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On the issue of class and race in America (and personally I think the insights of this study can be extended to cover other countries) a book well worth looking at is Promises I Can Keep by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. It's the report of a long study of poor women in Philadelphia and Camden, NJ, from African-American, Hispanic, and white backgrounds. The authors don't appeal to the concept of class to explain their findings, but they show a surprising amount of similarity of experience in terms of economic, family, and social difficulties, that lead to the conclusion that race (and negative discrimination on racial grounds) is not the principal factor involved -- that being part of an uneducated underclass is the main obstacle.

I'm not pointing to this to say racism 1) does not exist 2) has no economic consequences. Neither am I saying the French car-torchers do not suffer from racism, and that it is not one of the causes of their economic and social alienation. (In a comment above, I specifically mentioned it as a contributory cause, and it's a fact that Arabs in particular are subjected to discrimination in the job and housing markets). But what probably most united the youth, Arab, black, and white, was the fact of belonging to an underclass with poor economic prospects, and identification with the suburban zones they are parked in (street gangs in the cités are organized on the basis of the cité you belong to, not on your colour).

These kids were "French" in the sense, born in France. Those under 18 wouldn't yet have "confirmed their choice" of French nationality. I think that's an aggravating factor. The right-wingers that changed the law on nationality were short-sighted. (It's in France's interest to integrate immigrants and in particular, obviously, their children). The rioting kids must surely feel (this is my take, I've no evidence to point to) a certain amount of insecurity re nationality that must make them more sensitive yet to the general insecurity of their situation.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Aug 26th, 2006 at 02:25:02 AM EST
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I am very interested in explanations of social problems that determine the main causes of such problems to be economic and/or political policy.  Because policy, while hard to change, strikes me as being much easer -- certainly much more within our control as a society -- to change than entrenched social attitudes, culture, perceptions, prejudices, etc.

So if there is an explanation of why ethnic minorities are dispropotionately represented in prisons, crime statistics, poverty statistics, etc. that can be traced back to (relatively) changeable policy -- policy that generates and keeps in place a "uneducated underclass" -- rather than to fairly entrenched social attitudes, culture, etc., then I am very curious to explore that, especially if it can explain any differences among various groups in this underclass as mentioned by Richard above.

Out of the Dark Age came the most magnificent thing we have in our society: the recognition that people can have a society without having a state.

by marco on Sat Aug 26th, 2006 at 08:41:43 PM EST
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Robert Pape's theory about the strategic logic of suicide bombing is another theory that traces the most significant factors behind a very complex issue to matters of social policy, and for this reason I am hoping that he is right.

For if this theory is (for the most part) correct, then we can dramatically reduce suicide terrorism by changes in policy.  In particular, we don't have to try converting large numbers of terrorists from their extremist and violent interpretation of Islam, much less destroying them altogether -- both obviously much harder (and morally dubious) tasks than altering our political policies.

Having said this, I have my doubts that Pape's thesis can fully exlain the British terrorists of Pakistani descent who kill British civilians.  How could it?  Because these British terrorists identify with Iraqis and Palestinians through the ummah and thus can vicariously claim Palestine and Iraq as their "homeland" (and thus the British and Americans as occupiers of their "homeland"?)

This seems plausible to me, but it seems rather more tenuous.  I've actually written to Pape to ask him specifically about this point, but he told me to read his book and see his comments following the latest terror plot bust.  So far, however, I have not found anything that specifically addresses this particular issue.

Could it be that some people -- even though they are economically relatively comfortable and fairly well educated -- feel so alienated from the society they live in that they turn to a radicalized, violent interpretation of their religion to find meaning in their lives?

Reading the numbers about British Muslims in this Pew report was pretty depressing on this point.

Out of the Dark Age came the most magnificent thing we have in our society: the recognition that people can have a society without having a state.

by marco on Sat Aug 26th, 2006 at 08:47:54 PM EST
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Societies codify their culture and attitudes into policy in the form of laws and the two become closely linked. When pressure for change begins to build both things have to change. In the US racism was fully enshrined in law up until the 1950's. The attitude of some people started to change and they pushed for changes in the law. As new laws were passed and enforced other people were pressured to change their attitudes. I do not think it is a matter of culture OR policy. One does not exist independent of the other.
by Richard Lyon (rllyon@gmail.com) on Sat Aug 26th, 2006 at 10:31:36 PM EST
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I don't know what specific policy changes would help eliminate the uneducated underclasss that afew was talking about his comments.  But my point is that while racism -- both white on minority, as well as within and between minorities -- is not something you can try to directly eradicate in and of itself as policy, you can, through policy, try to arrange economic, social and political circumstances in an attempt to alleviate if not eliminate this underclass.

Thus, if -- as afew seems to be saying -- problems such as the overrepresentation of African-Americans in U.S. prisons or the overrepresentation of youths of African and Carribean descent in the French riots are not primarily due to racism, then that is a relatively hopeful situation.  For in that case, we do not have to undertake the gargantuan task of getting rid of racism head on, but can make significant changes through the relatively easier task of implementing policy changes.

I totally agree that culture does not exist independent of policy.  But law/policy and culture/attitudes do not march together in lockstep, nor of course are culture/attitudes monolithic across a region in which a policy/law is applicable.

Changes in law/policy, being something that is effected by a relatively tiny number of people, can be sought for much more easily than changes in culture/attitudes.  The change having made, if the law/policy is not compatible with culture/attitudes of a large enough portion of the population, those changes risk getting rolled back.  But if the law/policy is "culture-neutral", or at least is not disfavored by too large a portion of the population, then if the policy works, I believe it will remain in place, and may eventually contributed to changes in culture and attitudes (e.g. outlawing slavery in the south, though it took a while, has eventually led to the mainstream view there that blacks and whites must be treated equally.)

School vouchers are another example.  They are bitterly opposed and fervently opposed by different parts of the population.  But they have already been implemented as experiments in certain areas, and if they are found to "work", they may become more populat and become more popular, and more permanent.

Out of the Dark Age came the most magnificent thing we have in our society: the recognition that people can have a society without having a state.

by marco on Sun Aug 27th, 2006 at 02:09:31 AM EST
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