Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

Michel Wieviorka.
Le Racisme: une introduction.
Paris: La Découverte/Poche, 1998, 165 pp. 49FF paper (270712866X)

(en français)

A collaborator of Alain Touraine, Michel Wieviorka is the author, co-author, or editor of some 23 previous works ranging widely in subject-matter from racism and multiculturalism to social movements and terrorism. In this work, Wieviorka simultaneously offers an absorbing survey of the literature on racism and an introduction to his own original treatment of the subject. The upshot is an interesting little book from which both neophytes and specialists will benefit.

The book is divided in two parts. The first discusses both the author's theoretical framework and racism's concrete manifestations: prejudice, segregation, discrimination, and violence. The second part provides an empirical examination of the contemporary saliency of racism in France and Western Europe. North American readers should find this section particularly informative. The role of the mass media in diffusing racist images is treated at some length. The final chapter addresses the current dilemmas of anti-racist struggles with conviction and intelligence.

An attractive aspect of the book lies in its comprehensive and effective survey of the classical and recent literature on racism. Even the specialist is likely to be put on the trail of unfamiliar material. While impossible to reproduce here, this feature may be briefly illustrated with a couple of examples.

Wieviorka relates the simple but effective sociological experiment made by Richard LaPierre in the 1930s on the relation between prejudice and discrimination. LaPierre travelled in the United States with a Chinese couple, stopping in 184 restaurants and 66 hotels. The group was always well received. Later queried through the mail, however, 90% of the very same restaurant and hotel managers claimed they would refuse service to Asians if any showed up at the door. LaPierre concluded that the translation of prejudice into behaviour requires favorable moral and political conditions.

The reader is also introduced to Edgar Morin's study of a bizarre instance of antisemitism in the town of Orleans. Groundless but persistent rumours were broadly circulated during the summer of 1968 according to which downtown Jewish merchants were drugging young female customers and forcing them into prostitution. (Translated into English under the title Rumour in Orleans, 1971).

Wieviorka's theoretical discussion is sophisticated and original. The author distinguishes between a racism of exploitation and inequality and a racism of cultural difference and exclusion or separation. He draws an analytical map featuring two logics and four pure cases. The first logic sets the individual's participation to modernity against the requirements of membership in collective identities. The second logic opposes a view of the world dominated by universalism to a perspective based on particularism.

In one case, associated with the triumphal rise of modernity and European colonialism, racism defines itself in reference to universal progress, the higher welfare of humankind, or the dissemination of religious truth. Resistance is interpreted as evidence of racial deficiencies.

In another case, racism is articulated by downwardly mobile groups targeting nearby others. Readers will find a fuller treatment of this pathetic second case in La France raciste (1992), an excellent work directed by Wieviorka in which group interviews of residents of declining blue-collar cities and Parisian suburbs are reported and analyzed at length.

In the third case, racism forms when an actor's own religious, national, or ethnic identity is set against modernity and trained on a particular group construed in racial terms and denounced as a privileged, unfair, or otherwise nefarious carrier of modernity.

Finally, racism may exist in the form of the defence of cultural identity without any clear reference to modernity or its control. In this case, racism may exist in the absence of actual inter-racial contacts. Wieviorka cites the examples of the rural supporters of the Front National in Alsace, where immigrants and their descendants are few, and of the Jew-less antisemitism in contemporary Poland. Wieviorka authored a book length study on this latter example (Les Juifs, la Pologne, et Solidarnosc, 1984).

The first two cases refer to a racism of exploitation and inequality while the last two refer to a racism of cultural difference and separation. A more detailed exposition of Wieviorka's theoretical framework can be found in his previous book: L'Espace du racisme (1991), translated as The Arena of Racism (Sage Publications, 1995).

To explain the current intensity of racism in France and other developed countries, Wieviorka stresses the transition from industrialism to post-industrialism. Racism would be prevalent today largely because of the character of the social conflict: the central social actor of the industrial era, the labour movement, is waning into the sunset while the new social conflicts inherent in post-industrialism are only haltingly emerging. Racism and cultural fragmentation thrive in the void.

I have a few reservations. In my opinion, the explanation of the contemporary saliency of racism misleadingly frames the problem and ends up illicitly universalizing the historical experience of metropolitan France. I would prefer focusing on causal factors not strictly correlated with Touraine's societal types (industrial, post-industrial, transitory) such as the degree and nature of labour market competition, the ability to hoard opportunities, or the political opportunity structure for racist practices.

Admittedly, industrialization and working class formation were relatively untainted by racism in metropolitan France. But the same cannot be said of many other developed countries. In the American experience, for instance, working class formation and racism walked hand in hand.

The reason for this contrast resides in the historically contingent manner in which core and periphery were institutionally linked together during the industrial revolution. Like many other European countries, France built a colonial empire with relatively marked separation between metropolitan life and colonial life. Most French colonials could not effectively bid for employment in the mother country.

In the industrializing United States, by contrast, Southern black share-croppers, the racially differentiated labour force active in the resource-producing periphery, could effectively bid on employment in the core unless directly barred by white workers. Thus in the post-bellum era, Northern white workers repeatedly rioted to bar blacks from industrial employment while French workers remain insulated from large scale cheap labour competition from colonial populations. Different forms of core-periphery relations fostered active racism among U.S. (Northern) white workers while leaving metropolitan French workers free to focus on class-based activism.

Further, Wieviorka's distinction between a racism of inequality and exploitation and a racism of identity and exclusion is, I think, overdrawn. Much of the Front National's pressure to reverse immigration flows can be seized as an attempt to strengthen the social boundary separating white French nationals from third world populations, thereby improving the French nationals' ability to hoard opportunities for jobs, housing, public benefits, etc. "Français d'abord," the Front National's rallying cry, also means serving the French (white Christian) first. This is not to claim that an analytical distinction between a racism of inequality and a racism of identity is never called for. It is merely to note that exclusion from the national territory is largely a form of the pursuit of advantage and inequality.

Finally, I find Wieviorka's discussion of the history of racist ideas somewhat truncated. The author gives us a captivating and persuasive account of "scientific" racism and of its mid-century displacement by cultural racism. Yet the book lacks a survey of the pre-scientific history of racist ideas (and practices), and of their transformation in France and her colonies. The emergence of a large international trade in African slaves long before coerced labour came to be justified in racial terms and the ideological transition to a religion-based racism have been effectively surveyed for England and the Netherlands by George Fredrickson (White Supremacy, 1981). Given France's colonial past, a discussion of these issues would have been germane in an introduction to racism in the French language.

These reservations, however, should not distract from the main point. Here is an engaging little book from which the reader, expert or neophyte, can learn much. I recommend it warmly to anyone who can negotiate its simple and elegant French.

Daniel Marien
York University, Department of Political Science

March-April 2000
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