Multiculturalism and its critics

Multiculturalism is an inclusive philosophy. Its potential for integrating newcomers and minorities into society is undermined by false notions of its tendency to produce separatism and poverty.
Ger Mennens
17 November 2011

Critics of multiculturalism contend that multicultural policies lead to a psychology of separatism. Such policies, they maintain, isolate ethnic groups, enforce an inward-looking mentality, and lead to strong divisions between groups inside the State. According to Neil Bissoondath, multiculturalism has led to an "undeniable ghettoization." Newcomer cultures have become isolated and do not see themselves as part of the nation. They are more focused on what lies behind them—their homeland—than on their new country. Thus, ethnic minorities are not loyal to their country. Multiculturalism can therefore only lead to disintegration, the formation of ethnic ghettos, and separatism. Such claims are fashionable these days in multicultural societies and are embraced by populist parties. In this article I will show that these anti-multicultural claims are false.

Bissoondath implies that multicultural policies enhance separation by making minority groups focus only on their own particular cultures. Contra Bissoondath, Will Kymlicka rightly argues that multicultural policies and programmes are designed to include minorities. Programmes, far from enhancing separatism, are typically about the adaptation of institutions, school reforms, anti-racism, and cultural events. These programmes enable newcomer cultures to actively participate in society and they also create opportunities for minorities by removing hindrances to their participation in society. These programmes are not designed to create parallel minority societies; rather, they foster the inclusion of newcomers in society. Multicultural measures do not lead to ethnic universities, newcomer armies, or ethnic economic organisations. They are intended to provide minorities with educational and job opportunities.

It is not true that newcomers want to separate from the dominant group or that they are focused solely on maintaining their own cultures within ghettos. Participation within the prevailing culture has, since the seventies, increased. This institutional integration has led to psychological identification with, rather than alienation from, the dominant culture. Meeting people of different cultural backgrounds changes a person's psyche. Kymlicka points out that interacting with others emphasizes the importance of the new country for newcomers while diminishing the importance of their homeland. Their actions are focused on their new home and they don't cling to what lies behind them. Newcomers form relationships and negotiate with people from different cultures, and their unique cultural identities bear upon these social interactions. They share their cultural background in order to enrich society and make a positive contribution. Instead of isolating themselves, they seek to participate in, and contribute to, society.

The fear that cultural groups are focused on separation is not new. It stems from the prejudiced belief that minorities don't 'want' to become a part of society. They are essentially seen as a Fifth Column. In the nineteenth century, for instance, Catholics were viewed as separatists who were unwilling to participate in society because it was wrongly believed that they were only loyal to the Pope. A similar situation exists today: populists fear that Muslims are only loyal to Mecca and that they are a Trojan Horse. But just as the Catholics were eventually integrated, so, too, will the Muslims be if multicultural policies of education and labour market continue giving them opportunities to become full citizens.

Multiculturalism does not divide nations. Neither is it the cause of ghettoisation, as Bissoondath seems to imply. Black ghettos, Jew towns, and China towns have all existed for centuries, and segregation between ethnic groups has existed before the time of multicultural politics. People in ghettos were divided according to racial and cultural hierarchies. Racism and exclusion was all but inescapable. Multiculturalism was, in fact, a reaction against race theory—against seeing people in terms of their race and ethnic backgrounds.

Furthermore, ghettoization has also happened on other grounds than culture and race. The social-economic stratification of society led to separate residential areas for different groups of people. Workers and other poor groups were forced to live together, far away from the upper classes. The lower-income groups, labelled as anti-socials, were expelled from the city centres and came to live on the outskirts where they would not be a bother to the rich.

The cultural-ethnical and social-economic processes of ghettoisation went hand in hand as more and more immigrants lacking a good education came to inhabit the ghettos of the poor. In their home countries, they had lived in rural areas and belonged to the lower classes. As time went on the white 'anti-socials' increased their level of social mobility and escaped the ghettos. As the ghettos became less 'white', the ethnic face of ghettos became more prominent in media presentation. Poverty, it seemed, naturally belonged to ethnic groups.

Critics of multiculturalism automatically point to the 'black' ghettos as evidence of the malfunction of multiculturalism. This is nothing more than etikettenschwindel since ghettos are also about the social-economic position of people, regardless of their ethnicity. If only social-economic measures such as education and labour market opportunities were taken, cultural groups in ghettos would also increase their level of social mobility.

Insufficient efforts are made in our societies to improve the socio-economic position of cultural minorities in ghettos. Instead, populists today claim that the cultural identity of newcomers is to blame for their poverty (and crime). By problematising the cultural background of people and blaming multiculturalism, populists divert attention from the real socio-economic causes of problems faced by minorities and the societies they inhabit. The populist stance also leads people to draw a false connection between foreigners and the problems of white lower-income groups. Multiculturalism, however, is not to blame: it is directed to the advancement and inclusion of minorities in society.

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