There is a lack of political action in Sweden to address integration that has long been compensated by strong rhetoric that bashes old policies. “We might even stop talking about immigration policy,” Ola Ullsten, a prominent Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) politician, said in the 1970s.
When the term “integration” came into vogue in the 1990s, it was meant to replace the then stigmatized concept of multiculturalism. And when Iranian-born professor Masoud Kamali presented the findings of a state inquiry on structural discrimination in 2006, the solution was to scrap integration policy.
More recently, some suggested ahead of the Social Democrats’ party congress in Gothenburg last week that if they take power, they should abolish the job of integration minister all together. The party’s governing board said that integration is “a problematic concept” that should preferably not be used.
Commentators from different political camps applauded the initiative.
Per Wirtén, a columnist with the centre-left Dagens Arena newspaper, wrote that he sympathizes with the spirit of the proposal, but would rather see a name change: let one anti-racism minister take over the fight against “structural racial discrimination.”
The word “immigrant” has been purged from the new proposed party programme. While both the 1990 and 2001 programmes dealt with integration problems, the 2013 analysis says it time to face racism with a general policy of equality. The programme warns that “poor groups and impoverished areas” will be translated into an ethnic problem in the public debate. Accordingly, the Social Democrats have since called itself an “anti-racist” party.
Is this a return to traditional social democratic equality policy, a settlement with the last remnants of the craze for identity politics under the former leadership of Mona Sahlin? Hardly.
More striking is how people have perceived the relationship between Swedes and immigrants in a rather consistent way during Sweden’s half-century long history as a country of immigrants.
It all started in 1964. “Why are foreigners unhappy in Sweden?” asked Polish-born translator Lukasz Winiarski in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper during what may have been the very first Swedish integration debate. The answer? It was the Swedes’ fault: “The Swedes have lived for centuries isolated and alone in their inhospitable country. This has left its mark on the Swedish attitude toward outsiders. ”
Through the years, the choice of words has changed – the foreigners have become migrants who became new arrivals; the lack of hospitality became become xenophobia that become racism – but the questions and answers are basically the same.
In 1978, Expressen described Sweden as “a wicked country” for its inability to include immigrants. “Drive them out!” the same newspaper wrote in 1993 in a paraphrase of what they perceived as the dominant public opinion. In 2013, Aftonbladet writes that “we are a racist country, a rigidly segregated country”.
Back in the 1970s, David Schwarz, one of the very earliest advocates for a multicultural society, reflected on the Swedish public’s self-criticism: “The Swedes must also appear as a peculiar people for many immigrants who constantly get to read in the press about how bad and stupid Swedes behave towards them, writings that sometimes may take the form of a national self-hatred.”
The self-criticism, however, has been offset by an equally unbridled pride in our tolerance and multiculturalism. The most recent example is, of course, Aftonbladet’s “Vi gillar olika” (‘We like difference’) campaign, where “we” were the 95 percent who did not vote for “them”. Who is “them”? It’s the people that both the conservative Finance Minister Anders Borg and then Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin called “un-Swedish” during the 2010 election campaign: the Sweden Democrats.
It is not easy to orient oneself in the highly diverse descriptions of Swedish society. One moment the Sweden Democrats are an insignificant minority in a tolerant and difference-appreciating society; the next moment they are the tip of the iceberg of structural racism.
This isn’t coherent and opinion can’t keep up.
Swedes are the most positive in Europe toward immigration and multiculturalism, but also the most convinced that the difficulties immigrants have integrating is due to discrimination in their new country. The vast majority favours the idea of a multicultural society, but four out of five believe that immigrants should adapt to “our country’s habits”. In addition, two out of three Swedes believe there are categories of immigrants who are not capable of this.
The question is what sort of real changes could take place from a social analysis that completely replaces an integration perspective with a class perspective and a government that replaces integration policies with anti-racist policies.
Since the 1970s, the goal of social equality and tolerance for cultural diversity has guided Swedish immigration policy. We’ve long used the state’s resources and coercive power to encourage diversity and combat discrimination. In public, there is little tolerance for any form of racism and xenophobia is very low.
Swedish integration policy is already described as the most inclusive in Europe. Few countries can boast as impressive army of commentators ready to run out at the drop of a hat and condemn those who even come close to expressing a racist thought. On Avpixlat, an immigration-critical website with links to the Sweden Democrats, this is called political correctness. In academia, it’s called discourse. This is all well and good, but does it really get us anywhere. By political means?
Nor is racism sufficient to explain the employment gap, housing segregation, or school segregation. Many problems are demonstrably higher in Sweden than in other countries, but there is no indication that racism is more pronounced here. Rather, it’s quite the contrary. Not even when it comes to discrimination, intolerance and social contradictions is racism more than a partial explanation.
What we tend to forget is that Sweden is neither politically, economically or culturally an optimal immigrant country. We have labour and housing markets for insiders, we are a nation united by a thick layer of identity-bearing markers and we’ve historically had limited experience with multiculturalism.
Rather than racism, Sweden is characterized by a norm of conformity: the unspoken expectation that immigrants should adapt and Swedes’ lack of cultural self-awareness that creates uncertainty when we encounter other cultures, a lack of humility before other perspectives about progress and modernity. This is a harmful cultural norm that creates obstacles to equal integration. But it is not necessarily racism.
As a political solution, anti-racist campaigns are as simple as they are ineffective. Social and economic reforms, however, are as necessary as they are demanding.
Unfortunately, it’s only when immigration and integration policy becomes concrete when political Sweden continues to show its lack of maturity and would rather engage in semantics rather than political responsibility for the difficult trade-offs that need to be made.
Andreas Johansson Heinö is a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg. Follow him on Twitter here
This article was originally published in Swedish in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper. Translation by The Local