The racial divide across the Atlantic

By Michelle Chen Apr 17, 2009

In the global context, America’s problems with racism, diversity and segregation are unique in some ways, typical in others. The Center for American Progress has published an analysis comparing different challenges of racial and ethnic integration on both sides of the Atlantic. For both the United States and Europe, the surge in immigration has spawned new forms of instability and economic anxiety, as immigrants alter the labor force and the "native-born" population ages. Spencer Boyer, author of the report, writes, "Ultimately, only those countries capable of effectively managing and harnessing the power of diversity in employment, education, and other areas are likely to be successful in the 21st century." Yet xenophobia plays out differently in Europe and America. In the European Union countries like Germany and Switzerland, the question of citizenship has historically turned on “bloodlines” and heritage. American society has evolved a somewhat different concept of citizenship as relatively open legal process—however paradoxically that may unfold in stratified social and economic structures. The analysis suggests that racial tensions could have dangerous “security implications," and that "Preventing the alienation, resentment, and potential backlash that can come when immigrant and minority groups are excluded from the societal benefits others enjoy are concerns on both sides of the Atlantic." The report gives markedly less attention to the security threats posed to immigrants by racial and anti-immigrant violence, driven by nativist anger. Yet Boyer presents critical contrasts in how race is lived in Europe and in America. While European countries are in many ways unburdened by America’s heavy legacy of discrimination and exclusion, their institutional response to racism—through courts and political discourse—appears less developed. People of color in America still face subsurface discrimination, de facto segregation and outright bigotry every day, and all the painful irony that entails. But there is at least some public concept of heterogeneity as part of national identity, though it remains obviously far from realized. The experiences of both Europe and America show that policy instruments alone won’t cut through the divides wrought by race and immigration. Personal interaction, economic transaction and local political action weave genuine diversity into the community fabric—cultivating not just demographic integration, but social integrity. Image: Jaleel Bawa, 3, of Charlotte, NC at a naturalization ceremony at the Greensboro Coliseum’s War Memorial Auditorium. (Nelson Kepley, News & Record)