The World Cup, and Europe’s race and racism problem

A piece in the New York Times today that echoes much of the soul-searching that’s been happening in German and other European newspapers: With the World Cup imminent, racial tensions here are being put on a world stage.

Several ugly racial incidents have dominated headlines in the month-plus we’ve been here. A Ethiopian-born man was attacked and nearly killed in a Berlin suburb. A Black child was attacked by a gang of other kids, on obvious racial grounds. An ethnic Turkish member of paliament was assaulted. Fans at a soccer game taunted a Nigerian player with monkey sounds; he gave them the Nazi salute, which is illegal here, and was subsequently charged (though the charge was quickly dropped).

Some anti-racism groups are warning non-whites to stay out of certain areas of Germany, because “it is possible (they) wouldn’t get out alive.”
Nor is this kind of behavior limited to Germany. According to the Times:

Players and antiracism experts said they expected offensive behavior during the tournament, including monkey-like chanting; derisive singing; the hanging of banners that reflect neofascist and racist beliefs; and perhaps the tossing of bananas or banana peels, all familiar occurrences during matches in Spain, Italy, eastern Germany and eastern Europe.

German officials have said they expect demonstrations by far-right, neo-Nazi type groups during the Cup. But this is more potentially disturbing. This is not organized behavior, it is grassroots prejudice among people who feel, for whatever reason, that has become acceptable to act this way.

The United States has had a hideous race problem since its creation. But for all the serious, lingering problems, it is something the country (occasionally) deals with openly and productively. We had a civil rights movement. Prop. 187 in California showed a dangerous level of anti-Latino prejudice, but there were consequences — the Republicans lost political control for a decade. The immigrant movement now gaining steam may have the same effect nationwide.

The U.S. has the advantage of being grounded in a theory of inclusion and immigration which has nothing do to with race or national origin. Yes, the *practice* of that has been deeply flawed from the beginning, with property-owning white men being initially the only full citizens, and other groups being disenfranchised economically and politically even to the present. But ideals are strong, and I believe this embattled theory remains one of the deepest underlying strands of cohesion in the country, despite the corrosive effects of racism and nationalism.

European countries, for the most part, do not have this founding ideal. They are based on territory, and in many cases the idea of a people or nation, not abstract ideals. The patterns of immigration throughout history make this nonsensical (read Herodotus on the way all tribes bounced around the Mediterrean if there’s any question about this), but again, ideas are strong, and nationalism and racism have had less to counterbalance them here.

Europe is at a point in history where world migration patterns, and the free flow of labor and capital, must force it to become a region of inclusiveness and immigration. The alternative is to become brittle, with an aging population that impoverishes the region while India and China become tomorrow’s superpowers.


  1. What can we learn from this about what our country has done right and wrong with our immigration policies?

    America’s practices haven’t always been on point. Have the ideals?

    Great post, John.

  2. Spot on that Europeans continue to define their nationality largely in terms of blood and soil. Even the most progressive Frenchman or German cannot grasp the concept of a hypenated citizen (“asian-american”, “african-american” etc); try traveling through Europe with an asian-american friend and count the number of times you hear skepticism that your friend is an American (mais non, vous etes chinois, bien sur”). IIRC until very recently German second-generation immigrants of Turkish descent could not gain citizenship while Volga Russians whose great-great-great-grandfathers were German could become citizens upon showing the German (racial) link.

    As to what we can “learn” from America’s experience, it seems clear to me that we are far more racially tolerant than Germany, or any nation in Europe, and that this tolerance owes a great deal to both American individualism and the historical legacy of the state generally leaving religious minorities alone.

    With few exceptions (Holland in the 17-18c, Britain today) the European preference has always been for the state to intervene in spiritual matters, to organize, supervise, and control religious minorities. In the 20c and still today (cf Sarkozy’s notion of an “Islamic parliament” in France), this controlling and interventionist instinct has been expressed through corporatist institutions by which the state creates an official institution by which the religious minority can be kept on a tight leash.

    By contrast, the American approach since the mid-18c has always been laissez-faire (not to mention chaotic) as regards religious minorities. The central importance of church-state separation has meant that religious minorities have generally been left alone to worship, do business, raise their families and pursue happiness as they please. Even the crackdown on the mormons in the early 19c was designed to break the link between the mormon church and state power, not destroy the mormon church hierarchy or other institutions themselves.

    The other reason that America’s minority relations are strong, ironically, is the laissez-faire attitude toward state intervention to help immigrants economically, coupled with high labor mobility, geographic mobility and economic opportunities for the ambitious and clever. Europe’s postwar immigration policy was designed to address a shortage of factory labor in the 1950s-1960s, and attracted waves of unskilled north africans and later sub-saharan africans, turks and pakistanis. Few of them had any real opportunity to open the kinds of small businesses that traditionally serve as the ladder to middle-class success; they were herded into huge suburban projects and given dead-end jobs within a rigid labor caste system. But now the factory jobs have disappeared or are disappearing, and so the grandchildren of these immigrants, lacking decent educational oportunities and no chance to gain entry-level jobs because of a tightly regulated service economy, sit and simmer in the cites, or projects.

    By contrast immigrants to the US generally know that there will be little or no state support when they arrive, and therefore will need to look to the immigrant community for jobs and help getting settled. It’s that community that provides work, business creation opportunities, loans and credit, and help ascending the ladder in the US, which is why the 30,000+ Somali muslims in Columbus OH or the 200,000+ arabs in Detroit are largely middle-class, entrepreneurial, self-employed and assimilated.

  3. Interesting. The theory of nationalism and geographicalism can certainly be tested against conditions in parts of Asia and the Middle East, then? Although the mix there may be volatile more because of religion than race.

    I just watched Bowling for Columbine (finally!) and it’s an undisputed fact that more gun deaths occur in the United States than in any other country (discounting the ones that have a civil or other sort of war going on, of course). When queried with “why do you think that is?” many of the U.S. citizens that Moore interviewed cited our “ethnic mix” as one of the reasons.

    Sounds like in Europe, they just prefer to beat the shit out of colors they don’t like. Here, we shoot them or they end up shooting each other in those simmering urban disasters that Thibaud alludes to.

    When confronted with the quality of the violence (i.e., who is it directed at?) vs. the overall level, I am tempted to think that while we have more experience dealing with racial hatred and violence here, we are doing a terrible job keeping violence in general down to an acceptable level. The United States is not really that safe of a place! But maybe that is just a matter of execution, as you point out– a bad carrying-out of the ideal that each person has the right to liberty, life, and happiness.

    A lot of rage is that toxic, childish helplessness that destroys and blames because it can’t understand why things are getting worse for everybody.

    thank you for the post.

  4. What do you expect from the Euro’s. they have been lecturing the united states on morals since the end of the second war. They have always been and always be the most racist people on the earth. They really have the gall to lecture us, when they openly practice hate speech. They disgust me

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