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French Anti-Wokeness as a Second Best Solution
People can't handle truth, so must choose between lies
There’s a certain kind of anti-woke posture that denounces the excesses of identity politics, but grants the most important tenets of wokeness while opposing any kind of feasible non-woke political and social order that might replace it.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clearer example of this than Thomas Chatterton Williams’ recent article on the subject in The Atlantic. The author finds France in a panic over le wokeism. He attends a panel in which the audience hisses at a black woman who says that knowledge can be derived from identity. Williams writes that he is left “shaken” by the experience.
I had until that point considered Diallo an ideological opponent. She had likewise regarded me warily—as a privileged, nonwhite, non-French spokesperson for a universalism that masks white prerogatives. Her personal credo of sorts, “Kiffe ta race” (“Love your race”), which is the title of her podcast and her most recent book, directly contradicts my own writing against the reinforcement of racial identity. And yet, when she walked offstage alone, I found myself rushing to catch up with her. As we spoke, to my surprise, my eyes became teary. I wanted her to know that I had seen what she’d experienced, even if no one else had. “That happens all the time here,” she told me. “It happens all the time.”
He goes on to declare that the French reaction to wokeness has been “revelatory” to him, and finds new merit in the American approach to identity politics. The French opposition to discussing institutional racism alienates minorities, and makes the nation unable to deal with important social issues.
What’s more, a critic might note, Blanquer’s rigid devotion to the principle of universalism entails a certain blindness to often valid minority concerns—about a lack of recognition, inclusion, and dignity. Though there are no official statistics on the matter, according to a 2016 French study, young people who are perceived as Black and Arab are 20 times more likely than everyone else to be stopped by the cops. In November 2020, a video went viral showing the unprovoked pummeling of a Black music producer by armed police in Paris. I, too, ultimately believe in universalism, and I worry that obsessively tracking demographic differences can lead us to ascribe nearly anything to racism. But events like this have lent credence to the identitarian left’s argument that addressing unequal treatment is nearly impossible when you can’t measure it.
What I find notable about this passage is that it has a narrow definition of what wokeness is. What does the movement represent if not being upset with outcomes like black people being stopped by the police more often than white people, without taking into account actual differences in relevant behavior? Williams doesn’t even mention the possibility of differences in crime rates driving such disparities. If the idea that black individuals — and Arabs, supposedly, though I suspect they’re just throw in to pretend this is a “brown” issue too like liberals do in the US — might be something like 20 times more likely to commit a serious crime strikes you as implausible, you’re not familiar with data from American cities (it’s actually hard to find clear data analysis on the demographics of murderers, though easy on homicide victims, for obvious reasons, though one can easily extrapolate from the link). (UPDATE, 2/10/23: Looking more at the crime data that is available on France, the question of policing appears to be more of a “brown” issue too in addition to being a black issue, unlike in the US where the black issue predominates. Still, we don’t have clear data because the French don’t like racial statistics, which I argue here is good, despite leading to gaps in knowledge.)
Point out a disparity, ignore obvious but unpleasant explanations, and jump to the conclusion that discrimination must be the cause. In the area of public policy, this is pretty much all wokeness is! Police arrest more black people, so police are the problem. Blacks score lower on all written tests, the tests are the problem. Blacks have less money, which means that capitalism….you get the point. The fact that one can claim to be a woke skeptic in the same article where one pulls this exact trick raises the question of what the debate is even about.
Of course, it’s possible for two things to be true at once. French blacks might have a higher crime rate, and police might be racist against them. Maybe if you collected the data, you would find blacks are 10 times more likely to commit a serious crime than white Frenchmen in major cities, but cops stop them 20 times as often. If we were going to be as charitable as possible to the views of Williams, we might say that he wants a society that is honest about both differences in crime rates and shortcomings in the criminal justice system.
I think this view falls apart though if you try to imagine what such a political culture would look like in practice. Once you’ve acknowledged a higher crime rate among one group, worrying about such disparities seems kind of dumb. Everyone accepts that men commit more crimes than women, and young people commit more crimes than the elderly. We therefore implicitly accept the fact that a police officer might naturally treat a situation where he has to approach a car full of young men differently than one where he approaches a car full of old women. A young man doesn’t get pulled over and say “if I was a little old lady, you would’ve let me go. Sure, statistics say I’m 30x more likely to be carrying a weapon, but you acted in a way consistent with believing that my demographic was 40x more likely to do so. You are therefore a sexist and an ageist.” Why does this sound so ridiculous to us? Probably because we consider it an impossible standard for a criminal justice system, or any system, to perfectly calibrate its level of disparate treatment or disparate impact between groups that actually do behave differently. If Group A commits more crime than Group B, we naturally just accept the implications of that. People will be more afraid of members of Group A and more likely to suspect them of being up to no good. Police are people too, and it would be ridiculous to demand they not take statistical realities into account. Such a course not only asks them to do what is psychologically impossible, but also endangers public safety. Of course, if a group was only twice as criminal and 100 times more likely to be arrested, that might be an indication we’re doing something wrong. But in the real world, differences in how groups are treated tend to roughly correspond to how they behave, indicating that the woke (and Thomas Chatterton Williams) are almost always wrong to even see a problem in the first place. In some cases, the data may imply discrimination against whites, as in the numbers on police shootings.
Does that mean that individuals who belong to high crime ethnic groups will sometimes be treated more harshly due to circumstances that are beyond their control? Yes. But if you find this disturbing, you should also find cops treating people differently based on age and sex disturbing, in addition to cultural stereotypes about placid old women being less likely to strike someone than hot-headed young men. The reason liberals are able to treat race as unique is because they silence facts about differences in crime rates, and although I think that most people understand that such differences do exist, they probably underestimate their magnitude. It seems plausible that Williams didn’t feel the need to discuss French racial differences in crime because he assumed that even if there is some gap in the likelihood of being an offender, a 20x disparity in being stopped can’t possibly be justified by that alone. Yet few realize that racial differences in violent crime are often comparable to those related to age and gender. Incredibly, in the United States, black women were in 2018 more likely to commit murder than Asian men. (UPDATE, 2/16/23: This last sentence previously said “white or Asian men” instead of “Asian men.” The part about white men is in dispute. The sentence only referring to Asian men doesn’t change the larger argument, which is that racial disparities in crime are often so vast they’re in the same ballpark as sex or age differences.)
In America, public debate ignores racial differences in crime, but focuses on how the behavior of the police affects various racial groups. In France, they ignore both. Éric Zemmour was once even convicted of racist speech for defending the police by saying that most drug dealers are blacks or Arabs.
One certainly can’t claim that the French approach to racial issues is more honest. Rather, they simply make it taboo to honestly discuss race in any way, whether one wants to do so from the right or left. I tend to think this is preferable to the American approach, where you can talk about race, but only in the context of paying respect to a grand narrative in which whites are oppressors and blacks are victims. If that’s the “conversation” we’re able to have, it’s better to just ignore racial issues completely, whatever the flaws of such an approach are. Cops can then at least do their job.
Of course France has problems. But I see no reason to suspect that their approach to racial issues has led to worse outcomes than our own. Top universities in that country still select on the basis of standardized tests, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a push towards getting rid of them. France has crime problems in its minority areas, but its murder rate is about a quarter of our own, and none of its cities have the kind of filth and public disorder one sees in the streets of places like San Francisco. Affirmative action hasn’t destroyed policing, or government competence more generally. That’s not even getting to our disturbed views about gender, which in complicated ways seem intimately connected to our constant lying about race. I don’t know if blacks in France are any more or less hostile to the majority culture than their American counterparts, but a lack of affirmative action prevents some of the more bitter members of the race from letting their neuroses influence public policy. The best possible situation is not to have major racial disparities in socioeconomic outcomes in the first place, but once you do, the second best solution seems to be simply not to talk about them.
I don’t see much evidence that there are any societies capable of dealing with issues that wokeness claims to address in a nuanced and sophisticated way. Not even anti-wokes seem comfortable acknowledging that yes, police might treat people of certain ethnic groups differently, but they are justified in doing so. Rather, like the French, American conservatives deny the reality of the black experience. That may be the best we can do, given the fact that it doesn’t seem like anyone has the stomach for a real conversation about its causes.
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