Segregation in France

The mix of race, poverty, and urban space has created intractable social issues in many American cities in the past sixty years. Residential segregation creates a terrible fabric of self-reproducing inequalities between the segregated group and the larger society — inequalities of education, health, employment, and culture. As intractable as this social system of segregation appears to be in the cities of the United States, it may be that the situation in France is even worse. Sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie is interviewed in a recent issue of the Nouvel Obs on the key findings of his recent book, Ghetto urbain: Segregation, violence, pauvrete en France aujourd’hui. The interview makes for absorbing reading.

Lapeyronnie is an expert on urban sociology, poverty, and immigration in France and a frequent observer of the rising urban crisis in France. (I’m deliberately evoking here the title of Tom Sugrue’s book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.) Lapeyronnie’s view is grim: the isolation and despair characteristic of French ghetto and banlieue communities are worsening year after year, and the French state’s promises after the disturbances of 2005 have not been fulfilled. Unemployment, limited educational opportunities, and poverty create an environment in which young people have neither the resources nor the opportunities to improve their social position, and they are largely excluded from the larger French society.

Lapeyronnie offers several important observations. These ghettos are largely populated by immigrant communities — first, second, or third-generation immigrants from North Africa and former French colonies. Racism is a crucial element in the development and evolution of these segregated spaces. As he puts it:

The ghetto is the product of two mechanisms: social and racial segregation and poverty, which enclose people in their neighborhoods, leading to the formation of a veritable counter-society with its own norms, its economy (what one calls the black economy), and even its own political system. … Poor and segregated, feeling ostracized by the Republic and plunged into a veritable political vacuum, they have organized a counter-society which protects them even as they are disadvantaged in relation to the exterior world.

Lapeyronnie makes the point that the development of segregated ghettos is more advanced and more harmful in the smaller cities of France. He describes the situation in these smaller cities as creating an almost total barrier between the ghetto and the surrounding city — an environment where the possibility of economic or social interaction has all but disappeared.

Lapeyronnie notes the role that gender plays in the segregation system. Women of the ghetto can move back and forth — if they accept the “dominant norms” of dress and behavior. And this means the head scarf, in particular. In order to pass across the boundary of ghetto and city, women must adopt the dress of non-Muslim French society. But, as Lapeyronnie points out, this creates a deeply ambiguous position for women, because modest dress and head scarf are all but mandatory within the space of the ghetto. “The veil is interpreted as a sexual symbol, affirmation of a sexual solidarity with Muslim men. It often engenders hostility outside the ghetto while providing protection within the ghetto.” “Here one finds one of the central explanations of the formation of the ghetto … which is organized around the articulation of the race of the men and the sex of the women.”

Another interesting sociological observation concerns the nature of the social networks within and without the ghetto. Lapeyronnie distinguishes between “strong network ties” (liens forts) and weak network ties (liens faibles), and he asserts that social relationships in the ghetto fall in the first category: everyone knows everyone. As a network diagram, this would result in a dense network in which every node is connected to every other node. But Lapeyronnie makes the point that weak networks are a source of strength and innovation in the larger society that is lacking in the ghetto; people can “network” to strangers through a series of connections. So opportunities are widely available — finding a job by passing one’s CV through a series of people, for example. “Strong networks protect people, they are like a cocoon … But they are also a handicap and a weight on each person. Not only is the individual deprived of resources, but many people don’t know a single person outside the neighborhood.” Moreover, this strong network characteristic is very effective at enforcing a group morality (along the lines of Durkheim): “There is a morality and set of norms in the strong network: don’t betray, be faithful to one’s friends, stay together.”

Lapeyronnie concludes the interview with these words:

When a population is placed in a situation of poverty and lives within racial segregation, it returns to very traditional definitions of social roles, notably the roles of family, and on a rigid and often bigoted morality. This is what permits building the strong network.

This is a pretty powerful analysis of the social transformations that are created by segregation, racism, isolation, and poverty — and it doesn’t bode well for social peace in France. Lapeyronnie is describing the development of an extensive “counter-society” that may be more and more important in coming years. The social networks and social relationships that Lapeyronnie describes are a potent basis for social mobilization and new social movements, and there don’t seem to be many pathways towards social progress to which such movements might be directed.

Low income, strong community

We seem to work on the basis of a couple of basic assumptions about income, lifestyle, and community in this country that need to be questioned. One group of these clusters around the idea that a high quality of life requires high and rising income. High income is needed for high consumption, and high consumption produces happiness and life satisfaction. Neighborhoods of families with high income are better able to sustain community and civic values. And symmetrically, we assume that it is more or less inevitable that poor communities have low levels of community values and low levels of the experience of life satisfaction.

All these assumptions need to be questioned. As any social service agency can document, there are ample signs of social pathology in the affluent suburbs of American cities. These suburban places aren’t paragons of successful, happy human communities in any of the ways Robert Bellah talks about (Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Good Society). And there is little reason to believe that the consumption-based lifestyles that define an American ideal of affluence really contribute consistently to life satisfaction and successful community.

But here I want to focus on the other end of this set of assumptions: the idea that non-affluent people and communities are necessarily less happy, less satisfied, and less integrated around a set of civic and spiritual values. So here is the central point: people can build lives within the context of low income that are deeply satisfying and rewarding. And communities of low-income people can be highly successful in achieving a substantial degree of civic and spiritual interconnection and mutual support. It doesn’t require “affluence” to have a deeply satisfying human life and a thriving community.

There are many reasons for thinking these observations are likely to be true. One is the example of other societies. Consider village life in Spain or Italy, for example, where many families still live on incomes that are a fraction of American affluence, who incorporate gardens into their regular lifestyle and household economy, and who enjoy admirable levels of personal and social satisfaction. Or think of stable farming communities in India or Africa that have successfully achieved a balance of farm productivity, a degree of social equality, and a strong sense of community. Or consider examples of communities in the United States that have deliberately put together lives and communities that reject “affluence” as a social and personal ideal.

Of course it’s true that extreme poverty is pretty much incompatible with satisfaction and community. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and untreated disease are counterparts of extrme poverty and destroy happiness and community. But “non-affluence” isn’t the same as extreme poverty.

What everyone needs, at every level of income, is decent access to the components of a happy life: healthcare, nutrition, shelter, education, dignity, and security. These are what an earlier generation of development thinkers called basic needs. And it is self-evident how these fit into the possibility of a decent and satisfying life. But access to these goods isn’t equivalent to the American dream of affluence.

So here is a fairly profound question: what steps can be taken to promote the features of personal wellbeing and robust community relations that can make “non-affluence” a sustainable social ideal? And how can we help poor communities to strengthen their ability to nurture these positive values according to their own best instincts?

Martin Luther King’s journey

Today we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is easy enough to be discouraged about the current state of racial inequality in this country. We have not made nearly the progress on economic inequalities and inequalities of opportunity that seemed possible in 1966. But Dr. King was an optimistic man and a man who always looked for ways of moving forward. So I want to honor him today by reflecting on some of the difficult but real efforts that are underway today to prepare our society for a more racially just future. And examples can be found in my own city of Detroit.

I think first of a youth opportunity program that is having significant impact in Detroit. The program is called YouthVille. Located in a repurposed warehouse, YouthVille is filled with young people finding some of the resources and support they need to take charge of their lives — succeed in school, develop the confidence that they can achieve their dreams, and successfully negotiate the challenges of being a kid in a tough city. Young people from over 270 schools in the Detroit area have participated in programs at YouthVille, and the numbers are growing.

Next I think of an African-centered after-school program for middle and high school students, the Alkebu-lan Village. Founded by committed community activists and sustained by the daily efforts of these same dedicated men and women, the Village gives inner city kids a supportive and safe environment where they can develop their own dreams about the futures they want to achieve. The mission statement of the organization describes it as “an African-centered community-based organization committed to developing and nurturing an environment where families work together to build healthy minds, bodies and communities.” It is inspiring to spend time at Alkebu-lan Village and to witness the caring concern and commitment that these Detroiters give to their mission. The village provides tutoring and homework help, and it measurably improves the kids’ experience in school. It offers sports, dance, and music activities for the kids who attend, and it organizes summer camp experiences for inner-city kids. Throughout it gives all its kids a better chance at success. This is a community-based organization that has successfully harnessed the energies of a community of people in service to the futures of Detroit’s youth.

Finally, I think of CityYear Detroit and the wonderful team members and staff who are devoted to providing meaningful service to their community. CityYear exists in over a dozen cities throughout the country and, recently, South Africa. Its team members can be spotted in their red jackets, providing tutoring, establishing urban gardens, and helping to improve the lives of children and adults in the cities they serve. I have met quite a few team members and leaders in Detroit and elsewhere over the years, and their commitment and energy are inspiring. These young people, often inner city kids, are learning about team work, leadership, and service in ways that will affect them throughout their lives. And because CityYear is successful in recruiting a highly diverse group, each kid learns very deeply and personally about other people’s experiences in life. This is the kind of learning that universities haven’t yet succeeded in creating. But a year of service in CityYear (and other AmeriCorps programs) is transforming for almost every young person who does it. And the CityYear alums have a vison for their futures that we all can learn from.

So there are some compelling examples of people and organizations that are addressing the issues of poverty, race, and inequalities of opportunity that have proven so intractable. One thing that ties all three examples together is the ethic of community service that they reflect, and the determination by so many leaders and activists to live this comitment out. And there is inspiration here at every level — in the men and women who have dedicated their energies to create these organizations, and the young people who have gained such good values and skills within them. Let’s all find ways of joining in this important work. And in doing so, let’s notice that we’re helping with the work that Martin began.