Last week, widespread condemnation greeted a decision by French Vogue to publish photos of a Caucasian model, Lara Stone, in blackface in its October edition. The magazine’s move can at best be described as insensitive.
But the flap over the French Vogue photo has wider implications that are worthy of exploration. For years, the notion that western Europe is inherently more tolerant and harmonious than the United States has gained currency among cultural and intellectual elites. It is clear, however, that the idea deserves reappraisal. Upon close examination, it simply doesn’t hold up.
Mass migration from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Caribbean has given western Europe a sizeable non-indigenous population, with the largest ethnic groups being blacks, Indians and Muslims. France, Britain and the Netherlands are among the countries with the largest number of immigrants. But while Caucasian immigrant groups tend to assimilate well, upward mobility among black and Muslim groups is a more difficult proposition.
Despite an ostensible embrace of diversity and social justice, Europe is scarcely the picturesque example of racial harmony suggested in Benetton advertisements of years past. Blacks and Muslims in Europe help shape fields such as sports, arts and culture, but are rarely found in the upper echelon of politics and policy-making. With the noteworthy exception of Britain, minorities within Western Europe’s ranks of media professionals, business executives, and elected officials in particular are in very short supply.
By contrast the United States, which often endures sharp criticism on the subject of racial sensitivity, is no stranger to successful professionals and politicians of color. The dramatic social change that took place in the Civil War and the Civil Rights eras facilitated broad cultural acceptance of minorities in elected office and positions of authority.
Just four years ago, three of the biggest companies in business – investment bank Merrill Lynch (absorbed last year by Bank of America), credit card giant American Express and communications powerhouse Time Warner – were helmed by black men. The Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations have seen African-Americans and Latinos occupy top policy-making positions, while academia, media and business have seen increasing numbers of minorities. And, Barack Obama is now the most famous black man in the world.
Europe’s minority population was transfixed by his campaign largely because they lack political role models in their home countries. Alas, the dearth of black, Asian and Muslim politicians indicate that Europe’s minorities will have to live vicariously through President Obama. Given cultural, linguistic and logistical challenges, most observers expect that proportional political representation of minorities will happen later rather than sooner in Europe.
In spite of often contentious race relations, history would suggest that while far from perfect, America is the gold standard in racial progress. Those who view Europe as morally superior might reconsider that notion by comparing these facts.