In the U.S. we often get bad news about racism and anti-immigrant feeling in the Scandinavian countries. While in Norway recently, I visited the Anti-Racism Center in Oslo to get a fuller picture.
I had interviewed the Center’s Deputy Director Mari Linløkken while researching my book Viking Economics. We were glad to see each other again. Linløkken has been in the struggle full time since the 1970s, so she invited into the discussion two new staff members so I could get a broader perspective. Both are younger immigrants of color who have experienced personally the racism that shows its face in Norway.
There is increasing opportunity for immigrants of color to pursue their dreams.
Their jobs bring them in close contact with immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe and commission research on Norway’s ongoing integration. For people of color, they’ve found positive trends in job advancement, entry into universities, and acceptance in Norwegian institutions, even in leadership positions. The big picture, they agreed, is that there is increasing opportunity for immigrants of color to pursue their dreams and make a contribution to one of the countries with the world’s highest achievement of equality and individual freedom. A majority of Norwegians continue to want this. Together we reviewed recent events: a march by Nazis in Kristiansand, more Facebook attacks on people who stand up against racism, an intensifying and sometimes ugly debate in the mass media. Then they went on to describe the other side of the story: Norway as a whole is making steady progress in integrating immigrants and people of color.
The forces trying to prevent this have been losing.
Drama versus reality on the ground
At first it seems a paradox that expressions of racism can intensify even while substantial progress is being made. On reflection, I realized why: Those on the losing side will fight harder exactly because they see they are losing.
Every day, like water wearing away a rock, positive change is happening. On that same visit, I attended a family birthday party, and a Vietnamese-Norwegian relative tells me he’s branching out beyond the corporate executive job where he’s already been successful. I went back to the Lutheran church in Skien where I was married and found the “church ladies” routinely cleaning up the remains of their service to make room for the Eritreans to take over the sanctuary for their own worship.
The racists have not been able to stop these changes.
It’s true that some job discrimination and random insults from ethnic Norwegians do continue, but from the point of view of committed racists in Norway, the situation is alarming. Muslim women are pursuing excellence in university studies; Afro-Norwegians are taking influential jobs. One in 5 Norwegians is foreign-born—a higher proportion than in Britain or the U.S.—and more immigrants are arriving.
The racists have not been able to stop these changes. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik hoped to make a martyr of himself and ignite a mass resistance to what he called “Islamisering,” or Islamicization. He targeted those most responsible for integrating Norway, bombing the Oslo headquarters of the Labor Party and Trade Union Congress. He then made his way to a nearby island, where he gunned down 69 young people at the Workers’ Youth League summer camp, some of them as young as 12.
In his larger goal, he failed. The majority of Norwegians recommitted to continuing on the path of immigration and racial diversity. The small minority of committed racists, watching the continued progress of integration, now have escalated their rhetoric.
Strategic changes on the Right
The forces for and against racism continue to experiment with different tactics as the conflict continues. The largest and most mainstream force doing fear-mongering about immigration is the Progress Party. The party picked up a racist thread that has historically been a part of Norwegian culture and hopes to persuade the citizenry that immigration is “not working.”
The 1 percent gains power when the rest of society is divided.
The party uses the fact that some immigrants want to retain habits of gender oppression they brought with them from their home countries that are no longer acceptable in Norway. Additionally, some immigrants come from cultures where corruption is widely accepted, and have difficulty adopting practices of transparency and fair dealing that the squeaky clean Norwegians insist on.
Difficult transitions are by nature uneven, and the Progress Party appeals to a Norwegian affection for smooth efficiency to make the case that immigration was a mistake. Because the party joined the center-right coalition government led by the Conservatives, it has a loud voice. However, the Conservatives say that immigration has a positive economic effect on the country, contradicting the anti-immigrant stance of the Progress Party. Their common ground, however, is the same that we find in the U.S.: the 1 percent gains power when the rest of society is divided. The Conservatives’ wish to make gains by the elite is facilitated by division, so why not divide by race and religion?
When the Conservatives cut back on some services, the Progressive Party blames the immigrants.
The convenience of the arrangement is shown by what’s been happening over the last five years. The center-right coalition has been chipping away at the universal services that are the stunning achievement of the Nordic economic model. (The Nordics don’t actually have a “welfare state” in the American sense; they have a “universal services” state in which the focus is not on those in danger of poverty, but instead on everyone. Universal quality health care is an example.)
When the Conservatives cut back on some services, the Progressive Party blames the immigrants and claim that there is a basic conflict between immigration and the well-being of ethnic Norwegians. It’s analogous to, in the U.S., the bogus claim that job scarcity for blue collar workers is the result of Mexican immigration instead of a result of increased imports of cheap consumer goods, technological changes that make some unskilled labor redundant, and the 1 percent’s export of U.S. jobs.
At the same time, some far-right extremists are superficially cleaning up. The Nazis who marched in Kristiansand dressed in suits and ties in order to gain credibility among middle-class Norwegians. The Nazis also hope for sympathy should they succeed in provoking a violent attack by leftists.
The anti-racist forces are learning, too
Despite the pushback, Linløkken told me the anti-racists are winning in Sweden as well as Norway. They also continue to review their strategies. Norwegians learned from the Swedes the importance of fighting to get people of color in places of high visibility in television and other media. Swedes invited a team of Norwegian researchers to study their practice of settling new immigrants.
The team observed that Swedish immigration policies had the unintended consequence of combining high immigrant density, lack of entry-level jobs, and inadequate schools. They concluded that this is a recipe for alienation, and has led to episodes of violence and car-burning that have reached the U.S. media. Sweden has now shifted to the long-standing Norwegian policy of placing immigrants in towns and villages around the country rather than crowding them into suburbs of a few cities.
I asked about Sweden’s choice during the most recent flood of refugees from the Middle East to accept more refugees per capita than any other country in Europe. The gates were then closed to give Swedes time to absorb the influx. Linløkken told me she recently met Swedish resettlement workers on the ground who believe that Sweden can invite still more refugees by adopting better practices. Sweden’s economy, like Germany’s and Norway’s, would benefit from a steady influx of immigrants, they said.
Takeaway for Americans
The evidence from the Nordic struggle suggests that 1960s civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. were right in seeing that economic justice is essential to the struggle. In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives took a similar stand by issuing its platform, a vision of the policy changes that would give the U.S. a chance for full racial justice.
The lesson from Scandinavia is that those Black American leaders are right. When Americans of goodwill focus on the level of words and gestures and statues, they severely limit their effectiveness. Racism is much more than culture. If the anti-racist Norwegians and Swedes did not have their economic model of universal services backing them up, they might be losing their struggle now instead of winning it. Free university and vocational education, full employment policies, universal health care and child care, subsidized housing and mass transit, support for new entrepreneurs, and other measures all spell “opportunity” for everyone in capital letters.
Crucially, the Nordic economic model reassures the ethnic majority that immigrants are not a threat to their well-being, while at the same time maximizing the chance for minorities to be successful. It is this combination that makes it possible to win.
When racism is pushed into a corner, racists will push back.
The American economic model guarantees division and gives the economic elite opportunity to play groups off against each other, reinforcing and strengthening racism that already exists.
The Nordics also show us that social progress doesn’t reach a point where it somehow takes care of itself. When racism is pushed into a corner, racists will push back. Even when countries reach the highest point of equality and individual freedom recorded in history, as the Scandinavians have, their economic elites will still push back. There’s no reason to expect anything else.
Humans are historical beings, as individuals and as groups. It is our nature to struggle, to rest, to learn, to grow, and to experience pushback inside ourselves and out. Accepting, as Gandhi did, that conflict is deeply a part of the human condition means that we can turn it to creative use. Just as the Swedes and Norwegians can learn from each other while embracing their conflicting parts, so too can we.
George Lakey is a retired professor at Swarthmore College and a longtime activist, sociologist, and writer. His books include How We Win: A Guide for Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning and Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right and How We Can, Too.