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Is Denmark a racist country?

By Wolfgang Mostert, economist and historian. wolfgang@mostert.dk  www.mostert.dk

16 September 2020

Until the mid-1960s, the Danish population was exceptionally homogenous in terms of ethnic and religious background: 99% of the population was ‘white’ and close to 97% were Lutheran Protestants with the rest being Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhists.  A standard joke was that two Danes could not meet in a train and talk for half an hour without realizing that they had a friend or a relative in common. Direct, but very distant, interaction with non-whites was mainly with the 50,000 Inuit population of Greenland, which is part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Since then migrants from more than 100 countries have become part of Danish population and society; including minor groups of Vietnamese, Chinese, Sri Lankans, a rapidly growing “brown” Muslim population of Arab-, Afghan- and Pakistani origin with “black” Somalis, Eritreans, Nigerians, Gambians, Sudanese coming next in terms of numbers.  The share of the Danish population with ‘non-Western’ background (1rst and2nd generation) increased from 1% in 1980 to 8.9% in 2020.

The transition from a socially closely knit society to a multi-ethnic and religiously plural society (only 74% of Danes are now member of the Lutheran state church) neither has been nor is a frictionless process.  Segregated communities – clustering of immigrants from third-world countries in social building blocks – was and is seen as a threat to integration and national cohesion.  The secular society – attendance at church services is below 6% of the Protestant community – has difficulties to accept religiously defined rules and cultural norms insisted on by conservative members of the Muslim community. Dansk Folkeparti, a populist party with an anti-immigration platform managed to reach more than 20% of the vote in the 2015 national election.

Concern about irregular immigration and political measures to restrict it leads domestic and external observers to accuse Danish society of being racist; symbolised by Ms. Inger Støjberg,the previous Government’s Minister of Integration, celebrating the adoption during her mandate of the 50th measure restricting immigration by eating a candled cake.  Is the accusation justified?

Depending on how you look at it, the answer is either a clear “yes”, or, an almost equally clear “no”.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines racism along three lines: “(i) a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race, (ii) the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another, (iii)  a political or social system founded on racism and designed to execute its principles.”

This definition acquits 20th and 21rst century Denmark: sympathizers with Nazi-Germany and Apartheid South Africa made up a tiny percentage of the population.

The “clear yes” answer to racism in Denmark pops up when we look at the softest form of racism: ‘identification racism’, that people find it easier to relate immediately to persons that resemble themselves. A white group watching a movie showing a white and a black person being tortured will find empathy with both but most strongly with the white person; a black test group will have a stronger feeling of empathy for the black person.  That stone-age tribal comfort zone trait is shared by persons worldwide.

‘Identification racism’ is independent of ethnic group.  This has the logical consequence that the dominant racial discrimination in a society where a minority group lives is the one exercised by the majority group.    Member of the Danish Parliament, ikandar Siddique, a highly talented climate and anti-racism activist of Pakistani family background illustrates examples of racism in Denmark, inter alia, by the observation that a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf has to submit 60% more job applications on average to get a job than an ethnic Danish woman.  Debates about racism and anti-racist campaigns in a country therefore focus on discrimination directed at minority groups,  Identification racism exercised by the majority group is an important issue for coherence in a  society as it poses an obstacle for the integration of minority groups.   According to much prevailing discourse about racism in Western countries – exemplified by Robin Diangelo’s book “White Fragility, why it´s so hard for white people to talk about racism” [2] – racism is a white thing.  The narrative is misleading; minority groups are equally racist. That immigrants clumb together in certain housing areas is not only determined by famil income and the location of social housing. In Denmark, some Muslim families forbid daughters to have ethnic Danish friends (girls and boys), Muslim boys’ shouts of “prostitute” at ethnic Danish women walking home happen. In Sweden, there are instances of ‘brown’ boys beating up and humiliating ethnic Swedish ‘white’ boys because they are white. A Turkish-German friend told me how angry it made her witnessing German Turks behaving aggressively towards Kurds during holidays in Turkey: “Having the experience of being a minority group in Germany should make them more sensitive towards how the Kurds feel!”.

‘Identification racism’ is the psychological foundation for harder forms of racism. The level of ‘identification racism’, as such, is independent of ethnic group. Unfortunately, religious identity has a frightening ability to reinforce ‘them and us’ sentiments. Populist politicians – from the majority and the minortity – can pour gasoline on the fire by claiming that specific religious-ethnic groups have certain psychological and moral qualities which are incompatible with prevailing norms in society.  A recent example: Kristian Thulesen Dahl, Chairman of Dansk Folkeparti accused Sikandar Siddique of sympathizing with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an international, pan-Islamist and fundamentalist political organization whose stated aim is the re-establishment of an Islamic Caliphate to unite the Muslim community and implement the Shariah. In Denmark it has few Muslim followers and is mainly known for its campaigns trying to convince Danish Muslims not to vote in national and municipal elections claiming that Allah’s law, not manmade law is to rule a country.  Siddique being a very active, enthusiastic democratic politician demonstrates through his actions that he is the anti-thesis of Hizb-ut-Tahrir political ideals.  The absurd and irresponsible accusation refers to that he had attended a meeting organized by Hizb-ut-Tahrir in 2004.  Dahl attempts to exploit the fact that Siddique is Muslim to make his participation at the meeting look suspicious rather than an expression of political curiosity.

It is easy for journalists to find individual examples of hard-core racism.  My ‘law of personal interaction’, formulated on the basis of experience from consulting work in more than 70 countries, postulates that in any country 70% of the population is very friendly, 20% are comme-ci/comme-ca, 10% are bastards.  No matter how welcoming the average majority person may be, minority persons in any country will experience real – not just subjectively felt – racist episodes.  Racist remarks and hostile reactions will be encountered at public spaces and work places.

Unless it is recognized that identity racism is reciprocal and needs to be addressed on both sides, policy recommendations to combat racism miss their goal. Unfortunately, many voices start by looking upwards and looking for structural factors instead of addressing the psychological root of racism.  Ms. Bwalya Sørensen, self-appointed spokeswoman for ‘Black Lives Matter’ in Denmark which came into being after the killing of George Floyd, and other anti-racism activists, accuse in speeches, interviews and blogs Danish society of ‘institutionalized racism’.[1] The claim that racism is deeply embedded in Danish institutions and social norms is a non-reflective transfer of a concept valid in the USA to a very different environment.  In the US, the situation of blacks is a centuries long history of (i) slavery origin, (ii) legal discrimination fixed already in the US Constitution of 1787/89, (iii) low social standing with poverty, crime, etc.; (iv) being a 10% minority all the time.  Given the relatively recent migration of people from other parts of the world to Denmark, it is wrongheaded to equate the race relations between the two countries..

What policy recommendations can be drawn, when ‘racism’ is looked at from the ‘identification’ angle, in countries like Denmark, where multi-culture is a recent phenomenon?  To mention a few.

Anti-racist awareness campaigns must be targeted not only at the majority population, but equally at the minority population.  Identity racism is mutual. If unchecked it digs divides. One-sided campaigns will not promote recognition, seeing the world also through others’ eyes.

It is uncomfortable to be a minority in any environment, and vulnerability calls for sensitivity.  A rude remark that may pass as a witty teasing between two majority group persons can be perceived as deeply offensive when told to a minority person.  To counter this, awareness campaigns must encourage the ‘70%’ to intervene when they witness racist episodes, regarding reaction as a moral and civic duty; hardcore racists cannot be reached by awareness campaigns.

Campaigns aimed at immigrants from non-Western countries must seek to create an understanding that it is difficult for a secular society to accept religious influence on politics, on law and on interpersonal family relationships. After centuries of political and ideological struggle, Danish society succeeded in displacing the church from the political and judicial space. The fact that the issue is returning by immigrants seeking to drag Sharia legislation into the country is unacceptable to ethnic Danes. Compromise is not possible here.

Provided that campaigns succeed in getting people to see the world to a greater extent also through the eyes of others, increased interaction between ethnic groups will lead to stronger mutual identification.   Being work colleagues  promotes mutual  mutual identification.   In 2009, an EU- financed survey included the question whether, in view of the financial-economic crisis then, ethnic nationals should be given job-preference compared to immigrants.  Some 88% of the Danish respondents answered “no”; the highest percentage of any EU country.  A large part of the population may be against uncontrolled immigration in general, but if a colleague or a neighbor with a temporary stay permit is about to be deported back to the country of origin, colleagues and neighbors protest, seeing no justification that a well-integrated person is asked to leave.  Policies to reduce racism must attempt to get people from different origins to mingle as much as possible.  A couple of years ago, the Danish Government adopted a policy of trying to break up the tendency of third world immigrants to settle in specific building blocks.  The policy identified 15 socalled “hard ghettos”, physically attractive settings, but classified as ghettos on the basis of the percentage of residents being unemployed, of third world origin, of convicted criminals.  The policy attempts to install a more balanced composition of the resident 46,000 population, by forcing or encouraging some residents to move out and getting families with a different socio-economic profile to move in.  The instruments used by the socalled ‘Ghetto-plan’ are not elegant: by 2030, there must be no more than 40 percent of the homes in the “hardest ghetto areas,” which are social housing. The housing associations and local municipality must develop development plans for the area, which include tearing down some of the social housings. Tearing down well-functioning buildings with the sole purpose to get a legal means to evict residents is not my cup of tea.  The policy is being attacked for being racist, discriminatory, against human rights, etc.  For the individual affected tenant this is correct:  the measure is discriminatory.  But the integrationist intention of the ghetto-plan and the hoped for social outcome are definitely anti-racist.

A parallel objective of the ghettoplan seeks to fight and reduce criminal gangs in the ‘ghettos’. An ordinance enables the police to identify special crime- and insecurity-affected areas where the punishment for certain forms of crime for a period is significantly increased (increased punishment zone).  Also this initiative is criticized for being an example of Danish racist policy.  Why?  The population living in such an area is affected disproportionately by gang violence and wild shootings. The policy attempts to protect them against being exposed excessively to acts of crime, making their life in the ‘ghetto’ safer. Why is that racist?

The level of noise made in social and public media about, on the one side, the social challenges caused by immigrants, and on the other side, accusations of racism and discrimination is not an objective reflection of Danish reality.  Overall, the integration of new groups of immigrants in Danish society is a success story. Most non-Western immigrants get a job, most of their kids get a good education.

[1] According to wikipedia, the term “institutional racism” was first coined in 1967 by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation.

[2] “DiAngelo distinguishes in the book between prejudices that we all carry around; discrimination, which is the discrimination we thereby, consciously or unconsciously, expose to other people; and then racism, which is prejudice backed by authority and control through laws and institutions.” (quoted from a review by Christian Friis Bach in Altinget 30. august 2020, highlights my own).