Reports of routine Swedish racism ‘grossly exaggerated’

While immigrants can find it difficult to establish a foothold on the job market in Sweden, politicians, intellectuals and the media are often too quick to make employment a race issue, writes Nima Sanandaji.

Listening to media, politicians and intellectuals one gets a sense that racism, overt and casual, more or less defines daily life in Sweden. But as it turns out, the case for racism is routinely overstated. And perhaps more importantly, exaggerating this social problem can in itself hinder integration.

Recently Aleksander Gabelic, Member of Parliament for the Social Democrats and President of the United Nations Association of Sweden, demanded in a debate article that racist organizations should be banned in Sweden:

“In the convention against ethnic discrimination, which Sweden has signed, it is clearly stated that racist organizations and their propaganda should not be allowed.”

During the previous Social Democratic government, then Integration Minister Mona Sahlin appointed Professor Masoud Kamali to investigate the issue of discrimination. A number of subsequent reports explained that racism was an integral part of Swedish daily life, determining the actions of journalists, politicians, researchers and employers alike. Kamali wrote:

And according to the editorial pages of the country’s largest newspaper Aftonbladet, racism has “nothing to do with reality”. The paper argued that discriminatory views would not lose ground if immigrants were to improve their position in society.

Immigrants are faced with many challenges in Swedish society, not the least of which are financial. Among first generation immigrants from non-industrialized countries, less than half of the adults are active in the labour market. Immigrants who have employment or run their own businesses typically earn considerably less than native Swedes.

There are many reasons for these problems, such as rigid regulations making it difficult to enter the labour market, the failure of the education system to teach basic Swedish-language skills to newly arrived immigrants, or bureaucracy standing in the way of the expansion of immigrant businesses.

Which is not to say that simple discrimination does not exist. Many immigrants have from time to time faced mistreatment due to their ethnic origin, both in the labour market and elsewhere. However, the issue of racism in Sweden is quite complex. Scientific experiments indeed tell us that racism is not the main problem facing immigrants in the workplace.

It is in fact possible to objectively measure the effect of discrimination in the labour market. This has, for example, been done by the International Labour Organization (ILO), which in 2006 carried out a number of experiments to see how ethnic origin affected the ability to attain a job. The organization examined the employment prospects of fictional characters of Arabic and Swedish descent.

In the first stage of the experiment, employers that had announced vacancies were contacted by telephone and asked if they were interested in having job applications sent in. In the second stage, applications were sent to the employers who had shown an interest, and in the third stage the ILO sent out actors to job interviews.

The objective was to determine how well people from different backgrounds but with the same level of experience and education would perform in the real life labour market. Applications were sent to jobs in the restaurant business requiring few qualifications, since previous research had shown that discrimination was greatest in low-qualified fields of employment. So what were the results?

In the first stage, the researchers found marginal differences in outcome due to ethnic origin. In the third stage, the actors with Arabic origin in fact had better luck attaining jobs during the interviews than the actors of Swedish origin (although too few got as far as an interview for this effect to be statistically significant). The effects of ethnic discriminations were clearly shown only in the second stage, where those with Arabic names had to send away twice as many applications to be called to an interview.

A survey conducted for the paper Dagens Nyheter in 2004 found a similar, but much weaker effect. In this case, individuals with Swedish names had a 15 percent higher chance of getting a positive response when sending in applications compared to those with an Arabic name.

In a third scientific paper, researchers Magnus Carlsson and Dan-Olof Rooth summarize previous research results and their own findings.

They come to the conclusion that discrimination is almost only visible in the steps before a job interview: “Once individuals have been called to an interview they do not face discrimination”.

The researchers note in their own study that applicants with Swedish names must on average seek ten jobs in order to be called to three interviews. Those with Arabic names must apply to on average fifteen jobs to be called to the same number of interviews.

This effect is, according to the researchers, “probably only important if there is a lack of job vacancies advertised”, since immigrants can compensate for discrimination by applying for a greater number of jobs.

So why do peopel with Arabic names have more difficulty finding jobs when applying by letter, but not when on the phone or in an interview? One interpretation is that employers often assume that immigrants on average have less language skills. When job seekers show that they master Swedish on the phone or in a face-to-face conversation, most of the discriminatory effects disappear.

Carlsson and Rooth draw the conclusion that the media is over-selling the case of ethnic discrimination. They write: “In the media, the Swedish labour market is sometimes described as strongly discriminatory and subject to racism. This perspective seems, based on our finding, to be greatly exaggerated.”

The researchers go as far as to note that it can have serious consequences if exaggerations of ethnic discrimination lead to jobseekers with immigrant background choosing to less actively seek jobs or educate themselves. Indeed, it is quite apparent that this effect exists in immigrant neighbourhoods. Many young immigrants become quite disillusioned by media reports regarding racism and discrimination.

When society tells young immigrants that they simply cannot achieve success through work and education, fewer choose to work hard on attaining a good degree or making a career. A negative perspective towards society is created, turning some towards crime and anti-social behaviour.

Racism is a social ill that must be combated and openly discussed. But another social problem is the way in which intellectuals exaggerate the case for racism, misleading many immigrants into believing that success is not a possible for them. It is important to give a nuanced view of discrimination and racism, communicating the obstacles as well as the opportunities to success through work and education in Swedish society.

Nima Sanandaji is the president of the Swedish free market think tank Captus and publisher of the weekly online Swedish magazine Captus Tidning.