Much has been written about the rioting by mainly Muslim youths of African descent in France, but few discussions have related them to the race riots by African-American youths in the 1960's. The lessons from these earlier riots are disturbing, but they have a couple of reassuring aspects as well.
Many economists have recognized for more than a decade that the generous minimum wages and other rigidities of the French labor market caused unemployment rates that have remained stubbornly high since the early 1990's. Immigrants, youths, and other new entrants into the labor market have been hurt the most since they have had the greatest difficulty finding jobs. The overall French unemployment rate is now almost 9 per cent- compared to about 5 per cent in the US- with a rate over 20 per cent for young persons. About 40 per cent of the unemployed have been without a regular job for over a year, a rate that is far higher than the American long-term unemployment rate. The French have intentionally avoided collecting separate economic data on Muslims, but the Muslim unemployment rate is estimated by labor economists in France at more than 20 per cent, with the unemployment rate for young Muslims probably exceeding 30 per cent.
The French labor market is sick, and needs reforms to make it more flexible, so that "insiders" with jobs have less of an advantage over "outsiders" looking for work. These reforms include making it easier for companies to let go of workers without expensive severance pay packages, lower minimum wage levels-the French minimum is one of the highest anywhere- reduced regulatory barriers to the formation of new companies, and lower social security and other taxes on employees. If the riots help exert greater pressure on French politicians to greatly free up the French labor market, they would have been of some value not only to Muslim youths, but also to all other French men and women who have been priced out of jobs.
An old and well-established rule of life is that the thoughts of young men turn to mischief when they have lots of time on their hands. Muslim and other African youths in many poor outer-city suburbs, the notorious banlieues, clearly have had lots of free time because many drop out of secondary school before receiving a diploma, and then they cannot easily get jobs. Seemingly small events, such as the violent accidental deaths of two youths in the French case, often set off a series of reactions that spread by word of mouth, and in these modern days also by cell phones and the internet. Copy-cat behavior, burning cars has been a favorite activity in the French riots, have spread to different poor French suburbs with African immigrants outside Paris, and then to the banlieues surrounding other cities.
The race riots in the US during the 1960's also started from what in retrospect looks like misinformation and relatively minor events. Yet there were more than 750 riots during the period 1964 to 1971 (the Watts riot was in 1965) that killed over 200 persons and injured thousands of others. After more than 10,000 incidents of arson, many black communities were in ruins.
Sociologists and economists have not succeeded in explaining which cities had riots and which avoided them. The likelihood of a riot is not explained by differences among cities in the black unemployment rate, in black incomes relative to those of whites, in rates at which blacks were advancing economically, in the education of blacks relative to whites, and so on for many other variables. Cities with relatively many blacks were more likely to have riots, and Northern cities were far more likely to have race riots than cities in the South, even though blacks were more numerous and worse off in the South.
Segregation of blacks into largely separate neighborhoods is an important factor, but practically all cities in the North with significant numbers of blacks have been highly segregated. It is interesting that Marseilles is one of the few major French cities that essentially escaped any rioting (at least so far). Its large Muslim population is not segregated into poor suburbs, but Muslims live in many different parts of Marseilles.
Although the cities and neighborhoods that experienced American race riots in the 1960's cannot be well explained even in retrospect, the economic position of blacks in rioting cities did suffer badly. The economic historian, Robert Margo, and a colleague at Vanderbilt examined the effects of the ‚Äò60's riots on employment, incomes, and property values. They find that from 1960 to 1970 median black family income dropped by about 9 percent, and the median value of black-owned homes dropped even more, in cities with major riots compared with similar cities without such riots. From 1960 to 1980, male employment in cities with severe riots dropped several percentage points compared with otherwise similar cities.
This analysis suggests that the suburbs with riots in France will also suffer compared to Muslim and other African immigrant communities that did not riot. One bit of good news from the American riots for France and its Muslim population is that they have not reoccurred on a large scale during the subsequent more than 30 years. For example, the riots in black communities of Los Angeles in 1992 that began after a video film on television showed graphically the beating administered by LA policemen to a black man, Rodney King, caused considerable damage, but these riots did not result in many copy-cat riots in other American cities. Perhaps the negative effects of 1960's rioting on the jobs and wealth of blacks influenced their behavior during other later tense periods.
It is worth noting that whereas black families did advance a lot economically relative to white families during the 1960's and 1970's, my colleague Derek Neal has shown that the economic position of black families relative to that of white families fell a lot since 1980. This is in the face of greater affirmative action that may have benefited a small number of blacks. The main causes of the decline since 1980 are a further fall in the stability of black families, and the widening skill differential in earnings that started in the late 1970's. This decline in the relative position of blacks did not lead, as I indicated earlier, to any resumption of large-scale rioting. Although black unemployment has remained about twice that of whites, young blacks have been far more likely to find jobs than are young Muslims in France.
Perhaps these riots will give greater power to the few politicians in France who recognize that important economic reforms are needed to help all young Frenchmen get jobs, and to allow them to advance in the economic hierarchy when they demonstrate the requisite talent and ambition. Economics cannot predict with any confidence how such reforms will affect the prospects of further riots, but these reforms would surely improve the position of young immigrants, regardless of their religion or country of origin.
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