By Susana Martínez Guillem
“We are all Multiculturalists now,” Nathan Glazer famously proclaimed in his best-selling 1998 book (Harvard University Press). His was a provocative, rather conservative critique of contemporary changes in U.S. public schools’ curriculum, which he saw as a symptom of the abandoning of more valid, pre-1960s ideals in American society. One of the reasons this was a provocative intervention is that, in the US context, the notion of multiculturalism, at least in public settings, is one of those “ideological commonplaces” — to borrow Michel Billig’s term — that is usually not readily questioned. Even in his neoliberal proposal for an immigration reform, which many progressive organizations oppose, U.S. President Barack Obama consistently invokes multiculturalism as the ideal basis for a strong national identity, based on what he calls “a simple idea, as old as America itself: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.”
But what about the European context? And more specifically, how does the European Union (EU) as a whole, as well as its different member states, negotiate the tensions that come with the practices associated with multiculturalism? Overall, and in the last couple of decades, the fear of disintegration of a painstakingly constructed EU has brought with it a particular attention to the consequences of (im)migration processes, mostly in terms of what is perceived as the new and unstoppable reality of a “multicultural Europe.” The European Commission’s website reads: “Europe is home to a wide variety of people. This diversity brings richness to our cultures, economies and societies” (http://ec.europa.eu/index_en.htm). However, by and large, the different EU states’ response to “diversity” has been to reinforce existing legal barriers for immigrants and asylum seekers—a move that has been recently documented by Liz Fekete in “Detained: foreign children in Europe,” (Race & Class, 49, 2007, pp. 93-104). States have also created specific filters in the form of language tests and “citizenship” contracts as prerequisites for being granted stable legal status, but also through regulating mechanisms for those who are legally present in the EU, such as dress codes or architectural norms that systematically penalize those practices that are perceived as foreign. Some of these barriers have dramatically increased in the last five years of economic recession. In Spain, for example, the government went from offering paths towards legalization for more than 1 million undocumented immigrants in 2005, to providing subsidies, microcredits and free plane tickets for those who decided to go back to their countries of origin in the last three years.
Remarkably, therefore, the anxieties provoked by the allegedly increasing perception of insecurity, disintegration of traditional values and scarce resources across the EU have not only led to a political crisis, but also to progressive distancing, at the national level, from the embracement of diversity preached by the European institutions and towards a consistent official discourse that proclaims the “failure of multiculturalism.” In the last years, the (former) prime ministers of France, Germany, the UK and Spain have all, in one way or another, questioned the viability of multiculturalism as a policy. For José María Aznar, for example, “multiculturalism divides society: it is not living together, it is not integration.” As Alana Lentin has shown in “After anti-racism?” (European Journal of Cultural Studies, 11, 2008, pp. 311-331), one salient characteristic of this kind of discourse is that it blames current clashes among groups on the excessive tolerance of host countries towards non-dominant practices which, according to this view, provide the seeds for internal radicalisms. Recent events such as the deportation of Roma travelers from France and Italy, or the closing of the French border to prevent the arrival of Libyan refugees from Italy, together with the legal response — or lack thereof — by EU authorities suggest that systematic marginalization and exclusion is becoming more and more acceptable within mainstream European public opinion.
Thus, interestingly enough, practices such as the indefinite detention of the children of asylum seekers, or the systematic incarceration of post-colonial immigrants occur within, and not in contradiction with, a general commonsense understanding of the “New” Europe as a progressive, egalitarian and post-racist society — in contrast to pre-War World II Europe, but also to contemporary non-Western societies. In this context, it is possible to unproblematically reconcile, for example, the resolute intervention to “save Sakinen,” a woman condemned to die by stoning in Iran, and the equally resolute deportation from France of more than 8000 eastern European Roma on the grounds that they constitute a threat to the social order. It is thus OK to publicly ask “for the EU to collectively express their rejection of practices of another time,” as former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner did with reference to Sakinen, (BBC, August 2010) but it is not generally perceived as acceptable to claim, as the European commissioner responsible for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship did, that the French government’s actions suspiciously resembled those carried out by the Nazi regime against the Jews (El País, September 15th, 2010). In fact, when racism is invoked in public European discourse to refer to discriminatory practices taking place in one of the EU’s member states, controversy is likely to follow.
Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable to imagine that a politician — other than a member of an extremely conservative political party — would publicly state that multiculturalism “divides society,” that “it is not integration,” or that it is “a failure.” However, this disassociation of multiculturalism from notions such as integration or equality as a way to exclude non-desirable immigrants has become frequent in the contemporary Western European public sphere. Thus, in the last decade, there has been a slow but steady shift in the ways in which multiculturalism can be talked about publicly across the EU, not only within right-wing, anti-immigration political circles, but also in more moderate settings. In this context, many progressive groups across the EU have uncritically embraced and defended multiculturalism in an attempt to position themselves against conservative, xenophobic impulses. As Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley argue (The crises of multiculturalism. Racism in a neoliberal age, Zed Books, London, 2011), this has left some anti-racist activists who are suspicious of multiculturalist ideology in a difficult position, where they must craft an in-between argumentative space that can critique liberal, racializing policies informed by multiculturalism without reinforcing a xenophobic backlash.
One of the problems with linking multiculturalism to racism is that the shameful “racial past” of pre-World War II Europe continues to condition the ways in which Europeans (do not) talk about “race,” both within academia and outside of it. In public discourse, when “race” and racism are dealt with explicitly, it is often only to assert that there is no place for them in the context of a competitive and egalitarian EU. “Race” is also seen as problematic — for different reasons — in many academic circles, including much critical scholarship. Some scholars, such as Roland Hsu (Ethnic Europe. Mobility, identity and conflict in a globalized world, Stanford University Press, 2010) see it as an outdated concept and propose to focus instead on ethnic categories in order to explain the contemporary nature of conflicts across the European landscape. This focus, however, is usually accompanied by a highlighting of identity differences that are conceptualized mostly as a choice rather than an imposition. Thus, these kinds of studies do not seem to be fully equipped to account for how particular traits — even if they are described as “ethnic” — come to be treated as essential, thus constituting certain groups as inherently deficient in certain contexts. However, as Peter Hervik argues in “Anthropological perspectives on the new racism in Europe” (Ethnos, 69, 2004, pp. 149-155), the absence of a term such as “ethnicism” in this literature speaks to the emphasis on (surmountable) differences rather than conflicts derived from power relations when examining patterns of inclusion and exclusion in the EU context.
The consistent suspicion with regards to the proposal that “race” may be an important component of discriminatory practices thus coexists with a new — or, in the case of many European countries, recently acknowledged — reality in which the systematic exclusion of certain groups permeates more and more the different social strata. When trying to cope with this scenario, it has become increasingly difficult for scholars writing in/on the European context to account for “race” while still maintaining a credible critical stance — see, for example, the strong criticisms of “race”-centered scholarship put forward by Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant in “Sur les ruses de la raison impérialiste” (Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 121-122, 1998, pp. 109-118). Consequently, culture and its associated tropes, such as multiculturalism or diversity, have emerged in scholarly and public discourse as suitable ways to capture what for some is a celebrated or problematic reality, for others a set of commendable or lamentable policies, and yet for others, an unrealized ideal. It is undeniable that these contemporary keywords have opened the door for the recognition of certain minority groups — especially in Western Europe — but, at the same time, they have also facilitated a de-emphasis on the often hierarchical nature of categorical divisions.
As Wendy Brown argues (Regulating aversion. Tolerance in the age of identity and empire. Princeton, 2008), this ideological turn from a vertical organization of differences towards a horizontal one can be placed in the context of a pervasive discourse of tolerance which has been increasingly embraced in liberalist societies and presented as the facilitator of a problematic multiculturalist condition. In Brown’s words, tolerance as a political discourse is far from being purely benign, or even neutral. Rather, it involves “the enactment of social, political, religious and cultural norms” since subjects of tolerance are marked as inferior. In this sense, tolerance is primarily a regulating mechanism. Along similar lines, the politics of recognition of difference that tend to accompany multiculturalist thinking have been regarded as problematic in some critically-oriented intellectual circles, mostly coming from the Marxist tradition. In conclusion (or rather, as a way to open the conversation) it seems like the implications of different understandings of culture for our theorizing of the relationships among multiculturalism, immigration and inequality are far from clear-cut, and shedding some light of these (dis)connections could be an important role for those interested in the critical examination of discursive practices and their material implications. We could start by discussing whether multiculturalism stands in direct opposition to systemic inequalities, or rather, it acts as yet another mechanism to reinforce them.