White, Elisa Joy. Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora: Dublin, New Orleans, Paris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012. xi + 340 pages. Cloth, $30.00.
Elisa Joy White, an ethnic studies specialist, tackles the complex relationship between modernity, freedom, and equality in the twenty-first century. To do so, she traces how African diaspora communities in Ireland, the United States, and France function within the larger framework of the freedom and equality that residents in each of those countries normally experience. In sum, she argues that there still remains a "debate over the contradictory nature of embracing freedom while simultaneously restricting it for individuals of the African Diaspora" (p. 19). In other words, readers will see that "the liberty that each society values is less than tangible for many, particularly individuals of the African Diaspora" (p. 16).
The realization that individuals of African descent have experienced and still experience racism is, of course, not new. Volumes written by both historians and social scientists have pointed to the real and persistent importance of race in determining social standing, economic security, and access to the body politic. White presents not a new interpretation of this persistent theme but a novel comparative lens with which to view it.
White should be applauded for her extensive fieldwork in Europe and North America, where she interviewed hundreds of individuals, mostly new immigrants and asylum seekers, whose accounts made up most of the book's primary research. The core of this work, which appears in part one, examines the African diaspora community in Ireland. Here, the author sets up Ireland as "a social laboratory" where readers can see the "failings of modernity writ large and small" (p. 48). White is most interested in using this "laboratory" to understand the relationship between technological and social progress. She argues that modernity should not be measured by economic advancement but by the expansion of social equality to new actors, such as the African diaspora communities, and by their acceptance into the existing body politic.
Ireland, a nation without a significant African population before 2000, failed to extend its own concepts of freedom and equality to these new residents. Racism pervaded the African experience in Ireland in the early twenty-first century as landlords refused to rent to those of African descent, the media perpetuated...