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Veils of Ignorance

France's decision to ban Muslim female students from wearing headscarves in public schools was made in the name of separation of State and Church, an old and querulous question in French history. But passage of that law also revealed something else: how difficult it is for French people to deal with what Americans refer to as the minorities issue.

In fact, despite the two nations' seemingly radical differences, they share a similar habit of confusing poverty with something else. In France, poverty is confused with religion; in America, poverty is confused with race.

Because so many of America's blacks are poor, many surveys show that Americans confuse poverty and blackness. Asked "Why are they so poor?" two out of three Americans say that the root cause is laziness; only one in three believes that poor blacks have been unlucky. (That ratio is reversed, however, if the same question is asked of Americans "who recently had dinner with a black friend.")

Americans, it appears, cover up the social issue of poverty with a racial one, and the result is that poor people are not considered as brothers in adversity. In the US, because it is blacks who are perceived as making up most of the poor, there is less social intervention.