confronted by similar problems. America's response shows, however, that integration cannot be viewed as a one-way street. In addition to imposing demands and constraints on minorities to join the mainstream, society must be willing to demand of itself that it make room for all its citizens.

As a potential model to be followed, Europe should look at the so-called "affirmative action" policies that America enacted to provide opportunities to blacks. Affirmative action, or "positive discrimination," as some have called these policies, began with university admissions. But, in the early 1970's, President Richard M. Nixon expanded the scope of affirmative action.

As a result, ethnicity began to be weighed as a positive factor not only in university admissions, but also in public procurement decisions, credit facilities for small enterprises, and government hiring. The rational for affirmative action in those early years was the fact that, after a long history of systemic injustice, merely outlawing discrimination based on race or gender would not ensure equal opportunity for all.

Such programs are often viewed as contradicting a basic American value, namely that admissions, lending, and hiring decisions should be based on the merits of the individual, not group distinctions. But they remain in existence three decades later. Indeed, leading American companies, like General Motors, General Electric, and Walmart, have created affirmative action programs for hiring and selecting suppliers at their own initiative.

Similarly, anchormen and anchorwomen from all ethnic backgrounds populate American television news programs. In France, by contrast, the appointment of the black anchorwoman Audrey Pulvar was big news on its own, because most of her colleagues in France are white.

Affirmative action in the US has been effective in creating a large African-American middle class. The percentage of black households earning over $50,000 a year (adjusted for inflation) has more than tripled over the last four decades, from 9.1% in 1967 to 27.8% in 2001.

Indeed, in the US, more people of color and women hold top jobs in the public and private sector than anywhere else in the world. The fact that a large black underclass remains - something the recent floods in New Orleans revealed in a horrifically dramatic way - is mainly the result of failing school systems.

Affirmative action programs, of course, have always been vulnerable to attack by those who can't benefit from them. In 2003, a white student asked the US Supreme Court to declare that the use of race in the University of Michigan's admission policies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the program was constitutional, citing a "compelling state interest" in racial diversity. "Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civil life of our nation," the court said, "is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized."

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court took into account a legal brief submitted by 60 major American businesses, led by General Motors, asking that affirmative action be upheld. They argued that the skills needed in today's global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to a wide diversity of people. Retired military officers and commanders told the court that affirmative action was essential to maintaining an integrated officer corps.

What America's affirmative action programs may not do is set quotas for minorities, as this prevents competition between different groups. But, in comparing groups, it is permitted to use an individual's status as member of an under-represented minority in his or her favor. As a result, a university may select a black student with a satisfactory score on the admissions test, even if there is a white student with a better score.

From the current French viewpoint, however, laws and regulations based on ethnicity are regarded as an unwelcome encroachment on the Republican ideal. French President Jacques Chirac vehemently opposes quotas for immigrants, out of fear that such a policy would stigmatize groups. And French businesses don't see it as their role to solve the problems of the suburbs.

Moreover, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy hasn't done much except hand out some special grants to the smartest immigrants from the suburbs. France does have affirmative action programs, but they address poverty, not ethnicity.

If European politicians are serious about preventing a schism between population groups, affirmative action is essential - not only at the workplace, but also for small business loans, home loans, public procurement, and school admissions. Tony Blair, who in July was faced with the shortcomings of integration in the UK, should take advantage of the country's current presidency of the European Union to make affirmative action programs the top priority at next month's summit of European government leaders in Brussels.


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re: Affirmative action for Europe

Why do I have the feeling that there is likely to be a large number of middle class white guys lining up to howl down this kind of proposal?

re: Affirmative action for Europe

Thank you Sam Richards for acknowledging the contribution to the economy of many women, particularly those who have had to raise children alone, and often take a second job to do so, in your comments below:

It is a strange world when often decades of continuous service, long days of hard work and dedication to the job at the expense of family is not regarded as being superior to someone who has a disjointed and much shorter work history and often not even able to put in a full work week.

Now perhaps you can clarify for me the second group you mention.

re: Affirmative action for Europe

The riot in France did not happen because of a lack of affirmative action. It happened for other reasons.

The hopeless French economy which puts a higher value on keeping those with a job, in a job at the expense of those unemployed.

The minority, mainly Muslim youth, do not want to integrate into mainstream society yet want the rewards of that society.

Affirmative action is a disgusting policy, for every success like Condoleezza Rice, there are a hundred slackers taking the job away from a more qualified and deserving person.

Sorry Janette McPherson but “middle class white guys” means middle class white men. I have never seen women put in that group.

It is a strange world when often decades of continuous service, long days of hard work and dedication to the job at the expense of family is not regarded as being superior to someone who has a disjointed and much shorter work history and often not even able to put in a full work week.

Welcome to affirmative action.

re: Affirmative action for Europe

I dont trust affirmative action and I trust the people who push it even less. It is a dishonest way to expect anyone to live their lives by these rules.

Nothing good comes from dishonesty, ever! People pushing such things always have a agenda and it is usually not hard to find.

re: Affirmative action for Europe

I think France's problems are caused more by its stagnant economy than its social policies. In a healthy economy, you need all the workers you can hire, so employers can't discriminate so much even if they want to.

People with jobs focus more on getting to work on time, than burning cars.

re: Affirmative action for Europe

I noticed a certain crowing on some US media, contrasting the flawed muticultural policy of Europe and the UK -(they make the distinction) - and the integrationist policy of the USA.

re: Affirmative action for Europe

My apologies Greg Moylan, I was using the term guys to mean both men and women.........as seems to be acceptable use, judging by the number of times it's presumed that I am included in office conversations when that term is thrown around.

re: Affirmative action for Europe

For the same reason, Janette McPherson, that there will be large numbers of middle class white women (who are just as privileged and no more in need of affirmative action as their male counterparts) will be lining up to howl down the proposal unless they are assured that they will get a seat on what would be, for them, the gravy train.

re: Affirmative action for Europe

E Burrows: "I think France's problems are caused more by its stagnant economy than its social policies. In a healthy economy, you need all the workers you can hire, so employers can't discriminate so much even if they want to."

Well, Australia's economy is experiencing labour shortages, and we have a quarter century or more of direct promotion of multiculturalism at every level of government. That didn't prevent the mini-Kristallnacht that unfolded this weekend at Cronulla and Maroubra.

It should be pointed out that the large crowd (media are claiming 5,000) which gathered to express anti-Lebanese sentiments started off as a peaceful protest about gang hooliganism and lack of security on the beach.

That it should so quickly degenerate into a large mob of vigilantes engaged in pack-hunting Lebanese men and 'ethnic cleansing' a Sydney beach side suburb signals clearly that the culture of multiculturalism is shallow at best.

For some time I have been of the view that a social programme which emphasises difference (whether as a virtue or as stigma) is incompatible with inclusiveness.

Also, it is interesting to note the different way this latest riot is being characterised compared with, say, the riots at Macquarie Fields or Redfern.

Nobody is suggesting, for instance, that the Police presence at Maroubra was 'provocative' - I even hear Stepan Kerkyasharian on this morning's Nine Network news calling for the Police to 'crack down hard' on the 'un-Australian behaviour' of 'these thugs' who have been 'stirred up by outside racist agitators'.

Imagine if, instead of Maroubra, these riots had taken place at Lakemba or Redfern.

Then an entirely different complexion would imposed on them.

That a large group of Australians acted, rightly or wrongly, to defend actual territory from another group of Australians on the basis of race can only bring into doubt the validity of multiculturalism as a policy.

Doubtless we will hear the usual clichés about how if you 'scratch the surface of Australian society, it is racist to the core'.

If that's the case, then why do we go on pretending multiculturalism, after all this time, is working?

If we then say that, well, 5,000 Australians joined in a race riot while millions did not, then we have to accept that perhaps Australians are not so racist. And somehow explain away the extraordinary events of this weekend.

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