Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Monday, April 30, 2007

What's illegal in America, but very common here?

Two weekends ago, Swissy Pie and I had our closest brush to date with the border police. We'd spent the morning shopping in Germany, the early afternoon walking around a nature preserve in France, and around 3 pm, were finally heading home, across the lightly monitored border in the northern part of Basel. More often than not, there aren't any agents at the booth, but today, as we drew closer, we could see a two-car queue ahead of us.

At first we figured it was no big deal: it just meant the Swissies were home today. But when we crept closer and closer, and still neither car had moved, we realized customs was playing hardball. And that meant we could be in big trouble. In our back seat, we had more than the kilo of meat that was our daily duty-free allowance, not to mention a crate of beer that added up to well over 2 liters. (Swissy Pie is blithely certain beer counts as water rather than alcohol. I hope we never have to prove him wrong.)

A customs agent was interrogating the driver of the first car. As we watched, a second agent strolled out of the booth and joined him. With a brusque jerk of the head, they motioned the car over to the side for further attention; and then a third agent emerged to question the two men in the (French) car just ahead of us. Papers were produced and handed back and forth. More questions were exchanged. At last, the passenger, who evidently didn't have identification on him, got out and scuttled into the Zoll booth, while the driver, curiously, continued into Basel. And then it was our turn.

Perhaps it was our Baselstadt license plate. Perhaps customs had already stopped their quota for the day. Or perhaps we looked entirely uninteresting. Whatever the case, the blond, broad-faced customs officer merely peered into our car (somehow ignoring the very visible contraband in the back), scanned our faces, and nodded for us to continue. Relieved, we drove on, past the hapless Arabic-looking men from the first car, who were still off to the side, watching the customs officers comb through their vehicle.

"I guess customs just isn't interested in people who aren't dark-skinned," Swissy Pie noted, nodding at the searchees. "Those guys get stopped all the time."

It's true: everyone we've seen pulled over to the side of the road and being searched has looked either Muslim or African. And frankly, it bothers me.

Part of it is the injustice of the whole situation. Why should perfectly innocent people be continually harassed, just because of the color of their skin? Granted, I haven't heard any stories about police brutality, like the ones we hear about in the US, but that doesn't change the fact that being stopped and searched is embarrassing, not to mention inconvenient.

But what really gets me is how little good the policy does. I seriously doubt that the majority of people stopped have any criminal intent; stopping them routinely doesn't make me any safer. And if terrorism is the concern, there are plenty of cases in both the US and in Germany where the criminals were home-grown. Plus, not all Muslims look Muslim, for lack of a better word: I went to school with both men and women who would've easily passed for Caucasian.

No wonder that Turks and other minorities feel so alienated in Western Europe. Even for the ones who are successful, how could they ever feel at home in a place that continually singles them out for "special" treatment?

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Blogger The Big Finn said...

Wait a second...
People of color in America are no longer hassled/discriminated against/paid less because of the color of their skin?
Things certainly have changed since 2000...

May 2, 2007 at 10:25 PM  
Blogger swissmiss said...

When my friends R and B came to visit from DC they flew in together but would up in different passport control lines. R - white boy - sailed through. B - black boy - got the third degree. But then again, back in DC R gets cabs and B often can't, so I sort of second the big finn.

I think the big difference is that people in the US have learned to pretend they're not discriminating and here people are still very public about things that, having grown up in the US, I find racist.

May 3, 2007 at 12:50 PM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

Ah. Once again, I should've been clearer. I meant to refer to racial profiling by the police, not racism per se, though at some point there isn't much of a difference.

Yes, racism is widespread in the US. There are many places where it's not pleasant to be black, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, or even Catholic. But I like to think, at least, that the "mainstream" considers it wrong and illegal, and a violation of civil liberties.

Here, however, the racial profiling that the Swiss, German, and French police employ is rampant, and no one seems to think it's wrong. That bothers me, and I'm personally convinced it contributes to racial tension and does a great deal of damage to integration efforts.

It's one thing for minorities to have to deal with individual ignorant jerks. It's another thing entirely to feel that the Powers That Be are also ranged against you. It makes you feel helpless, and that there's no justice to be had within the system.

May 3, 2007 at 1:36 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 3, 2007 at 3:14 PM  
Anonymous jessica said...

i find this argument interesting. In both places there is rampant color discrimination, routine checks of dark skinned people, and police deferring to white skin, picking on darker people. You're right to say that in america we try to pretend things aren't racist or segregated (but okay, there is ONE black family in a three mile radius of my mother's nice suburb home...and let's not get started on dallas segregation...) whereas in Europe it's perfectly acceptable for me to say "My annoying neighbor woke me up early wiht music," and then for this nice old lady to respond "Is she portugeuse - they make me shit!" Ca me fait shite is the exact phrase in french, but that's about what it means.
so which is better? is there a better? it bugs me in both places, but here there seems to be a national pride for it, whereas in america...i dont know...it's more about the history of the country and the internal battles between races.

May 3, 2007 at 9:22 PM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

Jessica, you make a good point. It's difficult to say which is worse, hypocrisy or open disdain. People certainly see through the former: there's a reason blacks in America are mistrustful of authority. And one can always argue that honesty is preferable to lies.

Still, for me, there's no question. All else being equal, I'd rather live in a place that frowns upon open racism, even if the problem still exists in the shadows, because that means the next generation has a chance to absorb the "right" values, and society as a whole can progress.

May 3, 2007 at 11:21 PM  

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