Dr. Strangename, or, How I Learned to Talk About Diversity Without Sounding Like an Idiot

If there are two great bugaboos of the American conservative weltanschauung, they are the idea that socialism might ever possibly accomplish something unachievable by unfettered capitalism, and the idea that black people might actually be good for something other than forced labor.  These terrors have manifested themselves in a number of ways over the years, both individually and together, but recently they have found combined expression in an idea that has acquired a curious amount of credibility even amongst people we do not normally think of as slavering right-wing lunatics.  That idea is that the reason other countries (specifically those of western Europe) have found any success whatsoever in running a country along socialist lines is that they are ethnically homogenous.  Were they to be a racially rambunctious land like the good ol’ melting pot that is the U.S. of A., they would not be able to experience such small advantages as they have by their unholy trifling with market forces.

It’s a pretty sneaky argument, and even a convincing one at first blush, particularly if you are someone with very little knowledge of history and demography, and only a rudimentary understanding of what is meant by such words as “race”, “ethnicity”, “diversity”, and “minority”.  It allows you to indulge a number of pleasant conservative fantasies — primarily, that an economy in which the state is allowed to restrict the unrestricted rampage of the invisible hand could never possibly succeed if it were not placed under the most delicate of glass bubbles — while engaging in a bizarre kind of racial stereotyping, and at the same time, implying it is the more socialist countries of the People’s Republic of Europea who are the real racists, a bunch of milky-white honkies who can only sustain their Marxist fantasia because they don’t have the hard-nosed realities of an unruly mob of ethnic underclassmen to contend with.  American capitalism has rather taken it on the chin of late, and so this story is getting repeated more and more often.

Of course, it’s nonsense.  Not only is it nonsense, it’s nonsense on every level of interpretation, and it’s ill-meaning nonsense to boot — that is to say, it is not only a mistake, but it is a pernicious mistake, backed by deliberate distortions that can only have a malignant effect.  It is dispelled easily enough on a surface level by a simple look at recent shifts in demographics and how they correlate to similar movements in the global economy; but to really understand what a clumsy lie it is, you have to look beyond simple numbers and into the murky swamps of history and language.

But to begin at the beginning:  while it is true on a very narrow definition of the word that Europe is less racially diverse than the United States, it’s not by much.  If we accept (and more on why we shouldn’t later) that ethnic diversity is defined by the presence of what are sometimes termed “visible minorities” — that is to say, people who are ‘nonwhite’ to the eye of a white person — then yes, America is less ‘white’ than Europe. But first of all, it’s not by much. According to the most recent census, America is still 72% ‘white’; this is a lower number than it’s ever been, true, but it’s still a significant majority, and it’s not enormously less white than Europe.  The 10 largest countries in Europe by population, by most accounts, are Russia, Germany, the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, and the Netherlands.  Their ‘white’ populations, given the most generous interpretation of that label, are 97%, 94%, 87%, 85%, 92%, 86%, 98%, 98%, 89%, and 90%.  That’s a lot of ofays, to be sure, but a monolith it is not.  Even Sweden, both the whitest and the most  socialist of Eurotopias (and the best-governed nation on Earth, according to the free marketeers at The Economist), does not manage to reach 99 44/100ths percent pure white.

This simple-minded accounting, imperfect as it is, doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story.  In most European countries with a generally socialist-democrat view of governance, the rise of liberalism and the blooming of the economy has coincided with a growth in ethnic and racial diversity.  In other words, the more diversity has increased, the more the government has put into social programs, and the better the economy has responded — exactly the opposite of the pattern we would expect to see if the conservative argument that socialism can only thrive under conditions of extreme homogeneity was true.  Even taking into account the setbacks experienced by European welfare states after the recent economic turmoil and subsequent turn towards “austerity” measures, many countries — particularly France, Ireland, Spain, and the Scandinavian nations — have seen their economies improve at the same time they see a boom in their nonwhite/non-native populations.  It’s also extremely deceptive to focus solely on Europe when we have such a good counter-example right across our own border:  Canada has recently overtaken America as the country with the wealthiest and most robust middle class in the world, and their racial makeup (76% ‘white’) is far more similar to that of the U.S. than it is to any European country.

But even if it hadn’t been illustrated time and again that diversity improves the economy rather than weakening it, and that socialist economies consistently score higher in both quality of life and economic prosperity, this whole approach is based on a fundamentally flawed conception of diversity and a complete misunderstanding of multiculturalism.  Americans, for example, have been trained to think of diversity in an extremely narrowly focused manner, largely based on racial conceptions of ‘color’; when we speak of Europe’s lack of diversity, we largely mean that they do not have a lot of black people.  Even if we expand our definitions, we tend to conceptualize diversity on color lines:  we speak of ‘whites’, ‘blacks’, ‘Asians’, and ‘Latinos’ (and, if we are particularly generous, ‘Indians’) as if these were absolute ethnic identities instead of largely arbitrary hodge-podges of convenient demographic shorthand.  For many years in America, for example, what we now call ‘Latinos’ or ‘Hispanics’ were not considered different from what we call ‘whites’; in fact, census forms from the turn of the century through the 1920s refer to them as “whites of Spanish ancestry”.  Similarly, in Europe (as in the U.S.), Arabs, Turks, and Persians are considered ‘white’ for the purpose of demography.  But culturally, Muslims — who comprise a major factor in European immigration — are no more considered ‘white’ by white Europeans than are black Africans.  Most Germans do not consider Turks to be of the same ethnic group as themselves, even if they both count as ‘white’ on the census form; likewise with North African Arabs in France.  If one considers only ‘whiteness’ in calculating the racial makeup of Europe, a very different picture emerges than if one considers the different treatment given to Turks, Arabs, North Africans, Central Europeans, and South Asians, for example.

Beyond that, even ‘whiteness’ is a very contentious concept. In the last century alone, a number of groups we reflexively think of as ‘white’ today were not considered to be part of the Anglo-Saxon family tree:  among others, Slavs, Irish, Levants, Roma, and European Jews were thought of as something completely other than ‘white’ until they were ‘promoted’ in response to the arrival of more visible minorities.  When one includes immigrants and non-natives in the definition of diversity, those European percentages drop even more precipitately.  Almost no country in Europe has maintained anything like ethnic purity throughout the 20th and 21st centuries; Poland, for example, has one of the most ethnically ‘pure’ populations not because it is a hotbed of homogeneity, but because two foreign occupiers — the Nazis and the Soviets — conspired to deliberately leech it of its ethnic diversity.  Ukraine, another predominately ‘white’ country, is far more diverse than most Americans can conceive, because they are taught only to see color when thinking of ethnic diversity; a mere glimpse at recent headlines ought to be enough to dispel any notion that Ukraine is an ethnically homogenous country.

The more one looks at historical patterns of migration, immigration, expulsion and colonialization, the more absurd this notion of Europe as a bastion of ethnic purity, and therefore of easy social management, becomes.  Does the foment of racial dissimilarity obviate the possibility of government intervention in the economy?  Tell it to Yugoslavia.  Is Russia, with its vastly white population figures, ethnically unified?  Far from it:  it is home to as many as 160 ethnic groups, speaking dozens of languages and displaying vast differences in religion, culture, and physical appearance.  China has over 50 ethnic groups and the Uyghur alone — Turks in ethnic origin and Muslims by religious practice — number more than the population of New York City.  Indonesia features over 300 ethnic groups and twice that many languages, and displays a diversity stunning in its breadth and depth; yet the people making the argument under discussion would lump them all under the dull blanket of “Asian”.  One single nation — India — boasts so much linguistic, genetic, religious, and cultural diversity that only the entire continent of Africa (“black”, says our capitalist racial expert) can surpass it.

Let us have no more of this balderdash.  America is not uniquely diverse; Europe is not ethnically homogenous; and a lack of multiculturalism does not correspond whatsoever to the success or failure of social democracy.  These are the fantasies of people whose ideas about race and about socialism are more the product of ignorance and fear than of any honest study of history or society.

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