Which lives matter? Couti leads international forum Sept. 25 on race and policing in France

The public webinar will be preceded by special Humanities Now session for Rice undergrads

Protests against racial injustice and police brutality have spread not only across the U.S., but also around the world. Jacqueline Couti, the Laurence H. Favrot Associate Professor in Modern and Classical Literatures and Cultures, will lead a forum on this global phenomenon Sept. 25 at 4 p.m. titled “Which Lives Matter? Race and Policing in France and Beyond.”

Protests against racial injustice and police brutality have spread not only acroos the U.S., but also around the world — including France.

Protests against racial injustice and police brutality have spread not only across the U.S., but also around the world — including France.

Demonstrations sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers have happened everywhere from England — where Black residents are 40 times as likely as their white counterparts to be stopped and searched by police — to Australia and New Zealand, countries in which Aboriginal and Indigenous communities suffered abuse by law enforcement officers from the earliest days of colonization.

In France, Couti notes, young men who appear to be of North African or West African descent are 20 times more likely to be stopped by the police. Refugees and migrants are also subject to police brutality at a much higher rate. This all contributes to what the French call “délit de faciès,” often translated as “racial profiling” but literally meaning “face offence.”

Individual cases have given faces to the protest movements just as Floyd did in America: A 22-year-old man identified only as Théo L. was brutalized by police during an identity check, leading to mass protests in his name across Paris in 2017. Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Malian-French man, died in police custody in 2016 as the result of asphyxiation during an arrest — just like Floyd.

Four years later, French protests continue in Traoré’s name — with Floyd’s now alongside him.

“At more and more demonstrations in France and Paris and Lille and Lyon, people are posting pictures of Adama Traoré and George Floyd together, because for them it’s the same thing,” Couti said.

There’s a different history, of course.

“But it’s the same kind of bias,” Couti said.

“People of African descent in France might be children of African migrants or might be coming from the French Antilles or the Caribbean, while in the U.S. you’re just often ‘Black,’” she said. “Migration and immigration have complicated the idea of Blackness; with the notion of origins everything is more complex.”

Couti’s Sept. 25 virtual forum will consider why Americans should look abroad to help understand local expressions of prejudice.

Adama Traoré's sister stands in front of a mural painted in France to honor Traoré and George Floyd. (Photo © Nadir Dendoune)

Adama Traoré’s sister stands in front of a mural painted in France to honor Traoré and George Floyd. (Photo © Nadir Dendoune)

“I think if you’re able to make a connection between what’s happening in other countries — if you realize that the construction of race is a kind of global system with different representations and manifestations in different countries — then you have to look at what’s happening in your country in a different way,” Couti said. “I also wanted to discuss views on race that do not come through the lens of the specifically American experience to enrich the discussions on race and/or put these views on race in perspective.”

Sponsored by Rice’s Department of Modern and Classical Literatures and Cultures, the Center for African and African American Studies and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality (of which Couti is associate director), the forum will convene an international panel of scholars to discuss what is a worldwide issue.

Panelists Mame-Fatou Niang, associate professor of French and Francophone studies at Carnegie Mellon University; Anaïs Nony, lecturer in French at University College Cork; and Grégory Pierrot, associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford will convene for a discussion moderated by Couti. The webinar is free and open to the public.

“Which Lives Matter? Race and Policing in France and Beyond” will be preceded by a special Zoom session for Rice undergrads only, led by Fay Yarbrough, associate professor of history and Rice’s new associate dean of Humanities.

This “Humanities Now” session is one of three Yarbrough has planned for the fall semester— with at least four more in the works for the spring — that are open to students across the school, regardless of major. The Sept. 25 session at 11:30 a.m. will provide essential historical context to students ahead of Couti’s virtual event later that day.

“What’s happening in the U.S. has really sparked these protests in other places, but people don’t often think about the conditions in these other places that were just right for an incendiary moment to let them then be able to express these frustrations,” Yarbrough said. “I would bet that a lot of our students don’t know about this other, longer history of things that are happening in France and would be really curious to hear about that.”

Jacqueline Couti, the Laurence H. Favrot Associate Professor in Modern and Classical Literatures and Cultures, will lead an international forum Sept. 25 at 4 p.m. titled “Which Lives Matter? Race and Policing in France and Beyond.”

Jacqueline Couti, the Laurence H. Favrot Associate Professor in Modern and Classical Literatures and Cultures, will lead an international forum Sept. 25 at 4 p.m. titled “Which Lives Matter? Race and Policing in France and Beyond.”

In fact, Yarbrough said, understanding what’s happening in the world right now requires the lens of the humanities — a grasp of the cultures and systems that surround them, the underlying thought patterns and the intertwined histories that have led to these moments.

“People should be thinking about the humanities as they’re trying to understand all of these things, and Jacqueline graciously agreed to be my first partner in this series,” Yarbrough said.

Later this semester, Humanities Now will partner with philosophy professor Elizabeth Brake for a discussion of “What Is the Ethical Thing to Do?” (patterned on Brake’s current Big Questions course) and philosophy department chair Timothy Schroeder for a talk on ethics and the pandemic.

Couti said both her Sept. 25 forum on “Which Lives Matter? Race and Policing in France and Beyond” and Yarbrough’s ongoing Humanities Now series are vital means of broadening students’ knowledge of a complex world.

“It’s meaningful work, because it’s reminding them that when they see something or grapple with a particular issue, there’s a history behind it,” Couti said. “And if they don’t understand this history — and that history has been traveling from different places, so there’s both a history and a geography behind it — then they’re lost.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.