Racism Across the Pond

Why we should worry more about Europe becoming racist than America

The United States is often viewed, both at home and abroad, as a pretty racist country. We are often the butt of European jokes about racism, religiosity, and intelligence. And often times, the United States puts itself out there as an easy target, with characters like

Michelle Bachmann, who objects to evolution on the grounds that "a grain of wheat plus a starfish does not equal a dog," popular YouTube videos such as “stupid Americans,” and right-wing Americans’ obsession with Obama’s apparent adherence to Islam dominating the perception of Americans abroad.

Europeans, in particular, enjoy scoffing at conservative, racist Americans over a pint of beer, plate of sauerkraut, or serving of escargot. But a threatening specter of racism and intolerance is looming over Europe. While Americans took a step forward in social liberalism with their reelection of Obama and rising support for social policies such as gay marriage and immigration reform, politics in Europe has taken a dangerous turn to the right. Although racism and discrimination take a different form in Europe than in the United States, the rise of right-wing ideology in European politics is worrying, particularly given the targeting of minorities by right-wing parties.

Racism in the United States is rooted in a complicated history of slavery and segregation, which has culminated in tense race relations. However, racism in Europe has resurged recently due to a large wave of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East whose cultures and religions are vastly different from those prevalent in many once-homogeneous European societies.

Economic hardship during the recent European economic crisis has triggered the release of pent up anti-immigrant frustration in European politics. In 2010, German chancellor Angela Merkel stated that multiculturalism had “totally failed” in Germany, that “we feel tied to Christian values”, and that “those who don’t accept them don’t have a place here.” This is the distinction between the U.S. and Europe. Although there are many right-wing politicians in the U.S., it is rare for high-ranking lawmakers to make such divisive statements about race and religion, and they would be condemned by a significant sector of society should they make such claims. The parliamentary systems of European nations also allow far-right parties to join ruling coalitions and to use their power to execute discriminatory policies. For example, the right-wing anti-immigration Northern League in Italy, which is a member of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s coalition, has implemented many far-right laws that discriminate against both legal and illegal immigrants.


Not only do European politicians make such deplorable claims, but they also often ride on waves of xenophobia to positions of high power and use them to openly pursue discriminatory policies against minorities. These policies seem to be picking up widespread support among the European mainstream. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing Front National, ran on a popular anti-immigrant, anti-Islam platform and came third in the tight 2012 presidential election. She polled higher than any far-right candidate has in any prior presidential election in France’s fifth republic. Her leadership has been credited for the party becoming the third largest in France, and she clearly has a future in politics given her young age and burgeoning support.

In Greece’s recent elections, the anti-immigration, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party made significant gains in parliamentary seats. Golden Dawn promises to lay landmines along the Greco-Turkish border. Its leader has been filmed making Hitler salutes, and their supporters, known as “black shirts,” are responsible for vandalizing immigrant markets in Greece.

The growing support for the right wing in Europe is terrifying, and we must be wary of the future of multiculturalism in Europe: It does not seem that the surge in right-wing fanaticism is a short-term phenomenon. Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations in Paris has summarized the dangerous trend towards the right in Europe: "What we are witnessing is not a new trend, but a deepening and acceleration of something that was in place. These politicians are playing with fire, because feelings on this issue run very deep and may not disappear when the economy recovers."

This is the sharp divide between Europe and the United States. Racism in U.S. politics mostly ends with campaign rhetoric. But racism in Europe translates into dangerous, concrete policies. Without trying to dismiss the role racism plays in American society, politicians here are fortunately not as willing to put racist and anti-immigrant ideologies on paper. Yes, Arizona has an appalling, discriminatory immigration law. But France has gone so far as to prohibit women from wearing the burqa, and the nation routinely deports Roma. Italy punishes people who provide illegal immigrants with shelter. Switzerland has banned the construction of minarets.

As an American citizen who attended a German-British secondary school, I have often stayed silent while my friends make fun of my heritage and my country. But next time I’m back home at the pub with my old classmates and they make fun of me for being an “idiot” or a “racist” because I am American, I’m going to put down my pint and crack a Europeans-hate-minarets-and-Roma joke back.

Heather L. Pickerell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.