What I did on my summer vacation.
I spent ten days in Paris. I saw the monuments to the French battles against the English, Napoleon's triumphs, the victories of two World Wars. But where, I wondered, were the monuments to the conquests in Africa , Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, which once gave France its huge colonial empire?
Then I realized that those monuments were all around me. The streets, the cafes, and the metro were full of people of every skin color, chatting happily in French. They had come from all over the former empire, to live in what the old euphemism called "the mother country."
It gave me a whole new understanding of how colonialism works. The conquerors grab as much land as they can and wring out of it as much wealth as they can. They grow richer by making the colonies relatively poorer. As the gap between rich and poor grows, colonial subjects are tempted to leave home and follow the money trail back to the mother country.
Colonialism makes that move easier than you might think. To make themselves rich, the conquerors have to build good lines of transportation from the colonies to the mother country. They also have to teach their language and lifestyle to their colonial subjects. To justify it all, the conquerors insist that their culture is far superior to the indigenous ways. Many of their subjects come to believe it. They want to live the same life their overlords live, and they know how to do it.
By now, millions of people of color have come from former colonies to live in Europe. In Paris, they make up a quarter or more of the population. After hearing all their lives that they are truly French, they expect to feel pretty much at home there. To millions of whites in the mother country, though, this is all a terrible mistake. The subjects were supposed to adopt "civilized" European ways. But they were not supposed to actually move to Europe. So the newcomers encounter racism in all its overt and covert forms.
Some manage to prosper in spite of it. But many are still kept in poverty. When the economy turns bad, as it has in the past few years, the people of color suffer first and most. What's worse, they are blamed by the whites for all the mother country's ills. The racism grows more intense, and the mother country feels growing social as well as economic strain.
It is the inevitable blowback of empire. One country tries to solve its problems by scooping up others, only to find it has inadvertently opened its doors to those others, creating more problems. Then it's time for a big debate about cultural diversity and "the immigration problem"-as if the immigrants who bring diversity cause all the problems. Of course, blaming the victim has always been an essential part of colonialism.
In the U.S., our style of colonialism is different than the Europeans'. We conquer our colonies using corporate capitalism and mass culture more than guns and governors. It's so much cheaper; so much more efficient. And so much more successful: our empire is everywhere.
But isn't the process essentially the same as what I saw in Paris?
We secure control by training huge numbers of locals around the world to run the factories and plantations and transport lines that enrich American coffers. We do our best to make English the common global language. We MacDonald-ize and Disney-fy the world, teaching everyone how to be American. And every day, we widen the gap between the rich nations and the poor. The result is inevitable: millions of people from all over eager to come to America, to get a piece of the action.
As the day rapidly approaches when they are a minority, millions of whites fall into confusion and even panic. Unable to cope with the new multicultural reality, they cry "Foul." Watching their own economic fortunes decline, they blame the newcomers. They fall back into the racist patterns that are so indelibly engraved in our nation's history. CNN and Fox give them plenty of expert commentary on the current debates about cultural diversity and "the immigration problem." But even the liberal voices reinforce the prevailing premise: that diversity and the immigrants themselves are indeed the problem.
Who will tell the people that the root of the problem is the neo-colonialist policies of their own government and corporate elites? Who will explain that as long as the U.S. is bent on dominating the globe, it will create an unending flow of neo-colonial subjects following the money trail to America, the mother country? Who will dare to suggest that, if we really want those immigrants to stay at home, we should help make their home countries as appealing, as prosperous, as culturally independent as we want our own country to be?
Of course that would be doing the right thing for the wrong reason. We should indeed adopt policies that promote global economic equity and genuine respect for cultural diversity-but not to discourage immigration. On the contrary, we should welcome the diversity we gain when we open our national doors and share our wealth with new Americans. That is the silver lining in the dark cloud of colonialism. It has forced Europeans, and European-Americans, to live in a multicultural society, like it or not. It has given us the opportunity to learn to like it.
If we do that, the Europeans might follow our model. Then, I might be happy to make way for a new African- or Asian-American and move to Paris.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. email@example.com