White Coat Underground

Papers please

Many years ago, when fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen was riding a wave of racist sentiment in France, I was a young student out with friends on a perfect spring evening along the Seine. There was at that time always a vigorous national police presence in Paris. The CRS with their sub-machine guns were visible outside government buildings and patrolling the streets.

Racism was a palpable presence in Paris. A popular deli, Jo Goldenberg’s, had been bombed a few years earlier, and the nearby Holocaust museum had bullet holes in one of its glass walls. One time when I tried to order coffee at a cafe, the waiter said, “Are you sure you don’t want cous-cous? You look like you want cous-cous.”

But on this spring night after final exams, all was well. My classmates and I were eating something good—I can’t for the life of me recall what—and drinking wine. Lots of wine. One of my friends drank far too much, and was obviously soused. My friend John and I were holding her up, working on hailing her a cab, when a couple of well-armed CRS officers approached, pulled me aside, and demanded my papers. They did not ask for anyone else’s. I gave them a photocopy of my passport and explained that I was an American student returning home in a few days, and not wanting to risk losing my passport I carried copies instead.

This was not the right answer.

John, who “looked” French, was still holding up our friend, but also starting to become alarmed by my encounter with the feds. The officers asked me the same questions over and over, getting the same answers. Then, they said, “you’re talking funny…are you drunk?” “No,” I explained, “I’m American and just don’t speak good French.”

They slowly walked me further and further from my friends, when a cab finally came. John got our friend in and came over to see what was going on. In his much more fluent French he repeated everything I’d told the cops, and showed his papers, also a photocopy of his passport (that was sort of the standard for students at the time). With his French looks, clear speech, and French last name, he was able to convince the CRS to let me go home.

As much as I loved Paris, I was very happy to return home to the U.S., where we don’t stop people in the street and demand their papers for looking a little bit swarthy.

Comments

  1. #1 walter
    May 3, 2010

    I was originally against the new Arizona law until I saw the Stephen Hawking’ special on the Discovery channel regarding the possible threat from Aliens. It made me change my mind, if Aliens invade, Arizona will keep us safe.

  2. #2 D. C. Sessions
    May 3, 2010

    As much as I loved Paris, I was very happy to return home to the U.S., where we don’t stop people in the street and demand their papers for looking a little bit swarthy.

    Living as I do in the land of Joe Arpaio, I keep having fantasies of Bill Richardson, Sonia Sotomayor, Raul Grijalva, and a collection of their colleagues taking a ride wearing their gardening clothes from Nogales to Flagstaff in a not-very-new van.

  3. #3 DVMKurmes
    May 3, 2010

    I think the Arizona state legislature is in a crazy contest with the attorney general of Virginia, now that Napolitano is not here to keep them in check. If we’re lucky, they will make fools of themselves before the next election, but a lot of people here seem to be as crazy as the legislature.

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    May 3, 2010

    If we’re lucky, they will make fools of themselves before the next election

    Trouble is, “make[ing] fools of themselves” is actually a good electoral strategy. Ask around about what your neighbors think of our Lords and Masters’ cutting funding to programs so as to disqualify them for Federal funding, actually increasing the Arizona budget. It’s an incredibly popular move.

    Don’t get me started on the tax cuts on income and property that are being made up by sales taxes on food.

  5. #5 SkeptVet
    May 3, 2010

    “I was very happy to return home to the U.S., where we don’t stop people in the street and demand their papers for looking a little bit swarthy.”

    Except in Arizona. *sigh*

  6. #6 El Picador
    May 3, 2010

    jeez, *another* France hater at ScienceBlogs? sheesh.

  7. #7 catgirl
    May 4, 2010

    I think we should push the France angle because the people who support these laws very often hate anything to do with Europe, especially France. I wonder how many people would change their position simply to be un-French.

  8. #8 blf
    May 4, 2010

    I wonder how many people would change their position simply to be un-French.

    They wouldn’t change the position, just the name. Freedom fries, anyone?

  9. #9 VikingMoose
    May 4, 2010

    and it’ll be these twaddlenocks in the desert southwest that’ll eventually vote to drain Lake Michigan so they can water their lawns…

    ElP – what’s the reference?

  10. #10 El Picador
    May 4, 2010
  11. #11 lexicakes
    May 4, 2010

    My husband was once pulled over in Texas for Driving While Hispanic. The officer was confused by his New Mexico license plate, and demanded his papers, which he doesn’t have because he’s an American citizen, and who carries around their birth certificate? It took a while, but he finally convinced the police officer that New Mexico is part of the United States. I guess it’s a good thing this happened in Texas and not Arizona.

  12. #12 Mu
    May 4, 2010

    Try living in Albuquerque and explain to about 10% of suppliers that yes, they don’t have to connect you to their international department, and no, we don’t need to clear customs, we’re that place between AZ and TX on the map.
    I had AAA hang up on me (after 20 min on hold) because ” we don’t service Mexico”.

  13. #13 Calli Arcale
    May 4, 2010

    Wow — a Texan police officer unclear what country New Mexico is in??? That’s . . . wow.

    I look Swedish and have a Minnesotan accent, so even if I go to Arizona, I’m not in much danger. But I grew up in a predominantly Hispanic part of the Twin Cities; I know people who are bilingual, have vaguely Mexican accents, and are natural-born citizens of the United States. (A Minnesotan Hispanic who grew up bilingual winds up with a very pretty accent, actually. Very lilting.) If there were a law requiring officers to question and demand papers from everyone that they suspect might be illegal (regardless of whether or not they’ve already been stopped), I’m sure they’d be stopped and questioned a few times.

  14. #14 LadyDay
    May 4, 2010

    “I was very happy to return home to the U.S., where we don’t stop people in the street and demand their papers for looking a little bit swarthy.”

    Although it’s often not about asking to see one’s papers, I’d argue that it really depends on how swarthy one is, as to treatment one receives here in the States. I don’t think the U.S. is necessarily less guilty than France when one looks at racism/xenophobia overall. I mean, I have Muslim colleagues and friends who experienced serious racial profiling during the Bush years, especially after 9/11 (and, yes, in France and other parts of Europe there is quite a lot of anti-Muslim and anti-African sentiment, among other forms of racism/xenophobia, as well).

    Anyway, there have always been issues of xenophobia and racism here in the States, and the Arizona immigration law is another manifestation of those same prejudices. Not that I’m arguing that it legitimizes the Arizona law at all. Far from it. Rather (if anything positive can be said to have arisen from the passing of the Arizona immigration law), the law seems to have brought to the fore often overlooked racist/xenophobic tendencies here in the States.

  15. #15 science-based humanist
    May 4, 2010

    Looking on the bright side – given the universal embrace of this law by the Republicans and the Tea Partiers (same thing, really), with one stroke of a pen, the Republicans lost the Hispanic vote (which W was succesfully courting and winning) which, in the long term, will hurt them a lot.

  16. #16 Irene Delse
    May 4, 2010

    “I was very happy to return home to the U.S., where we don’t stop people in the street and demand their papers for looking a little bit swarthy.”

    Ouch. ><

    As a French citizen, let me tell you how appalled I am of the way foreign visitors are treated in my country. Not that it’s a consolation, but it’s more or less the same for French nationals who happen to be swarthy.

    This sort of thing has been going on for long, alas. (When my father was a student, he had quite the same experience with “Papers, please” – or rather: “Hey, you! Papers!”) And I think it’s even worse since the election to the presidency of that fascist-lite Nicolas Sarkozy. He took nearly all of Le Pen’s ideas and policies and made them his own. The only difference is that Le Pen is an anti-semite too, but Sarkozy only targets Africans and Arabs. Which goes to show that much of the racism in today’s France in not so much about immigration (we also have a lot of Chinese and East European immigrants, but the rabid demagogues only seem to notice the Africans, surprise,surprise), but about unresolved tensions left over from the colonization era. Making every “swarthy” looking young man show his papers and squirm in front of the French police is a not-so-subtle kind of retribution for those other swarthy people who took arms against the French authorities and forced them out of Algeria and other colonized countries.

    Which, of course, is both absurd and unjust, but politics rarely are.

  17. #17 Shay
    May 4, 2010

    After reading comments (elsewhere) about the new Arizona law, it dawned on me that–since driver’s licenses are not considered sufficient proof–I carry nothing in my wallet that says I’m an American citizen.

    Does anyone?

  18. #18 LadyDay
    May 4, 2010

    Just wanted to throw this out there: Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is a great place to start when thinking about parallels between French and U.S. imperialism (which extends to racism at home)… in case someone here hasn’t read it yet….

  19. #19 Krazy Kitty
    May 5, 2010

    Politicians are still riding a wave of racist sentiment in France, and Jean-Marie Le Pen is still alive and well, have no doubt about that. (Although, as Irene pointed out, the current government is riding so much of that wave that I’m surprised there’s any left for him.)

    “Fun” fact: Jo Goldenberg himself supported Le Pen during the 2002 presidential elections. Well, I guess Muslim Arabs are the main target of racism in France anyway.

  20. #20 speedwell
    May 5, 2010

    People from outside the USA can tell easily that I’m an American. Americans, however, seem to think otherwise. OK, I am the daughter of immigrants, but they naturalized legally before I was born, and I was born legally in this country. For a number of reasons (including another prize Texas LEO telling me I must not be an American citizen because I “sound too educated”) I do actually carry my passport with me.

  21. #21 Dianne
    May 5, 2010

    The new Arizona state motto: At least it’s a dry stupid.

    Personally, I think we ought to deal with this law by making the supporters’ worst nightmare come true: give AZ back to Mexico. The annexation of the southwestern US was a shady business at best and the passage of a few dozen decades hasn’t made it less so. Why not right the wrong and annoy a bunch of racists at the same time? Efficient.

  22. #22 payaspo de la mar
    May 5, 2010

    < >

    as crazy as an Alaskan governor who doesn’t know who the PM of Canada is…..???

  23. #23 D. C. Sessions
    May 5, 2010

    Personally, I think we ought to deal with this law by making the supporters’ worst nightmare come true: give AZ back to Mexico.

    FWIW, it looks like the Phoenix police are going to dodge the “sued if you don’t ask, sued if you profile” problem by simply demanding papers from everyone — which works for me.

    I do wonder what they’re going to do about the kids who don’t have drivers’ licenses. Imagine locking up a whole busload of kids on their way home from school.

  24. #24 Vicki
    May 5, 2010

    At what point do the police start locking each other up, on the grounds that neither a police ID nor a drivers’ license is proof of citizenship?

  25. #25 Dianne
    May 5, 2010

    FWIW, it looks like the Phoenix police are going to dodge the “sued if you don’t ask, sued if you profile” problem by simply demanding papers from everyone — which works for me

    I suppose, but I remember back when I was a kid, back in the Dark Ages when there was still a Soviet Union, the teachers used to talk about how you could tell the US was a freer country than the USSR because in the US the police didn’t stop you on the street and demand your papers. I guess that’s not true any more. At least not in Arizona.

  26. #26 Rodrigo
    May 6, 2010

    Re: Dianne@21

    No, please don’t! Or, at least, do it but keep everyone whose ancestors were not there at the time of the annexation ;)

  27. #27 Dianne
    May 7, 2010

    Or, at least, do it but keep everyone whose ancestors were not there at the time of the annexation ;)

    My first impulse was to say, “Don’t be such a wimp: the US took my crazy ancestors when it annexed northern Mexico, how much worse could the anglos be?” But if returning AZ is meant as restitution rather than simply getting rid of a big glob of not very useful land, one really would have to take the yahoos* out first.

    *Traditional Swiftian use of the word. If the company Yahoo has an AZ branch it could probably stay.

  28. #28 katydid13
    May 7, 2010

    One thing I find amusing is that birth certificates are fairly insecure as identity documents. There is nothing that proves it belongs to me. Anyone else who can pass for a white woman in born in the mid 70s could produce it and there would be no way to dispute it. A birth certificate is where most US identity documents start.

  29. #29 SLC
    May 7, 2010

    Re Irene Delse @ #16

    The only difference is that Le Pen is an anti-semite too, but Sarkozy only targets Africans and Arabs.

    Since President Sarkozys’ mother was a Greek Jew, he might have some difficulty himself targeting Jews.

  30. #30 katie
    May 10, 2010

    My boyfriend’s parents are both Hungarian (born and raised in Romania). His mother is blue-eyed and blond, while his father is very dark (he likes to mess with people by wearing a variety of shirts that suggest many different national origins…Spanish, Israeli, Arabic, etc.). While travelling in Europe his parents have several times been told that there is something “wrong” with a blond woman being married to someone dark.

    Seriously people, I thought we’d left the Dark Ages.

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