Rosa Parks in Translation

MLK and Rosa Parks. Paris, 2016.

Thirty-five years after the Equality Marches, thirteen years after the death of Zyed and Bouna in the transformer of Clichy and the revolt in the suburbs, a call is made by a collective named Rosa Parks, a famous civil rights heroine: “November 30 is without us! December 1st is 100% us!”

In other words, after having marked, through strikes or abstention, the void that their absence from social life would deepen, those who define themselves as “heirs of colonial immigration” and “victims of racist speeches and acts whose structural character makes them a system” will reappear to “occupy the place”, claiming “equality and dignity for all”. I hope that this original initiative will be a success, and here is why.

The language she uses, that of “political anti-racism”, will certainly not be unanimously accepted. But it is right, making the voice of those who suffer daily from the violence of racism in our “country of human rights” heard loud and clear. It can be endorsed by anyone, citizen or resident, who wants to join or support them out of solidarity and concern for the common future.

No one doubts that racism is a complex phenomenon. Its many forms, convergent or divergent, are unevenly distributed throughout the world and over time: caste contempt, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Negrophobia, anti-Arab and anti-Maghreb racism, Islamophobia, anti-Roma, anti-Indian, anti-Asian or anti-Asian racism and, increasingly, violence against migrants…

In addition, there are intersections with other forms of discrimination, particularly class and gender. That is why we must be careful about simplifications. I am not enthusiastic about the opposition between “racialized” people, amalgamated into a single group, and a “white privilege”, which is very random from one place or country to another, whose invocation may also favour the “identity” policies that are now galloping in Europe and the United States.

But these precautions must not prevent us from naming the process of ubiquitous racialization: segregation of certain populations, discrimination against individuals because of their colour or origin, and finally dehumanization of entire groups through the denial of their history and the denigration of their cultures.

Above all, the multiplicity of forms of racism is nowadays subject to a triple over-determination that concentrates and intensifies it to the intolerable: by the way in which the neoliberal state implements the “population law” of globalized capitalism, playing off against each other all forms of precariousness, nomadic and sedentary; by the imposition of ethnocultural stereotypes in our postcolonial society, maintaining stigmatizations that resemble the old ones to be mistaken. Because it must be said, the French Republic has never learned the necessary lessons from decolonization, either in its foreign policy or in its perception of its own people.

Should we, therefore, talk about state racism? I am convinced that this is necessary, beyond partial equivalents such as “systemic racism” and “institutional racism”, which do not really point to strategic responsibility.

Yes, state racism can exist and flourish, spreading throughout the population, even when it is not officialized (although there are abuses on this side in France, as shown by the laws of exception against manifestations of membership of Islam). It is sufficient, and this is decisive, for the state to tolerate or justify violence by its constituted bodies (in particular the police) against populations identified by their “facies” or by their “specific dangerousness”, and for it systematically to refrain, in the name of liberalism or even “equality of citizens”, from implementing policies that would attack what a prime minister once dared to name “a territorial, social and ethnic apartheid”, as its principles would nevertheless require.

This is a crucial point. It shows that the anti-racist struggle, which must be constantly mobilized against the state or its representatives, must also be conducted within the state, in the broad sense that organizes and institutes all social relations.

That is why an initiative like the Rosa Parks must be supported by associations, activists and elected officials and converge with their own efforts inherited from the democratic tradition, internationalism and anti-colonialist struggles, even if the invention of the common language and the sharing of responsibilities are not easy.

Perhaps this will allow us to correct the terrible “slip-up” represented by the recent decision to remove from the constitution, not (as has been said or believed) “the notion of race”, but the prescription of equality “without distinction of race”.

The Collective’s initiative is political in fact, and in several ways: by the radicality of its criticism of the racist system that affects entire populations in our country; by the creativity it shows and the impetus it can give to multiple resistances; by the hand it extends, in the name of equality, to all those affected by precariousness and threatened by the authoritarian abuses of power.

Not to mention the shift towards the concrete that it could make within a public debate that was going in circles in the duel between sovereignists and Europeans.

Adapted from Avec les “Rosa Parks”, contre le racisme d’√Čtat. Translated from the French. Photograph courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet. Published under a Creative Commons license.