What Trevor Noah knows about ‘Americanness’

Trevor Noah is now persona non grata in France. The African-born and multi-racial host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” got crossways with la République when he made a joke that didn’t strike our allies as funny.

It started out innocently enough. A few weeks ago, after France won the World Cup, Noah — alluding to the fact that 80 percent of the players on the French team were of African descent — playfully declared on his show: “Africa won the World Cup!”

I bet most people who saw that segment got the joke. Certainly, I assume, many Americans — who drink green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, and enjoy cannoli in Little Italy, and grill a juicy bratwurst now and then — weren’t especially troubled by the idea that a bunch of Frenchmen could also be seen as African.

Anyone remember U.S. Olympic track star Leo Manzano? Born in Mexico, Manzano celebrated his silver medal in the 2012 London games by waving the American flag but also the Mexican one.

I didn’t think the flag stunt was a good idea, and I said so at the time in a column for CNN. But I certainly didn’t think or say that the gesture made Manzano any less American. That’s silly.

Alas, sometimes, silliness is France’s national pastime. Noah’s throwaway line earned him an angry letter from Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States.

Araud was outraged that Noah would dare refer to any of the French players as African — or as anything other than French. In fact, he wrote, all but two of the 23 members of the team were born in France. They were educated in France, he said. And, they are French Citizens, he protested.

Moreover, Araud said, it was racist for Noah to imply — even in jest — that only white people can be French. Theirs is a proudly multicultural society, he said. Not at all like the United States, he said, which refers to its citizens based on race, origin, religion. No hyphenated identity for the French, he boasted.

Whoa, France, I surrender. Sorry, bad joke.

It is easy to claim that there is no ethnic strife in a given country — say, Norway — where there is very little ethnic diversity. In the same way, the reason the French don’t have to worry about hyphens is that they are much stingier than Americans are about handing out citizenship.

In France — unlike in the United States — there is no automatic citizenship for anyone born in France. In order to get that benefit, you have to have at least one French-born parent. Children born in France to foreign parents are not barred from obtaining citizenship, but they have to put in the effort and the French authorities have made sure the process isn’t as pleasant and carefree as a stroll down the Champs-Élysées.

The fact is that — regardless of what it says about France in the brochure — there are many residents who feel alienated, unwelcomed and marginalized. Some are Muslim. Many are African. And if there is racism there, Trevor Noah didn’t put it there.

For his part, the late-night host seemed perplexed by the idea — which seemed to be put forth by Araud — that the French soccer players had to be either “French” or “African.”

Noah asked, “Why can’t they be both?” — insisting that he didn’t want the players to give up either their Frenchness or their Africanness, but to continue to identify with both.

Then he sang the praises of his adopted country.

“That is what I love about America,” Noah said. “America is not a perfect place, but what I love about this place is that people can still celebrate their identity in their Americanness.”

I quite agree. I put it like this: “Our differences are what make us similar.” There’s a lot of commonality in how Mexicans, Irishmen, Italians relate to their ethnic differences.

But the best part of this story — and certainly the most important aspect — is what Noah then went on to say about the fickleness of nations, regarding its immigrants.

Everyone loves a winner, even if that winner is an immigrant. But, the flip side of that sentiment is that those who don’t win may never be accepted as full and equal citizens.

“When the African migrants are unemployed, when they may commit a crime or when they may be considered unsavory, they are African immigrants,” said Noah. “But when their children go on to provide a World Cup victory for France, we should only refer to them as French?”

That’s it. Such a small-minded way of looking at the world. The African soccer players helped deliver a historic victory that made everyone proud of France. Is it too much to ask that France return the favor and be proud of them?

Ruben Navarrette, a contributing editor to Angelus News, is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a Daily Beast columnist, author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano,” and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.”