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Post-migrant Youth Scenes in Urban Europe

This paper is about morals. Contrary to the public discourse which claims that the second generation of migrants, because deprived of its guidelines and lost in an ethical no-man’s-land, is in desperate search of indicators, I reckon that this particular group, young people of distant cultural backgrounds, is the most compelling provider of this century’s values. In the long-lived philosophical standpoint which, from Spinoza to Deleuze, proposes that human behaviour is guided by the constant search of what is good to me or to my fellow humans and what is bad to for me or to them, a tension is constant between slow traditions and darting invention. This will be the thread of our paper.

Moralistic tradition is intricate in ordinary people’s layers of contemporary european society. Part of it belongs to the old stock of christian values, repainted by the Enlightenment principles, brushed up by 19th century working class revolutions and reset by the inspired madness of the late 1960s. This aspect of popular morals is driven by struggle and doubt. The tension inherent to in a social environment where the big authorities (kings or presidents, the churches, recognised upright personalities, academia, etc.) switch roles and gain or loose ground according to hazardous political victories, leads to moral uncertainty and, eventually, fuzziness. Doubt, being central to the core tradition of European philosophy, becomes reflected in the day-to-day behaviour.

But another part of this popular moralistic tradition comes from elsewhere. Starting in the early 1920s in England and France, following soon in many other european countries and then, booming in throughout the whole western part of the continent from the eighties on, the migrants waves have carried along with the flesh and bones of their peoples, a seemingly nebulous philosophy of life. Although blurred by words belonging to specific religious beliefs, this philosophy is not only coherent but in many ways relatively homogeneous.

In spite of differences in the formal speech, the imported popular morals is rooted in all over the world peasant traditions. Although essential differences remain in rituals, symbols and narratives, peasant traditions brought in from regions as far apart as Pakistan, Colombia, Mali, Turkey, Viet-Nâm, Albania, Senegal, etc. are all linked by a necessary relationship with whimsical land, unpredictable skies, mysterious powers and the inevitable solidarity among human beings. Such are the ingredients of peasant morality. The countrydweller’s ethics are, so to speak, down-to-earth.They are practical and metaphysical, metaphorical and socially conservative. One of their basic components is respect.

Respect is not only a compulsory feature of all traditions, it is the very core of tradition.(1) What allows a set of moral values to be carried across time and space (tradere, to transport) is a kind of semi-blind acceptance of the legitimacy of those who carry. This semi-blind acceptance is sealed by what is called respect. Respect of who is there to tell stories, to order people, to launch ideas, to protect symbols, to save accumulated wealth, to raise new generations, to perform rituals, etc. Thus, respect is the condition for the perpetuation of a culture. Of course, respect is not alone sufficient to for an ethic group’s survival and infringement is a constant retort and challenge to respect, in order to adapt a fragile morality to an ever-changing world. Respect and infringement are the two faces of the dynamics of morals. Both are forcing their way up, not only in other countries, but throughout the suburbs of popular Europe.

It is striking that whether in the North American Black ghettos, in Britain’s colored communities, in France’s banlieues or in Brazil’s urban favellas where transgression is at its highest peack, respect emerges as a demand, a clear, sound and obstinate demand addressed to institutions, neighbors, governments, fellow city dwellers. But, of course, this respect, as a result of a the mutual confrontation of moral systems of so many different origins, including that of the welcoming culture, changes like a chameleon.

Our time is one of a great reshuffle. Within most countries and between countries, inequalities and severance are increasingly put into practice as actual policy. Poor people are rejected, kept on the peripheries, whether geographical, political, economic or symbolic. At the same time, at a steady pace, globalisation performs its transformations. I am not speaking of the now notorious technological and financial globalisation, but of human globalisation : for what we are concerned with this paper, about demographic and cultural globalisation. It is not the first time that such a reshuffling is in course and the Roman or Babylonian Empires were times and places of great human mixing. Closer to us, London in the early 20th century or Chicago at the turn of the thirties where places of great cultural diversity. But in our new-born 21st century, this diversity is truly widespread. It can be found in Saoudi Arabia, in Texas, in Rio de Janeiro, in all western European cities, in the many booming capitals of the so- called emerging world. Moreover, in all these countries, certain places have become focal points of the big reshuffle : Britain’s so-called colored communities, the French banlieues, the North-American ghettos, the suburbs of all big European cities, all the fringes of the world as it goes on.

For reasons that go beyond the limits of this paper, from the seventies onwards, a huge flow of migrant population came in all over western Europe to become the European working (or not-working) class. First men on their own, then families flocked in, filling housing projects, sending children to school, working hard before forming the lines of jobless, sometimes wandering into the city centers, learning the vernacular languages and becoming year after year, the new face of a transverse social category. Where this face appeared from afar to the locals as a uniform though strange population, within this same population, strangeness was magnified by the close proximity. Within the social housing projects up the same staircase, at school in the same class, in a factory on the same assembly line, as many as five, ten, twenty, or up to as as many as a hundred different ways of being, behaving, speaking could be found and still can be found, revealing as many « cultures » or « ethnic groups », whatever such identity bundles are called. Where a distant eye recognises a « Paki » in England for instance, a keener one distinguishes a member of a specific tribe, speaking such and such a langage, adopting such and such a version of Islam, allied with such or such other particular tribe while its long-standing enemy is allied with to such other. Simultaneously, the newcomers would not recognise as « foreign » the many neighbors having been brought in by previous waves. All in all, most newcomers do not possess the keys of the basic « who is who ». Who is who is not a matter of names or origins. It is above all a matter of moral stance. The main question for the newcomer is : who is reliable and who is not. Reliable in many respects. Who can I do business with ? Who believes in the same god as mine ? Who can I marry my daughter to ? Who will not sneak on me to the police ? Who may help me find a job or a room ? At the same time, the same newcomer will stay on guard, fearing whoever may interfere in his privacy. He will claim for himself the human qualities he expects from others. This expectation can be called a demand for respect. This is the new meaning of respect as it is understood among the new European migrant class.

When Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white man who demands it through the driver, her only argument is about respect. This was in 1955 and it was the first step towards the great civil rights battles. Thereafter, the first use of respect in its contemporary sense is probably Aretha Francklin’s song dating from 1967.

What you want, baby, I got

What you need, you know I got it.

All I askin’ you is a little respect

When you come home, baby.

When you come home,


From then on, respect becomes part of a discourse mixing politics, poetry and day-to-day behavior. The new meaning of the concept reached France when Afrika Bambaataa came for a visit a few years later. Though this political struggle is never won, in all European countries, it does carry on its way through ups and downs.

Intermixing with the old concept of a respect which has been a cement to the vertical hierarchy perpetuating the old order, contemporary respect has adopted some features and disdained others. Moreover, its content is not stabilised yet, it varies from one place to another and from one speaker to the next. When asked to whom he or she pays respect, most young people from the French banlieues will make a double answer comprising God and their parents. This is the major sense of respect, the traditional one. But as soon as the conversations rolls on respect within the ordinary life, the same young boys and girls not only pay respect to but ask respect to from their teachers, their parents, the police and other institutional characters, repositioning respect within its horizontal dynamics where the suburban globalisation and its practical dimensions gives it its full meaning.

The manifestations of respect, at least and insofar as I know in the suburbs of France, are spread about an infinite number of minute rites whether verbal or gestural ; and involve many changing signs whether behavioral, on clothing, musical choices, religious practices, language, food fantasies, etc. All these features draw lines and organise distinctions in the sense that Bourdieu gave to this word. Differences are emphasised or underlined to let the expression of respect run. The invisible frontiers are not those of so- called communities but, rather, distinguish unformal and provisional groups, families, clans and the like. Hand or wrist games, words of salutation, looks, invocation of the divinity are manifestations of respect that beacon the routine of the ordinary day, week and year. Usually, one can feel the combination of an intense demand and an extreme politeness. What, then, is behind those expressions of respect?

The manifestations of respect as we can interpretate them seem to say : « I don’t know you and you don’t know me either. Whoever you are, unless we become friends, we won’t ever get to know each other. Therefore I ask you to credit that I am a good person and deserve your esteem. Whoever you are, teacher, cop, tradesperson shopkeeper, neighbor, doctor, I will pay you respect and expect the same from you in return. » Respect as a manifestation of good will combines distance and credit. Credit because we shall never be so close that you will understand my ways of doing (but be assured that I am a good person !) Distance, for I am not sure that I want to be so close to you so that you will know me well enough to trust me. Let us maintain differences and therefore avoid opportunities for offences and misunderstandings. Or rather, misunderstanding being a special case of cross-understanding, let us control those misunderstandings in such a fashion that we can share the same neighborhood, the same country, the same humanity and the same world. Respect is a tight-knit combination of necessary distance and credit for esteem.

In the progressive emergence of this concept, different generations play different roles. The first generation faces the pain of exile and the pressure of getting a practical understanding of a new world. The second generation develops the necessary skills needed in this process. Like cats in a stranger’s kitchen, they tiptoe, hide, watch, dare, hug the walls, wait with a mixture of boldness and caution. Respect is one of their secret arms. Formally belonging to the traditional stock of values of the host country, respect is free from all suspicion. But cast into its new meaning, it is a political weapon for integration in a new landscape where newcomers are not longer welcome.

Skills do not exclusively belong to the corporate world. Skills is a widespread feature involved in much a human behavior. They are developed in raising children, in love making, in food cooking and, among other fields activities, in socialising. There may be many very different ways to find the right path to a peacefull society and none is always smooth and easy. Respect is the skill developped among the second generation of European migrants to soften the shock of globalisation within their polyphonic vicinity, the next door school, the dislocated family, the city’s urban mosaic and the reluctant nation.

But this fuel for a smoother life is not reserved for the only migration process. Globalisation hits many aspects of living life in the world. If the demographic migrations are one of the most sensitive issues triggered by the new face of globalisation, what we can learn from it through this refined skill is the idea of a world as pluralistic as Franz Boas suggested it in the late 19th century and as Arjun Appadurai for instance puts it now. It is not reserved for the migrant popular layers of Europe and the Americas. Organised around the combination of necessary distance and the requisite credit for esteem, it is without a doubt an important value for the coming century.

Marc Hatzfeld

EHESS, Paris, France For ESF Exploratory Workshop

Discussion Paper: Postmigrant Youth Scenes in Urban Europe For the ESF Exploratory

Workshop held at Goethe University Frankfurt, July 2-3, 2010


Photo La Voix du Nord

(1) Respect. ESF Frankfurt. Goethe Univ. 2010

(2) Respect. ESF Frankfurt. Goethe Univ. 2010

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