In September 2009, Charles Rivkin, the U.S. ambassador to France, drove to northern Paris for the unveiling of a mural at the Collège Martin Luther King, a middle school in the suburb (or banlieue) of Villier-le-Bel. “President Obama invites us to build a better future for our children on the basis of mutual understanding and equal opportunity,” Rivkin declared before an audience of local officials, students, and residents. The ambassador explained the importance of Martin Luther King Day and the relevance of the civil rights leader’s ideas to the surrounding area, which had recently been racked by riots. Then, standing in front of a colorful, just-completed mural of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rivkin sang “We Shall Overcome” with dozens of African and Muslim schoolchildren.
Those in attendance, by all accounts, appreciated the event. But the French media were less than pleased by the efforts of the U.S. ambassador, who they claimed was in no position to educate France on racial justice. One newspaper columnist referred to it as evidence of “secret American manipulation” of French culture. But U.S. cultural diplomacy efforts have continued in France and across Europe nonetheless. The reason? For Washington, Europe’s inability to integrate minorities has become a national security risk; officials have argued that European Muslims, alienated from their home countries, may seek to inflict harm on the United States. And they’ve decided that one way to mitigate that risk is by leveraging the popularity of African American culture -- and of hip-hop music, in particular.
European Muslims -- facing economic hardship, the rise of far-right parties, and intrusive counterterrorism policies -- increasingly feel under siege in their own countries. Washington believes that the example of U.S. civil rights movements and race policies, and the history of black freedom struggles in the United States more broadly, can offer a vocabulary to make sense of their own grievances and the motivation to address those grievances through politics. In the United States, after
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