Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Limitations of Multiculturalism

At first appearance, the West German city of Cologne seems like any typical 21st century developed city. It is a diverse multicultural city of nearly one million inhabitants. In recent years, it grabbed international headlines when some citizens oraganised a political movement to stop the building of a Mosque in the city.  In 2009, leaders of national European far-right and fascist political parties attempted to organise an Anti-Islamic conference. Thousands of anti-fascist protesters disrupted the conference and chased the politicians and their supporters out of Cologne. One would think that Cologne is an anti-racist city but is it really?

Walking around Cologne’s streets and riding it’s public transit system, one sees endless multiculturalism. The largest visible minorities are Turks.  Scores of North African and Middle Eastern Arab fast food restaurants and cafés which offer menus for omnivores and vegetarians alike far outnumber the older native  German Kölsch Wirtshaus establishments. Blacks of African origins are the smallest visible minority group. The invisible minorities come from Eastern Europe. Slavic immigrants from Poland, Ukraine and Russia are the most recent wave of immigrants and who receive the most hostile press being blamed for crime.
However, one with a discerning eye for social reality sees certain patterns emerge. Cologne is a segregated city. Most of the immigrants, in particular Turks, live in Kalk on the East bank of the Rhein River, which is opposite from the old central core and first settlements on the Western bank of the Rhein. In public space, Germans and non-Germans are rarely found socialising together in restaurants, pubs and clubs. Of course there are exceptions but they are not the rule.
As long as there is social peace and the immigrants know their place, there is no racism. Under strict laws regarding German citizenship, millions of people who were born and reared in Germany , as well as having roots stretching back 3 generations, are not eligible to vote as they don’t have German blood. To avoid the embarrassment of having large segments of native born residents not having any democratic rights, Cologne and other municipalities in the State of Nord Rhein-Westfalen established elected Integration Councils. Integration Councils have no power politically or economically.  Officially they are there to advise the official politicians to ensure that immigrants are integrated and that their voices and concerned are represented. There are elections for the Integration Council with rival and competing factions. The establishment parties clandestinely support various factions in order to advance their political agendas without having to be held accountable. In reality, immigrants have to right to vote for segregated councils which have no legal  power. In the United States, it was called Separate but Equal until 1954. In Germany today, it is only seperate and unequal.
Ultimately, Cologne’s multiculturalism and anti-Nazism is superficial in the extreme. Having Nazis and violent racist agitators is not good for the order of the city. At the end of the day, it’s bad for business and has the potential to disrupt the commerce of the city.  The superficiality is more shallow. Many Germans resent the rising number of foreigners. They are “tolerant” and swear that they aren’t racists. “It’s just that there are too many refugees and foreigners. We are losing our German heritage!”
My self-described “Anarchist Trotsykist” host asked me if it were true that compared to the Native Americans, Africans acted like monkeys when the Europeans arrived.  I wondered where this mentality came from until I remembered that an African Cultural festival was held in a zoo in southern Germany . The next evening his son arrived and casually stated:  “Turks are uneducated and have no culture.” Perhaps after noticing my expression he added a caveat: “I don’t know how they are in Turkey but here they are uneducated and uncultured.”
Though I speak fluent German (where I learnt the language living in Austria where I am understood perfectly) I was repeatedly told that I didn’t speak the language very well. My host told me that I sounded like the “uneducated Turks” in Kalk. I was constantly reminded that I was a foreigner. When asked where I was from, my answer was never satisfactory. When I told the truthful fact of my New York birthplace, the answer was followed with an additional question as to where my parents came from. After explaining that I’m a 5th generation New Yorker, my inquisitors wanted to know where my family came before that.  It got tedious explaining the internal migration of my family from the Southern to Northern part of the US.  I explained that my roots go back 500 years and longer in North America. For the residents of Cologne both German and not, all Blacks are African regardless if half a millennium has elapsed since the time their ancestors left the continent.
Multiculturalism has been reduced to selections of restaurants serving exotic cuisine and the visible presence of non-Germans residing in the city. The Germans do not like there are so many foreigners but they “tolerate” them. As long as they are not openly aggressive or violent towards foreigners, they believe that they themselves are not racist. For them, being anti-Nazi is being anti-racist. In their social frame Racism=Nazism. This is not correct. The majority of racists are not Nazis. Racism is different from Nazism. For Germans, there is no contradiction of viewing Africans as apes while labeling themselves as anti-racists. When a German states how Turks have no education and culture, this is just an objective fact rather than racism.  This results in denial of racism and no improvement in social equality. As long as there is social peace and the immigrants know their place, there is no racism. Embracing multiculturalism serves to deflect from their own racism. Multiculturalism doesn’t challenge racism. Instead multiculturalism conceals it by not addressing the real manifestations of discrimination, exclusion and oppression which is the essence of racism.
Perhaps Cologne is an exceptional example but considering what has been occurring in Europe over the past decade, it would be unwise to single out Cologne or Germany. Europe, as a whole, is not handling multiculturalism very well. Nor are its member states successful with integrating their immigrants. Despite the official policies of multiculturalism and integration, it’s all talk without substance. Racial segregation is becoming the norm in more and more cities across Europe. In schools, immigrants attend separate schools from “natives.” The native born children of immigrants and their children are consigned into separate schools as well. I suspect Cologne is more typical of social and political attitudes in Europe than atypical.

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