We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant America
Beacon Press, 2005
* * * *
Brima Conteh, born in Sierra Leone and
educated in the Ivory Coast and Morocco, emigrated to France in
the early 1990s. “I came over and the conditions here launched
me,” he says of his journey from translator to political
activist and consultant on minority issues.
In 2000, he founded the Paris-based Diaspor
Afrique, which works to promote political, economic,
cultural and social exchanges among people of African descent.
The organization is building a network to lobby for the African
diaspora within the European Union. They also conduct campaigns
to educate and create political consciousness around the legacy
of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.
In the wake of a national crisis, Conteh
discusses the role of race in French politics and why ethnic
minorities need to “create a space for us to speak for
* * * *
What were the causes of the uprising?
Brima Conteh: There was a recent report
from the intelligence agency that said this riot has nothing to do
with religion, it’s a social crisis. It has to do with jobs, it
has to do with recognition, with people feeling not part of this
society. They have seen others who worked hard, had gone to school
and never been given any chance to do what they want to do and
it’s hard for them. So this was a revolt.
It’s a very strong influence of things
happening in the English-speaking world. Young people are very
tuned to hip-hop culture. This is also a generational conflict
also. The yearning by the young people to be accepted for what
they are, to have access to jobs, better housing, better
facilities. The movement in itself was never organized, it was
more an outcry.
The riots were no surprise, it was written
everywhere on the walls. The rap groups had already been rapping
for years about “set Paris on fire.”
What for you has been the most upsetting part of the
government response to the uprising?
Brima Conteh: You need to understand the
dynamics of the National Front (France’s right-wing party) to
understand why the government responded that way to the riots. You
have to go back to the last election. You have to understand the
entrenchment of the National Front in the political landscape in
France. Any changes to improve conditions of minorities in this
country will run counter to this entrenchment. So they will resist
it. Unless you have an upsurge of resistance and civic
participation from the minorities themselves.
There’s a very strong historical and
ideological confusion within the left here. The issue around class
and race dynamics is not clear. That’s why you have a very
lukewarm response from the left. Many of them supported the
declaration of the state of emergency. There is a denial of the
existence of racism. You have from the left people who are very
strongly opposed to the idea that racial discrimination exists.
They see these race-based models as not serious or useful models.
Can you explain more about the role of the extreme right in
Brima Conteh: What [Jean-Marie] Le Pen
(founder of the National Front) said when he started out was
simple. He said it matters not whether his party makes two, three
or 10 percent in the elections. What matters for now is to see
that their ideas enter the mainstream political debate. And within
the space of 10 years he has achieved that. Now he doesn’t say
much, it is the mainstream politicians who are talking about
polygamy, Chirac when he was mayor of Paris was talking about the
noise and odors of immigrants, even progressives were calling us
“little savages.” Saying send people back. Saying France
cannot take in all the wretched of the earth.
So with that Le Pen has built a paradigm that
makes it extremely difficult within it to think of doing something
in terms of improving conditions without looking to the extreme
right. He has created a kind of net or trap in the political
Who are your allies in fighting for racial justice in
Brima Conteh: I don’t believe there
are any serious allies. The alliances are built to drag minorities
into mainstream parties—once you are there, you don’t exist.
There was a very big political void during these riots—people
should ask themselves where were the political parties? It was a
serious crisis, which they don’t want to admit. The issues
around minorities are not dealt with. The question is about
recognition, and I think many in the French establishment have not
come to terms with the idea of recognizing cultures, diversity,
and so forth. And that’s why some of the youth were very much on
a rampage because they are not considered.
These young people have multiple
identities—they are French, their parents are from north Africa
and sub-Saharan Africa, linked to the latest technology but also
entrenched in their traditional African bearing. I remember
pointing out young men on the street to a reporter. I said, check
this young man out—he’s got Nike on his feet, jeans, over his
body a Muslim gown and a baseball cap. And he’s Black, his
parents are from sub-Saharan Africa. This change in identity
structures—that has to change this country. I believe this
country has to cope with diversity.
In France, there is an attitude that has to do
with the old glory of France, where you have elegance, savoir
faire, it goes beyond art of living, it goes to a culture
enshrined. If anybody comes from outside, you are told to
integrate, to try to be what the “French” are—integrate into
the French model. So the production of these alternative cultures,
let’s call it that, it’s threatening to those who believe
there is a distinct French culture and model of integration.
What have been the limits of France’s colorblind
Brima Conteh: It’s not considered
appropriate to classify people into races. It’s meant to be
colorblind, you are a human being—that’s the theory. In
practice, it’s completely different. Some people from the French
left supported colonialism. I think there is a tradition there
that most leftists are blind to issues of minorities. The
construction of what is considered Frenchness, along with the
strong opposition to things coming from the U.S. and the
English-speaking world, is such that they cannot accommodate the
idea of minorities constructing their own identities. The question
of internationalism is not there.
What do you hope to see happening next?
Brima Conteh: This situation with the
cites has been going on for 30 years, so the question is, are they
serious really about bringing about change in these areas. What
I’m hopeful about is that in the civic society there are many
people out there who think this should not happen, and these young
people will see that the only way out is a political solution.
Recently, when [France’s interior minister]
Nicolas Sarkozy was planning to go to Martinique, the threat of
demonstrations was so huge that and he had to cancel his trip. The
people in Martinique said we are Arabs, sub-Saharan Africans, we
are all together the wretched of the earth—and they refused to
receive him. That’s a big, big slap. So this gives us hope that
resistance is possible to improve situations in time.
What role do you see for your work and Diaspora Afrique?
Brima Conteh: We as African people are
scattered all over in strategic areas, and I think there is a need
to connect. In 2001, I was preparing to go to the World Conference
Against Racism, and I used that experience to go out and see who
was doing what. After the conference, I decided to go on a tour to
meet brothers and sisters in Europe to see how communities lived,
their aspirations and problems.
Today we are in 19 countries, and we are still
going out there. We want people to understand each other first and
what they want to achieve together. We copied in fact what the
people of African descent in Latin America are trying to do—they
started before us.
There is a very large youth population growing.
I think we can safely say there are a couple of million people of
African descent in Europe. Our work has been to map the African
diaspora in Europe in its current state. We do a lot of
information gathering. We try to see how we will connect the
What do you think of how Blacks were affected by Katrina?
Brima Conteh: Before the riots in
France, there were a series of fires in places where you have
Africans living—in dilapidated buildings in the heart of Paris.
Up to 50 Africans died in these fires, in the heart of Paris. And
in space of four days after, we heard about Katrina.
We had a couple of African Americans who wanted
to come over to see us during the riots, and the first question we
asked them was, “We want to know what you’re doing about
Even in France, people say look the U.S. this
and that—the U.S. is seen on a different level despite the
racism. But people started asking questions, if you have these big
Black American stars, what the hell is happening over there?
What can progressives in the U.S. learn from the situation
Brima Conteh: What they can learn from
this is that the struggle for emancipation, for the full
recognition of our rights as people of color all around the world,
that struggle is facing new challenges today in the sense that you
have highly sophisticated conservative governments taking place
around the world.
The other thing is that the leaders of these
communities should keep in touch with the younger generation
because part of what happened here can be partly analyzed as a
Also, it’s important to have a rapid
response. The powers-that-be are quick to point to Islamist
terrorism or any other problems they perceive with our communities
to discredit what is taking place. So we have to work toward
having structures and organization, because one or two groups
can’t do everything.
Tram Nguyen is executive
editor of ColorLines.
Colorlines – vol.9, no. 1
* * *
Tram Nguyen, Executive Editor of
ColorLines Magazine, is an award-winning writer and editor with a
particular interest in race, immigration and organizing. Her
writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the
anthology Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment, Amerasia
Journal, AlterNet, New California Media, the Boston
Globe, the anthology The New Faces of Asian Pacific
America: Numbers, Diversity and Change in the 21st Century,
and the anthology New Horizon: 25 Vietnamese Americans in 25
Years. She received her B.A. in 1996 from UCLA in English with
a minor in Asian American Studies.
Tram has extensive experience as both a
journalist and editor. She began her career as editor of the
student magazine Pacific Ties, UCLA's Asian American
bimonthly publication. From there she moved on to work as trainer
and editor at LA Youth. She covered the education beat as a
reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune, and edited Gidra,
a non-profit magazine serving the Los Angeles Asian-American
community. Tram's extensive coverage of civil liberties earned her
a New California Media Award in 2003.
We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant America
Beacon Press, 2005 http://www.arc.org/Pages/staff/tnguyen.html
Jones Interview of Tram / posted 3 March 2006
* * *
* * *
The Warmth of Other Suns
The Epic Story of America's Great
By Isabel Wilkerson
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a
sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi
for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin
was falsely accused of stealing a white
man's turkeys and was almost beaten to
death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling,
a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem
after learning of the grove owners'
plans to give him a "necktie party" (a
lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster
made his trek from Louisiana to
California in 1953, embittered by "the
absurdity that he was doing surgery for
the United States Army and couldn't
operate in his own home town." Anchored
to these three stories is Pulitzer
Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's
magnificent, extensively researched
study of the "great migration," the
exodus of six million black Southerners
out of the terror of Jim Crow to an
"uncertain existence" in the North and
Wilkerson deftly incorporates
sociological and historical studies into the novelistic
narratives of Gladney,
Starling, and Pershing settling in new
lands, building anew, and often finding
that they have not left racism behind.
The drama, poignancy, and romance of a
classic immigrant saga pervade this
book, hold the reader in its grasp, and
resonate long after the reading is done.
* * * * *
Negro Comrades of the Crown
African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation
By Gerald Horne
Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, said, the American revolt of 1776 against British rule “was basically a successful revolt of racist settlers. It was akin to Rhodesia, in 1965, assuming that Ian Smith and his cabal had triumphed. It was akin to the revolt of the French settlers in Algeria, in the 1950s and 1960s, assuming those French settlers had triumphed.” Dr. Horne explores the racist roots on the American Revolution in his new book, Negroes of the Crown. “It was very difficult to construct a progressive republic in North America after what was basically a racist revolt,” said Horne. “The revolt was motivated in no small part by the fact that abolitionism was growing in London…. This is one of the many reasons more Africans by an order of magnitude fought against the rebels in 1776, than fought alongside them.”In this path-breaking book, Horne rewrites the history of slave resistance by placing it for the first time in the context of military and diplomatic wrangling between Britain and the United States.
* * * * *
So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America
By Peter Edelman
If the nation’s gross national income—over $14 trillion—were divided evenly across the entire U.S. population, every household could call itself middle class. Yet the income-level disparity in this country is now wider than at any point since the Great Depression. In 2010 the average salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 million—climbing to over $11 million when all forms of compensation are accounted for—while the current median household income for African Americans is just over $32,000. How can some be so rich, while others are so poor? In this provocative book, Peter Edelman, a former top aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and a lifelong antipoverty advocate, offers an informed analysis of how this country can be so wealthy yet have a steadily growing number of unemployed and working poor. According to Edelman, we have taken important positive steps without which 25 to 30 million more people would be poor, but poverty fluctuates with the business cycle.
The structure of today’s economy has stultified wage
growth for half of America’s workers—with even worse
results at the bottom and for people of color—while bestowing billions on those at the top. So Rich, So Poor delves into what is happening to the people behind the statistics and takes a particular look at the continuing crisis of young people of color, whose possibility of a productive life too often is lost on their way to adulthood.—
* * *
Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change
By John Lewis
The Civil Rights Movement gave rise to the protest culture we know today, and the experiences of leaders like Congressman Lewis have never been more relevant. Now, more than ever, this nation needs a strong and moral voice to guide an engaged population through visionary change. Congressman John Lewis was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the struggle to end segregation. Despite more than forty arrests, physical attacks, and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. He is the author of his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of a Movement, and is the recipient of numerous awards from national and international institutions, including the Lincoln Medal; the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage” Lifetime Achievement Award (the only one of its kind ever awarded); the NAACP Spingarn Medal; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, among many others.
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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updated 29 May 2010