Why Paris Won't Happen in Melbourne

I have been thinking like many of us about Paris and wondering how I might begin a Letter on ethnicity, racism and opportunity in Australia, the U.S. and France. So let me start with a scene outside the South Yarra Primary School which faces Fawkner Park less than a 10 minute walk from my house. South Yarra School is one of the oldest public/state primary schools in Melbourne opened in 1854. It is also one of the highest performing elementary schools in the State of Victoria. I had decided to take a stroll on a beautiful late spring day in Melbourne. One must grab the nice weather because just like the nasty stuff - cold, hot, rainy, windy - the good stuff tends to last only a few hours because weather changes so quickly in Melbourne.

I noticed mums with their strollers on Punt Road heading towards the South Yarra School. As I crossed with them into the Park I saw a crowd of parents with a gaggle of younger than school age children waiting for the bell to ring at 3:30 when the students of South Yarra would be finished for the day. I was curious about the ethnic mixture of parents/children.

The strollers and play equipment was of high quality. Indeed a child of about six was driving a fully electric play car on the dirt in the playground outside the school. When I was a boy of about that age I remember a miniature electric ice cream truck being promoted on the Howdy Doody Show. I dreamt of owning and driving such a vehicle. To have such control at a young age seemed impossibly unobtainable, as did the price. I still don't think such toys are cheap and this boy's motorized wheels suggest the neighborhood's wealth. Indeed the parents waiting for their children looked like they could have been from New York's Upper East Side or from my area of the East Bay, Piedmont.

But I was particularly interested in the overt ethnic makeup of the students. As they poured out the schoolyard into the Park, the kids looked overwhelmingly white Australian. I estimated about 10% were Asian and another 10% sub-continent Indian/Pakistani. I later struck up a conversation with a mother of two children who attended the school and she said actually 20% of the students came from India.

I know there are schools in the Bay Area now that are majority Asian (primarily Chinese and Indian). These are some of the highest performing, "toughest" public schools around. Children from ethnically "white" families who attend these schools often struggle to keep up with their very hardworking co-students. Whether or not the high performance the children of these ethnic groups achieve is all-good, is debatable. But their educational success follows generations of previous immigrant ethnic groups that preceded them.

Whether in America or Australia, the availability of a good public education allows children of immigrants to get to a solid middle class standing within a generation. Besides adding to the productivity and richness of these societies, this filial advancement acts as a tonic to the challenges and frustrations of the newly arrived immigrants to either country.

Contrast this history of immigrant advancement to the long-term stagnation of other ethnic groups in America, Australia and France. The States and Down Under share a common tragic responsibility for the virtual genocide of their indigenous peoples, the American Indians and the Australian Aborigines. These two groups have been decimated, first by diseases and wars, and then by cultural/economic extermination. Overall the two groups represent a very small part of their respective country's populations and are virtually invisible in the more populated cities. While individuals have risen above the cycles of poverty, alienation and substance abuse (and certain American tribes have fared better than others) the indigenous peoples of both continents remain marginalized at best.

But U.S. society labors under another historical insult. America continues to struggle with the legacy of 200 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow. The African-American underclass, especially within urban centers. remains outside the economic mainstream in America. African-Americans have watched each subsequent immigrant group, who unlike them came voluntarily and could maintain intact family and cultural ties, pass them educationally and economically. The last fifty years have offered new opportunities to American blacks to participate in education and business. Many have taken advantage and are solidly middle class and higher. However, the problems of economically deprived, educationally poor African-Americans strike me as enormous and intractable - unsolvable within a democratic society where individual rights are valued.

Such perpetual inequality generates ill will. In 1969, I remember sitting in a movie theater at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts where I was attending college, with a mixed group of white and black students (the University had vigorously pursued admitting blacks beginning my freshman year). We were watching the now classic war film, The Battle of Algiers, which came out in 1966, and is a faux documentary on the Algerian War of Independence against the French.

I never met anyone who has seen the film who wasn't emotionally affected. I do not want to go into much detail about the film but at one point a terrorist bomb goes off at an Algerian racetrack that was patronized primarily by French colonists. The scene is one of mayhem and screams as the dead and wounded are attended to by the survivors. At one point the crowd catches a glimpse of a small, frightened Algerian boy selling peanuts at the track. The crowd turns on the boy and begins to physically beat him. The scene is quite believable and excruciating.

From the college audience someone yelled, "White racist pigs!" After a moment's delay another voice yelled out, "Black racist pigs!" and I thought in the middle of this very liberal, hippy-dippy school in the late 1960's a racial battle was about to begin. I don't recall exactly how the tension in the audience defused. Probably the movie was so compelling that we all just moved on.

Obviously I've never forgotten that moment. I've always felt while the white students might have been discomforted by the movie, it meant something very different to the blacks in the audience. I felt that the African American students were far more willing to become and act radicalized than the white students, not withstanding the short-term effects of the Vietnam War on all the students.

There have been multiple riots since 1969 but none of them as widespread as after the death of Martin Luther King. I'm actually surprised that there hasn't been more civil unrest and organized resistance along the line of the Black Panthers since the 1970s. I offer this American example as a way to appreciate the analogous position of the Muslim people in France (called Maghrebins in France according to recent New Yorker article I read) who have come from the Middle East.

France considered Algeria a "department" of France, not a colony. Technically, its inhabitants were citizens of France. Arab Algerian education was French. They were taught to speak French in schools. Their history classes were of French history. But white French men and women always considered their Algerian compatriots second-class citizens whether in Algeria or in France where many Algerians emigrated for better economic opportunities. The French society never welcomed them nor integrated them into their mainstream.

I'm sure there are many examples of French Muslims who have achieved middle class status and higher. But there remains a large Arab extraction underclass where educational and economic opportunity to reach the middle class appears unattainable. The banlieu high-rises surrounding Paris are not unlike the American inner city old public housing projects - centers of desperation and hopelessness which breed anger and extremism.

Western leadership and most of the public recognize that a military solution to the American or French "war on terror" is not winnable. One must attempt to address the root causes that lead young men (and women) to acts of anonymous terror. Yet I am generally fairly pessimistic that the problems for underclass African-Americans of the U.S. and Arab Muslims of France can be effectively addressed, not that attempts shouldn't be made.

Australia has been "lucky" if that's the word one wants to use for the combinations of geography, racism (which kept many non-white, even white ethnic groups out of the country until after WWII), and a now relatively open market based society offering opportunities to new immigrants with intact families.

Many Americans (and probably some French) must overcome their initial uneasiness at walking past or through the high-rise housing projects for low-income Australians in Melbourne. The architecture of these high rises is similarly depressing to their American counterparts, but that's where the similarities end. Even the grounds and gardens have a different feeling than those of the American projects of a similar stature. Yes, there is some increased crime and a lot of graffiti but one doesn't get the feeling of desperation and fear surrounding these buildings and neighborhoods as one would in America.

My impressions are based upon a relatively short experience of months (and two previous trips to Oz) but are confirmed by my Australian based friends. The Australian low-income housing projects have been stepping stones for wave after wave of immigrant groups (beginning with the Italians and Greeks, later Vietnamese) to move into the Australian middle class and higher. Sudanese immigrants are only the latest group to start this journey.

Recent history affords examples of intractable political and social problems resolving without penultimate catastrophe. The implosion of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War. Nelson Mandela's release and subsequent negotiation with the white apartheid government transited South Africa to black majority rule without a bloodbath. Northern Ireland's "Troubles" haven't entirely disappeared but rampant terrorism there is no longer.

But then the Balkan Wars have gone on for a hundred years and appear temporarily better only with "ethnic cleansing." The Israeli-Palestinian problem is nearly 70 years old. I don't have the answers to resolving the American post-slavery tragedy, ISIS or Islamic extremist terrorism. Australia appears quite attractive in having avoided some of the worst problems of human societies. But I'm not planning to live here permanently - unless my sons, who live in Los Angeles -- plan to move here as well.

And now for our bimonthly Australian vocabulary lesson (all words have been printed in the Age, Melbourne's non-Murdoch daily paper) - hoyden: a boisterous, bold, and carefree girl; a tomboy (1585-95 perhaps Middle Dutch). schoolie: school teacher or student (Australian informal). bodgie: a juvenile delinquent; youthful troublemaker (1950-55 perhaps dialect Yorkshire). whinge: to complain; whine (British and Australian informal).

I think I've seen "whinge" in American print somewhere. I love the word - a combination of whine and cringe I would think. But the best Australianism I heard over the last two weeks came at the end of an intense hour plus, close tennis set where after winning it, 7-6, my opponent announced, "I think I've won me a sheep's station!" When I inquired (in a very friendly manner) as to what the hell he meant by that expression, he explained that out in the outback a "sheeps' station" is where all the sheep get collected. So having a sheeps' station meant you had a lot of sheep (and wealth). Therefore, as expected "winning a sheeps station" is something good like winning a close set over your friend.