Racism is on everyone’s mind lately. This seems to be a result of a few high profile altercations between white law enforcement and black civilians. National examples include the Ferguson shooting, the NYPD choking, and the killing of the kid with the toy gun. Closer to home, we have the case of the black student at Fargo South HS who was physically restrained by a white police officer, captured on video.
The conversation has been primarily about race, the national problem with race, the history of racism in the US, the lack of progress on combating racism, etc. Part of the modern American DNA – something that is drilled into every American, by school, by the news, etc — is that America has an ugly history of racism as government policy, and that we’ve been trying to dig ourselves out of it ever since.
This is, of course, true. America DOES have a history of government enforced racism, and that racism has persisted within the government and the population long past official retirement as government policy.
So it seems very natural – so natural that everyone is doing it – to frame the recent white-on-black law enforcement fiascos as evidence of remaining racism in America, and, more nefariously, evidence of remaining government-backed racism in America.
The protests happening across the US have a consistent theme: black Americans are not treated properly by “the system”. The US government, and US law enforcement, is seen as a white apparatus, implemented by white interests, primarily for white interests.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”If we accept that the national anger is a result of our history of racism, and frustration that it is still here, we might have cause for a strange sort of optimism, because, if the problem is rooted in our history, then someday, we should finally have enough distance from it.”[/mks_pullquote]
It may be that this is true. And it may be that this is primarily because of the bitter history of racism in our country. If we accept that the national anger is a result of our history of racism, and frustration that it is still here, we might have cause for a strange sort of optimism, because, if the problem is rooted in our history, then someday, we should finally have enough distance from it. Someday, it is supposed, all of the people who were taught to be racist will have finally died, and we’ll finally live in the post-racial, multi-cultural society that everyone claims to want.
But what if the violence isn’t happening for the reasons we think it is?
What if our history of racism isn’t the only contributing factor?
What if the problem is something else?
The rhetoric about the racial divide has gotten so intense that, today, I read an article that attempted to claim that reason and evidence are white tools that do not consider the black perspective or black experience. It is clear that there are at least two communities in America. Obviously, there are many more. But today was the first time I had read a black person claim that truth is simply different for white and black communities.
If we are talking about groups that have different ideas about what is true, we’re having a conversation about culture and identity. And so I asked the question that is taboo in modern America: does multi-culturalism work? Are we seeing an intractable consequence of trying to build a multi-cultural society?
It turns out that that the US isn’t the only place where culture clashes are a source of national tension, frustration, violence, and claims of police brutality. Sweden, France, Denmark, and Australia are all struggling to cope with the realities of transitioning towards multi-culturalism.
[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”The rhetoric about the racial divide has gotten so intense that, today, I read an article that attempted to claim that reason and evidence are white tools that do not consider the black perspective or black experience.”[/mks_pullquote]It is customary for Americans to simply accept that Western Europe is more enlightened than the US, and that because Western Europe doesn’t have the ugly history of slavery and Jim Crow that the US has, that Europe has an easier and more high-minded time with the issues of building a multi-cultural society that adapts to a multi-cultural population.
This appears to not be the case.
Sweden and France have been the victim of riots from Muslim immigrant populations. In the case of Sweden, the government services given to new immigrants are immense; they are given free language lessons, can vote in local elections, etc. Despite extensive attempts to adapt to a large immigrant population over decades, more than 50% of Swedes now favor stronger restrictions on immigration.
Regarding the 2013 riots outside of Stockholm, comes this quote from Marc Abramsson, head of the Swedish National Democrats party:
“This is a clear consequence of this multiculturalism politics that Sweden adopted around ‘80s and increased in the ‘90s… And this is not a unique one single occasion… we have had these ethnic-based riots against Swedish authorities. We have seen this in Western Europe, that is very sad, and I think we will see more of this, if we don’t change the politics”…
“Sweden has been trying harder than any of the countries in Europe to try to push for integration. We have invested virtually billions from taxpayers’ money into it, we have tried everything that the scientists have presented – and still it’s not working,”
They live in their area, and they feel the area is their own. And when the police arrive, they feel they are you intruding into their, sort of, ‘country.’ The police… who work in these areas, there have to be in two cars, one protecting the other. People are trying to maintain buildings, to have security guards, the fire department can’t work, they get attacked by angry immigrant youth that feel like they’re intruding into their own area, even though they’re trying to help,”
The point of this quote isn’t to agree or disagree with Mr. Abramsson. The point is that he is the leader of a Swedish political party and this is his indictment of multi-culturalism in his country.
Apparently the frustration in Sweden is so bad that a new law will go into effect which outlaws criticizing immigration policy on the internet. Sweden’s commitment to multi-culturalism is apparently more important than any commitment it might have to allow political speech.
Sweden does not have a history of slavery or of Jim Crow. Multi-culturalism is codified as law in the Swedish national constitution.
The problems in Sweden do not come from its history of slavery or racism.
Yet the problems, and the backlash, have arrived. The Swedes are not saying it is an issue of race, but an issue of lack of cultural assimilation. A clash of cultures, in the same physical space.
Denmark, for its part, has been more explicit that it is not a multi-cultural society; that is, it is tolerant of multi-ethnic composition, but expects socio-political assimilation:
Official policies and attitudes in DK articulate the view that an increasingly (though reluctantly) multi-ethnic society does not have to become politically multicultural, but can insist on (and impose on immigrants and descendants) its cultural and historical identity in the face of global challenges. In that sense, Danish integration policies are necessarily assimilationist and have their own historical logic. This is a logic, however, that is currently under siege and is leading not just to more stridently cultural nationalism, shriller islamophobia and increasingly nostalgic notions of Denmark for the Danes
In Denmark, in fact, there has been political interest in banning the construction of mosques with the architectural minaret feature. Switzerland actually passed such a ban in a national popular election.
Denmark and Switzerland also do not have histories of racism or slavery. The populations in these societies are reacting to the rapid loss of their socio-political homogeneity in the face of a massive influx of Muslim immigrants.
France, in its efforts to preserve what it views as the dominant French culture, has taken the step of banning religious head garments in public schools.
In each of these countries, there has been violence between the police forces and the Muslim immigrant population which has had difficulty assimilating into Western European ways of living.
In none of these counties is there a legacy of slavery of racism, yet in all of them there is cross-cultural violence, distrust, segmentation, and resentment.
Perhaps we can conclude that multi-culturalism is challenging even without the history of government slavery and racism the US experienced.
It turns out that people have studied negative impacts of multi-culturalism on individuals and societies. From Wikipedia:
Harvard professor of political science Robert D. Putnam conducted a nearly decade long study how diversity affects social trust. He surveyed 26,200 people in 40 American communities, finding that when the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, the more racially diverse a community is, the greater the loss of trust. People in diverse communities “don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” writes Putnam. In the presence of such ethnic diversity, Putnam maintains that “We hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us”
Ethologist Frank Salter writes:
Relatively homogeneous societies invest more in public goods, indicating a higher level of public altruism. For example, the degree of ethnic homogeneity correlates with the government’s share of gross domestic product as well as the average wealth of citizens. Case studies of the United States … find that multi-ethnic societies are less charitable and less able to cooperate to develop public infrastructure. … A recent multi-city study of municipal spending on public goods in the United States found that ethnically or racially diverse cities spend a smaller portion of their budgets and less per capita on public services than do the more homogeneous cities.
These are interesting findings. They say, in effect, that as racial diversity within a society increases, trust decreases, as does public support for community effort and community participation.
If we consider the difficult experiences of formerly homogenous Western democracies that have had to deal with influxes of immigrants with a different cultural identity, and we consider the research that suggests racial diversity decreases trust in community and trust in government, an upsetting possibility presents itself:
Perhaps having white cops policing black neighborhoods is never going to be satisfying for anybody, as long as white and black society seem to be culturally distinct. Furthermore, this may have little to do with the history of racism in the US, and it may instead be the result of something more generally problematic when dissimilar cultures coexist.
It’s not entirely clear to me what we should do about this.
However, if we are wrong about what the true nature of the problem is – if, for instance, we carelessly assume that our history of racism is the entirety of our difficulties – we won’t succeed.