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Affirmative Action for Europe

The violence in France, fueled by staggering unemployment and ruthless policing, reflects the utter failure of the French model of social integration. But violence elsewhere in Europe, such as the London bombings of July and the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam in November 2004, had already made Europe’s failure to integrate its minorities painfully clear.

As the riots in France fade, French politicians are agonizing about how to proceed. Forty years ago, after legal segregation of blacks and whites formally ended in America, the United States was confronted by similar problems. America’s response shows, however, that integration cannot be viewed as a one-way street. In addition to imposing demands and constraints on minorities to join the mainstream, society must be willing to demand of itself that it make room for all its citizens.

As a potential model to be followed, Europe should look at the so-called “affirmative action” policies that America enacted to provide opportunities to blacks. Affirmative action, or “positive discrimination,” as some have called these policies, began with university admissions. But, in the early 1970’s, President Richard M. Nixon expanded the scope of affirmative action.

As a result, ethnicity began to be weighed as a positive factor not only in university admissions, but also in public procurement decisions, credit facilities for small enterprises, and government hiring. The rational for affirmative action in those early years was the fact that, after a long history of systemic injustice, merely outlawing discrimination based on race or gender would not ensure equal opportunity for all.