New York Times readers today had the dubious privilege of an editorial by Kamel Daoud on racism in Algeria. The topic certainly needs attention, even if the New York Times is hardly the most effective place to address it in. Unfortunately, he addresses it with the same broad-brush, narrative-forcing, emotional vagueness that usually characterises his editorials (with bits of outright distortion: Echourouk "Islamist"? Algerians who won't "shake hands with blacks"?). He claims that Algerians are racist on the basis of religion rather than colour, then belatedly notices that there have been conflicts with Muslim black migrants too, and "explains" this by suggesting that they are seen as insufficiently Muslim. We get quotes from a few Algerian racists, but no migrants' voices, and no sign at all of the group most obviously relevant to a framing in racial terms: black Algerians.
In many Saharan oases - including Tabelbala, where I did most of my PhD fieldwork - black people are in the majority. Even in the north, you find small villages of black people, and of course larger communities in the big cities. Kamel Daoud mentions anti-migrant riots in Ouargla and Bechar: both those Saharan towns have massive Algerian black communities. Contrary to Kamel Daoud's analysis, such groups certainly do experience racism, though in a much milder form. In the south, people assume their ancestors were slaves, in a region where people routinely claim status and allies based on genealogy. In the north, their colour makes them visible outsiders, in a context where people regularly blame social decay on "outsiders" immigrating from ten or twenty kilometres away. Unlike in America, however, they are not particularly stereotyped as criminal (though black immigrants sometimes are). In the north they tend to be stereotyped as stupid, but in the south their conspicuous relative educational success makes that image hard to maintain. Socialism and Islam, however, are equally vehement in their condemnation of such racism, and after independence the Algerian state took this issue seriously, stamping out the remnants of slavery and emphasising universal equality; everyone today at least knows they're not supposed to be racist, though that doesn't necessarily stop them.
Of course, race is in the eye of the beholder. In Tabelbala, almost everyone is black by the standards of other parts of Algeria. By their own standards, however, the situation is a bit different: anyone with the slightest tinge of known Arab or Berber ancestry counts as white, leaving only a few families to be considered as black. Until the 20th century, the former were landowners, while the latter were sharecroppers or slaves. The indistinguishability of their skin colours does not stop the former from being viciously racist about the latter when annoyed with them.
I don't claim to understand the riots in Ouargla and Bechar in any detail, but two points are noteworthy. The first is that they did not attack Algerian black people: they attacked black immigrants. To an Algerian, that may seem almost too obvious to mention - but the NYT's audience is not particularly Algerian, and has rather different baseline assumptions. The second is that they happened in a wider context of rising tensions in the Sahara over the past five years or so, including especially the ever-worsening cycle of sectarian riots in Ghardaia. It would be very useful to have a serious analysis of what's driving this rising intolerance, in the one part of Algeria that largely escaped violence throughout the 1990s. But for that, the NYT would have to call in a real journalist.