Multiculturalism works

The concept is increasingly being called a "failure" -- but in many places, it's thriving. Experts explain why

Published March 17, 2012 7:00PM (EDT)

A detail from the cover of "Pax Ethnica"
A detail from the cover of "Pax Ethnica"

“Multiculturalism” has become a loaded term over the last several years. Across the Western world, politicians have recently begun to attack the once widely admired concept, as mainstream conservative figures -- ranging from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australian ex-Prime Minister John Howard and British Prime Minister David Cameron have all argued that the project of multiculturalism is a failure. It is, of course, difficult to bring people together while respecting their differences. In many countries, the tension between a national identity and individual cultures and beliefs can dangerously invite assimilation on the one hand, constant conflict on the other. But as the new book "Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds" points out, it is, indeed, possible to make multiculturalism work.

Over two years and across four continents, historian-journalists Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac have traveled the world in search of harmony – for areas in which different religions, ethnicities and races lived together without violence. Their quest for ethnic peace brought them to Flensburg, Germany (the once tumultuous site of the “Schlesing-Holstein Question”), Kerala, India (a state that leads the country in literacy and healthcare, where Muslims, Hindus and Christians cohabit peacefully), the Russian Republic of Tatarstan (which is both Muslim and Orthodox and is rich in faith and culture), Marseilles, France (a diverse port city with the largest Muslim population in Europe) and finally, Queens, N.Y., which is home to 2.3 million people and 138 languages. Along the way, they tried to answer the question: What is essential for peaceful diversity? 

Salon spoke with Meyer and Brysac about American exceptionalism, the geography of peaceful coexistence and why some cities are simply more peaceful than others.

Historically a country of immigrants, how is our conception of diversity, and the cultural conversation surrounding it, different in the U.S. than in other parts of the world? 

Shareen Blair Brysac: We are an immigrant society. Other than the Native Americans, that’s the only way we’ve populated the country. Everyone’s an immigrant one generation back or further. There’s been a real debate in Europe. They’re not immigrant societies. They have the idea of “guest workers," that [foreigners] come to work but didn’t become a citizen. And there’s been a real debate in France over assimilation. They want you to be French. They don’t have French-African or Martinique-French, they don’t have hyphens. You’re either French, or you’re not.

When people came to America, it was a long ways away and you didn't think of going back. That's changed now, but people that came from Poland or Russia in 1906 after pogroms never wanted to go back or even hear of the old country. Now with Skype and the Internet in general, cheap airfare, cheap international phone calls, people have a lot more contact with their relatives in, you know, Mexico, South America. There’s much more connection, and the hyphens are much stronger. People say, I’m Greek-American, this-American or that-American. Most of us do have some sort of hyphenated identity. In some cases you’re so mixed up it’s hard to say what you [identify with], if you’re Irish American, with a Jewish husband, and you have four different grandparents of four different backgrounds.

Karl E. Meyer: I think the U.S. is the best example of the importance of immigration in the economic and social success of a country. Peak years of immigration coincided with peak years of our economic growth and job creation. A cliché that happens to be true is that diversity has been part of the strength of the society. I think you have a symbolic expression of the whole thing with the president of the United States. If you go abroad and ask, could you have a Barack Obama in England, France, Germany and so on, people look at you and just shake their heads and wonder that you would even ask the question.

How has Obama's presidency affected our national discussion of diversity?

KM: I think if you look at Time magazine last week, they point out that very likely, in the coming election a crucial if not decisive vote is how the Hispanic-Americans will vote. And demographically if you look at it, you see that in 20 years or so, people of a non-European background will be in a majority in the U.S.

Do you think this affects the discussion of immigration in the GOP primary?

SBB: Absolutely. I think they’re going to have to backtrack from a lot of the comments they’re making, and they’re realizing that. Among the candidates, that's one place where they’re split – on the topic of immigration. Because they realize that they need that vote.

KM: When you talk about diversity and immigration, the downside tends to be micro and the upside is macro – that the benefits of immigration are cumulative, aggregate and long-term. Whereas the deficits tend to be flashpoint things. One thing I think political leaders need to do is to remind people of the upside of immigration as well as trying to discourage and diffuse the micro aspects.

How did you decide where to travel in your search for ethnic peace? 

KM: Except for Flensburg (which has a very special role in the book because it addresses the notion that there are some [divisions] that are so profound that nobody can solve them), we tried to find examples that would offer different points and ways of looking at the same thing. One of the places that we dealt with is the republic of Tatarstan in Russia, which is about 43 percent Tatar Muslim, 40 percent Orthodox Russian. After the Soviet Union broke up they had a very effective and clever president of Tatarstan who wanted to guarantee the rights of the Islamic group and called for sovereignty, but he never used the word independence. He stressed sovereignty is a way that Tatarstan and its capital Kazan could have their own cultural identity but remain part of the federation.

SBB: Tatarstan had all the same elements of Chechnya but Chechnya has had just a terrible couple of decades where the whole country, well, Grozny the capital, was literally wiped out. And this did not happen in Tatarstan, with the same amount of Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians – [we wondered] why did Tatarstan not become Chechnya? You can also compare Kerala, India, to Gujarat, which is a much richer state economically but is almost synonymous with ethnic riots, Hindu-Muslim riots, communal riots. In France in 2005, when almost all the northern major cities had riots, Marseilles was calm. So we looked and said, well what is Marseilles doing right that Paris is not?

Of course these places are not perfect -- there are still conflicts. But what commonalities stand out in each of the areas you focus on?

SBB: One example is branding: You really have to make people proud of who they are. And whether you call New York the Big Apple or people identify with a football team or soccer team or cricket team in the case of Southeast Asia, you want people to be proud of being what they are.

In Paris, people that live in the suburbs around Paris, when they’re asked they never say they’re Parisian. They don’t feel like they’re Parisian. They say they’re Maghrebian, or they say they’re Algerian, or whatever they are.

You want people to be proud to say, I am a New Yorker or I am from Queens. [Political scientist and professor at Queens College,] Andrew Hacker is one of the people who really introduced us to Queens, and he said, "Nobody lives in Queens, they live in Richmond Hill and say I’m from Richmond or I’m from Astoria or wherever," but there is a very strong sense of neighborhood in Queens. So that kind of positive identity, whether it’s from a football team, or in the case of Queens, a losing baseball team, the Mets, that’s really quite important.

Rap is another thing that binds people. Even in Tatarstan there are local rappers that people know and are very proud of, and in Marseilles, particularly. And of course Queens has its own brand of rap too.

KM: By and large, multi-polar is better than bi-polar. That is, you tend to have bigger problems when you have two groups pitted against each other, particularly when one group is the permanent overdog of the other. When you have a variety of people – a good example would be Kerala, India, where you have a majority of Hindus but then substantial minorities of both Muslims and Christians -- that means that the political system puts a premium on building coalitions. Building coalitions means crossing bridges and bringing together people from different groups. And that’s exactly what happens.

How has Marseilles managed to avoid some of the religious turmoil, in particular, around Islam, found in other areas of France and the Western world?

SBB: It goes back with that diversity issue. There are more Muslims in Marseilles than anywhere else in France, or anywhere else in Europe. But there are also 80,000 Jews, 80,000 Catholic Armenians, Greek Catholics. A mayor of Marseilles founded something called Marseilles Esperance (Marseilles Hope) and when something does happen, like a school is fire-bombed or something like that, they call all the groups together and there’s a representative of the Muslim community, one from the Jewish community, from the Armenian community, and they all get together and see how they can diffuse the problem.

This works very well for Marseilles but it’s really kind of unthinkable for Paris. Paris is really segregated into the very rich who live in the center of Paris and then the immigrant population which lives in the surrounding areas, in big housing projects and things like that. There’s not a sense of community between the two groups.

All the neighborhoods of Marseille are also very mixed. So everybody knows everybody and knows somebody in each area – the same is true in Kerala. There’s not really a Muslim city and Hindu city, or Muslim districts and Hindu districts like there are in Gujarat or in places like Hyderabad. In Kerala, Muslims and Christians and Hindus are side by side.

KM: It’s a port, and as a port, Marseilles has historically thrived on welcoming people from different societies as traders, etc. It also became a center for refugees, from Italy, Spain, Germany. So there’s a tradition of diversity going back from a century or more. Plus the fact, quite obvious when you think about it, that there are beaches. And that is a wonderful escape valve for tension, especially among adolescents, when they can take a cheap bus ride to go to the beach.

I’d throw in an architectural reality too – that horizontal is better than vertical. One of the problems in Paris particularly was in the projects, these high housing units 30 stories up etc., which become hives of despair, alienation and crime, whereas in Marseilles, for example, you don’t have the same kind of high rises with one great exception, the Corbusier, the famous [modernist residential housing unit]. But in Queens, with the exception of LeFrak City, most of the housing is either family-size or very modestly multistory, three to five stories.

What role do environmental factors -- like geography, weather, size of country, coasts or landlocked -- play in terms of peaceable diversity?

KM: Obviously right away one of the big facts of Marseilles is that it’s encircled by mountains, and so it didn’t spread out into suburbs in the same way that Paris did. In Kerala, there are two other important things. One, that they’re right on the Persian and Arabian Gulf. And they have a million, out of 30 million, Keralites working as migrant workers in the Emirates and elsewhere, and that’s been a major source of income for the city.

SBB: Kerala also has two monsoons a year and very fertile land. So they don’t have the same kind of severe drought that the rest of India has. And they have a lot of tourism in Kerala.

Tatarstan has 10 percent of the oil that comes out of Russia. It also has some minerals. It’s also got heavy industry and fairly good agriculture. So when one thing doesn’t do well, something else does. So when the economy of Russia collapsed in the 1990s, Tatarstan was somewhat insulated from the whole thing because they had not abandoned their agricultural factors.

Queens has a very high rate of foreclosures at the moment. They’re somewhat helped because there’s a lot of small business, and a lot of family businesses, so they can have more leeway, but you do see that lots of storefronts are vacant. Queens also benefits from access to good transportation. And the schools in Queens are by and large better, so we’ve been told and read, than the rest of New York City in general.

Why, then, do you think Queens is often disparaged or unappreciated by Manhattanites?

SBB: Queens has always been a relatively transitional place -- in other words one generation may settle and stay there but the next generation tends to want to move out to New Jersey to Westchester, or further out on Long Island. And it used to be that when you made it into Manhattan, it was perceived as defeat if you didn’t stay in Manhattan. That was how you judged success, was getting an apartment in Manhattan. That used to be true of Brooklyn as well. Now, all the writers in New York live in Park Slope, and people perceive Williamsburg in a very different way than they used to. Queens is still behind Brooklyn in some ways in the perception of it as a destination for young people to live. I can remember when Brooklyn was considered beyond the pale. Nobody would really have considered living there, with the exception of Brooklyn Heights. Queens isn’t thought to be as chic as Brooklyn, but it’s got a lot to offer.

At the risk of reducing complexity into formula, based on all that you saw, what seems to be most important in creating peaceful communities of diverse people?

KM: I would say it’s a combination of bottom-up grassroots organization and political leadership. Wherever you have successful cases of multicultural society you generally find there is a leader who has made his or her reputation by bringing out all of the benefits of diversity and making people proud of being in the community that they’re in. What really struck us is that most of the places we write about are unknown even to our best-traveled and best-informed friends, and if we could put a little more publicity and throw a stronger spotlight on examples of civility and success, it would help offset the temper of gloom we have as we look at the all-too-obvious dysfunctional societies around us.

By Lucy McKeon

Lucy McKeon is an editorial fellow at Salon.


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