France in a time of unrest

Palais de Justice, Rouen

We’ve been in France for about a week on a long-delayed trip. We’ve seen a lot of things (my Flickr album is a pretty good way to follow along). And we’ve arrived at an interesting time.

I’ve been asked a few times how we’re doing in France with the ongoing rioting over the death of Nahel M, a teenager of Algerian-Moroccan descent who was shot and killed by French police during a traffic stop on Tuesday night. (See the New York Times for details.)

The short answer until last night was: we are mostly insulated, thanks to distance from the riot locations (which in Paris were mostly in the suburb where he was shot, and in other cities have tended to be closer to official buildings than the places we’ve stayed). That distance is mostly a gift of privilege: we are tourists who can afford to stay in tourist places.

Last night coming home from dinner we saw Black and Brown teenagers running a few blocks from where we were, and then saw a few white teenagers run past us and up our street. At night we heard voices and at one point some breaking glass—but more like a bottle than a window. Unsettling, but not endangering.

I don’t understand French society well enough to know what I think about what’s happening here, but I’m profoundly saddened by the violence and the polarization, and by the abrupt ending to a human life. And, not going to lie, Bono’s infamous line from “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” has been going through my head. One of the most uncomfortable and confrontational lines in pop music, it kind of encapsulates privilege and the insulating power that it has in times like these.

But we’re ok. In a way that few here can afford to be.

Reckoning with Jim Crow

Cavalier Daily: Sullivan announces commission focused on UVa’s history with racial segregation. Clearly President Sullivan isn’t completely playing the lame duck. I am grateful that the University of Virginia continues its commitment to exploring its original sins, and recognizes that those don’t stop with slavery. Other notes in UVA Today.

While the reckoning is long overdue at UVa, it’s worth noting that it isn’t the only university coming to grips with its history in this regard, and may even be ahead of some of its northern colleagues. As an MIT alum, I got an email from the president of the institute yesterday discussing MIT founder (and former UVA professor) George Barton Rogers’s slave-owning history, which is discussed in a Boston Globe article today. The fact that L. Rafael Reif could say “Quite frankly, it was shocking to me” and that he is still “reeling” simply means he, and the Institute, haven’t been paying attention.