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[Opinion] Upward Social Mobility

Posted November. 08, 2008 09:16,   


With the historic election of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president, global attention is on if France can do the same. France in the 19th century began taking in immigrants and has become as much a multi-racial society as America. In dealing with equality, however, the two countries are different. France does not classify people by race to prevent discrimination. In contrast, the United States keeps track of its minority population, with its latest census showing that blacks comprise 12.9 percent of the population.

The Wall Street Journal said very few French blacks make it in politics. France’s 577 parliamentary members has just one black. Among 3,600 French politicians elected by popular vote, the number of blacks is just three. Unlike African Americans at the dawn of a new era in the United States, the situation of blacks in France is painfully clear. Finding a black TV announcer in France is rare. It is a shame that the French upper class denies upward social mobility to people without wealth, good lineage and a good education. This is a glass ceiling immigrants in France cannot break.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930∼2002) had an answer for why upward social mobility in France is so difficult: “cultural capital.” His research found that children inherit not just economic capital, but also vested rights through knowledge of education and aesthetic preferences from their parents. The French education system also has a double standard. Its public university system is based on egalitarianism, yet most of France’s leaders graduated from the top schools. This means that upward social mobility in France is almost impossible with a degree from a non-top tier university.

Obama`s election as U.S. president shows America has better social dynamics than France. Social stratification in France has become fixated over the country’s long history, yet upward social mobility in the United States seems easier due to its short history. In this regard, Koreans feel less restriction in climbing their country’s social ladder given that Korea’s rapid industrialization and the Korean War caused social mores and ranks to collapse. The situation is far from ideal, however, since the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening in Korea. Though domestic scholars idealize the French model, they should be more open to more realistic and comprehensive solutions to this issue.

Editorial Writer Hong Chan-shik (chansik@donga.com)