In the 1961 movie Paris Blues, Sydney Poitier portrays Eddie Cook, a jazz musician who flees American racism to live in France. Even when Cook falls in love with the beautiful Connie Lampson (played by Diahann Carroll), he resists returning to America to be with her. To Cook, as to many real life black artists and intellectuals of that generation, Europe offered a refuge from racism and the freedom to be oneself.
This phenomenon from several decades ago no doubt contributed to the popular perception that Europeans are inherently more racially tolerant or enlightened than most Americans. After all, the Civil Rights Movement illuminated the ugly underbelly of American racism for all the world to see. Bull Conner, the fire hoses and the dogs were all captured on television and burned into the memory of whites and blacks alike.
But things change. The Civil Rights Movement successfully repealed unjust laws with very little violence. And while things are far from perfect in America today, countless black Americans have risen to the heights of success in every way it can possibly be measured. Europe, on the other hand, has arguably moved in the other direction. The ever-shrinking globe has brought an influx of immigrants from all over the world, and from North Africa and the Middle East in particular. And while Europeans have a reputation for being more welcoming to immigrants than Americans, violent clashes between those immigrants and European "natives" have been escalating for many years now.
Particularly shocking to many were the riots that rocked Stockholm, Sweden in May of this year. For several days, groups of young people-originally from the Middle East and Africa-set fire to buildings and cars, and threw rocks at police and firefighters responding to the crisis. Most estimate the damage to be in the billions of dollars.
As stunned as many were to read about such destructive violence in a place with a reputation for being peaceful and prosperous, the events were not as out of the ordinary as one might think. Sweden experienced smaller scale riots in 2008 and 2010. In 2005, mob violence erupted in Paris and continued for weeks, spreading to hundreds of towns and prompting the government to declare a state of emergency. The rioters, nearly 3000 of whom were arrested, were of Arab and North African descent.
Similar events occurred in 2011 in London and the surrounding areas. These riots killed at least six and caused over $300 million in damage. Countless smaller scale incidents have occurred all over Europe in recent years. In each case, the alleged "trigger"-often the accidental death of a member of the immigrant population-is quickly forgotten as the destruction spins out of control.
Relaxed immigration laws, generous welfare benefits and free public housing have made countries like Sweden an attractive destination for people escaping from impoverished and politically unstable nations. Many "native" Swedes reacted to the riots with shock and confusion. Why would people who came to Sweden voluntarily, seeking a better life and opportunity, be so filled with rage toward Swedish authorities?
The answer to this question is difficult to unpack. The persistent wealth gap between immigrants and native Europeans is certainly a factor. Most agree that even after a couple of generations of living in Europe, many immigrants do not feel like part of the mainstream culture. Some believe this is deliberate-that such individuals, Muslims in particular, have no desire to acculturate to the ways of their adopted homeland. Others believe the "native" Europeans themselves consider such immigrants "the other" and do not welcome them culturally, even if they welcome them on paper. As with most things in life, it is probably a little bit of both.
But perhaps all those who would lecture America to look to Europe for lessons in harmonious multicultural living may begin to reconsider their advice. The fact is that ethnic tensions began rising in Europe as soon as the population of non-white immigrants grew to a significant size. (In just ten years, the percentage of immigrants in Sweden has almost doubled.) Their previous reputation for racial and cultural enlightenment was surely due as much to the rarity of non-whites as to anything else.
As any pastor leading a multiethnic congregation knows, it is tough to teach people from different backgrounds to get along. Unless there is a common set a values-ideals that transcend skin color and other cultural preferences-harmony is nearly impossible. In this country, the basis for common ground was once found in the Judeo-Christian tradition: that all humans bear God's image and are thus equal in value and worthy of liberty. Much of Europe jettisoned these "antiquated" thoughts long ago. But in a rapidly shrinking world, where are we to find hope, if not in Truth that has stood the test of time?
Standing against racism is the responsibility of all Christians. We each can be sure our daily talk is sprinkled with the acceptance of people of all ethnicities. We can be sure we reach out to those who are different than us and become examples of reconciliation. And we can initiate conversations with our children to help them understand what their response should be when they see such injustice.