The European Union has declared 2007 the “European Year of Equal Opportunities for All.” In January, the E.U. equality ministers met in Berlin for their first “Equality Summit” to call attention to their anti-discrimination efforts. And, while global warming wasn’t on the agenda, by the end of the first day the discussions had generated enough heat to make the French delegates very uncomfortable.

The 450-plus equality ministers and officials, members of parliaments, representatives of labor and business, civil rights groups, and a bevy of academics (including this unofficial observer from the United States) had waded through a sea of platitudes about discrimination and diversity. When we were then informed at length of the results of the “Eurobarometer survey on discrimination” � a public opinion poll on whether residents of the 27 E.U. member states thought discrimination was a problem � more than a few delegates started grumbling, asking why it mattered that people in Britain were more likely to see race discrimination as a problem than were people in Italy.

But when Trevor Phillips, chairman of the British Commission for Equality and Human Rights, opened the afternoon session by arguing that “opinion is valuable, but facts are essential. And we can only deal with them if we collect data,” the room started buzzing. And when Ursula von der Leyen, the German federal minister for family affairs, agreed, the French delegate made it clear he took it personally. Why? The French prohibit government collection of data about race, ethnicity or religion, because it is inconsistent with the French ideal of “citizenship” as the only legitimate form of identity. But in the absence of data, this “colorblindness” allows the French to be blind to the impact of color, even as it distorts the lives of French citizens with dark skin, and undermines the equally essential French ideal of equality.

As the equality delegates met in Berlin, the polling organization TNS-Sofres in Paris released the results of a poll that revealed that 56% of France’s black adults said they suffered from discrimination, with 37% saying the situation had become worse in the past year. It was the first such poll ever conducted in France.

“If you’re not counted, you don’t count,” explained Patrick Lozes, head of the Representative Council of Black Associations in France, which commissioned the poll. As with the Eurobarometer, however, the poll measures only perceptions, while failing to provide an actual measurement of inequality.

What data collection reveals

Here in the United States, data measuring racial inequality are readily available. A quick search of our Census Bureau Web site tells us that 9% of white Americans, but 24% of black Americans, live below the poverty line; the median family income for white families is $53,356, while for black families it’s $33,255 (62% of the white family income); and 71% of white households, but only 46% of black households, live in owner-occupied homes. And studies by social scientists add to the data on racial inequality, demonstrating that blacks and whites are substantially segregated in the communities in which they live, the schools they attend, the hospitals where they’re treated and the stores where they shop; that blacks pay more than whites for insurance, appliances, car loans, home loans and many basic services; and that blacks are less likely to be offered employment or housing compared to equally qualified whites. Some Americans would like to emulate the French, banning the collection of racial data, but an attempt to pass such a law by voter initiative here in California was overwhelmingly defeated in 2003.

Measuring the extent of racial inequality hasn’t eliminated the problem in the United States, nor will it in Europe. But it does make it harder to ignore. As Phillips explained in bringing the afternoon session to a close, “the most powerful way to get people aware is to tell them the facts.” Until the extent of the problem of racial inequality is fully disclosed, here and in Europe, there’s little reason to hope that a solution is at hand.

David B. Oppenheimer is a professor of law at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, and he also teaches Comparative Equality Law at the University of Paris X. He is a co-author of Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (University of California Press 2003).