Equal By Comparison: Unsettling Assumptions of Antidiscrimination Law
51 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2007
In Fall 2005, race riots in France drew attention to differences between the French and American legal regimes for remedying racial inequality and discrimination. The riots reacted to the persistence of employment discrimination against people of North African origin. French antidiscrimination law has been unable to solve such problems because of its focus on criminal punishment of racist speech and its uncompromising commitment to race-blindness. These features embody the intersection of two historical forces: the influence of Vichy memories on French legal conceptions of racism and discrimination, and the strong republican resistance to social distinctions. Understanding this history comparatively brings certain features of U.S. antidiscrimination law into sharper focus: U.S. law imposes civil, rather than criminal liability, and is more tolerant of race-conscious affirmative action, more resistant to regulating racist speech, and more reluctant to extend antidiscrimination law to a wide range of protected characteristics. These distinctive features of U.S. law are explained by the law's reaction to the history of slavery and segregation. The different evolutions of antidiscrimination law reveal how particular forms of racism - anti-Semitism and genocide in France, and the slavery and segregation of African Americans in the United States - gave rise to two very different antidiscrimination regimes. The French contrast challenges the assumptions of American antidiscrimination law, leading to greater precision about the uniquely American commitment to race-blindness in equal protection doctrine. The stricter French model of race-blindness highlights the instability and ambivalence of American race-blindness. Comparative historical inquiry reveals that the goal of eradicating group subordination does more work in U.S. antidiscrimination law than the goal of achieving a truly race-blind society based on individual merit.
Keywords: antidiscrimination law, comparative law, legal history
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation