Multiculturalism in Europe and in the US, how is it going?

By Chloé Fabre | 6 November 2012

To quote this document: Chloé Fabre, “Multiculturalism in Europe and in the US, how is it going?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 6 November 2012,, displayed on 30 January 2023

While Merkel, Cameron and Sarkozy denounce multiculturalism as being a failure, a black president is running the US.

At the sunset of the first mandate of Barack Obama, the first Black President elected in the US, time comes to describe two different points of view with regard to multicultural societies. Indeed, Europe and the USA – even though societies from each side of the Atlantic are composed of diverse ethnic groups and cultures – are quite different in the way they deal with this question.

Different multicultural societies

Multiculturalism is Europe and in the United States is a reality, but not a similar one.

The Unites States like to represent themselves as a country of immigration, and, indeed, they did build themselves from European immigrants at the expense of native populations who were living there previously. The country developed importing people – Black slaves – and integrating others while rushing West – Mexicans, but also Porto Ricans and Cubans. Early in the 19th century, workers from China and from Japan were also brought to the West Coast and to the Hawaii. Then, immigrants fleeing poverty or discrimination in Europe increased the mix of the population. After the Second World War, the United States continued to welcome people from all around the world. Those different waves of immigration or integration of people already living there (native and a part of the Hispanics) created a diverse society.

In Europe, no society is homogenous either. Differently from the US, Europe has very few “traditional” indigenous peoples, the Sami people on Northern Scandinavia mainly. As another difference, Europe has to deal with nations –asserted in the 19th century and outlining a culture, a language, a tradition – that are not necessarily coinciding with the borders of states. There are well-known nations without a state, such as Catalans, Basques, Scots, Welsh and others; but there are also national minorities, as Hungarian in Romania and Slovakia. We have another group (some claim it being a people), the Roma. And finally, as the US, Europe has been an immigration continent: internal migrations within the continent because of wars, shift of borders, and also external migrations from the former colonies or worker migrants.

From those two pictures, a first major difference appears: the conception of minorities is not based on the same ground. While in the United States minorities are designated ethnically or racially, in Europe, the only viable description is cultural – is there any ethnic difference between a Catalan and a Spaniard?

Diversity of minorities

The different cultural groups do not have the same history, especially regarding civil rights and the path of integration; they do not share the same socio-economic status and thus they cannot be considered as one minority all together. For instance, 2,1% of Japan-American were unemployed in 2000, while the ratio was 6,9% for Black Americans and 7,5% for Indian Americans. The unemployment rate for non-Latino Whites was of 2,8%. Even inside those that one may call communities, situations are really different according to the relations with the rest of the population, to the level of concentration, to the local economic situation, and so on.

In Europe, diversity is increased because there are several states that deal differently with minority groups and thus lead to different history, narratives and relations. For instance, the situation of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia is not the same as the one of the Hungarian minority in Romania; their history, their relations both to the state and to Hungary (the kin-state) and their claim are different. We must take this diversity into account as well when discussing about multiculturalism to avoid simplification and misunderstanding.

Is multiculturalism a “failure” in Europe?

On October 2011, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel opened a deadly ballet for multiculturalism saying that “this approach has failed, utterly failed”. She was quickly followed by David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, who is February 2011 agreed that “state multiculturalism” has failed. Last but not least, Nicolas Sarkozy, at that time French President, stated one month after his colleagues that the concept was a failure as well. What does all that mean? That the societies we are living in are a failure?

The three heads of State and government were there speaking of a certain conception of taking into account minorities culture and contribution. "We have been too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him", according to Sarkozy. And that was what they were all talking about, immigration. Because in those 4 years when Barack Obama has been president, Europe has been more and more concerned about its immigration policy. Those three countries have pointed out immigration as endangering their societies; they have been reducing multiculturalism to immigration; they have been encouraging xenophobic views. They wanted to focus on a narrow interpretation of national identity, based on an idea of society that does not exist anymore, that has already changed thanks to this multiculturalism.

“They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper” (Barack Obama, 15 June 2012)

On the other side of the Atlantic, the image given is different. The election of Obama in 2008 has been interpreted as a symbol, the complete end of segregation and of discrimination of minorities. The racial vote played an important role in Obama’s election, mostly from Blacks and Hispanics, highlighting the importance of their hope in even broader United States. Furthermore, last summer Obama opened a path for undocumented residents. The deportation of under-30-year-old undocumented immigrants who lived in the US for at least five years (often after migrating as children) took an end in June 2012. This is an executive decision to overcome the difficulties faced to pass the DREAM Act for already 10 years. It allowed undocumented people to come and register for a 2-years residence permit and especially not to fear anymore to be deported.

This move, 6 months before the election, highlights the importance of convincing immigrated voters. In the US, where demography gives more and more weight to minorities, convincing Hispanics (who represent 1 voter out of 6) is a major stake in the current campaign. Indeed, in Europe minorities do not beneficiate of such demographic power, and moreover, they don’t have a communitarian vote, which would also give them strength in political balances. Demography and political organisation are a factor of explanation of the opposite posture between the Old and the New Continent.

Our societies are multicultural, but minorities are diverse and different. One of the major differences appears in the self-understanding of our societies. When the United States see themselves as a country of immigrants (even if many Americans are strongly opposed to immigration, i.e. Sheriff Arpaio), several countries in Europe are increasingly regarding immigration as endangering their society and thus fostering narrow-minded views on multiculturalism. But we should not confuse multiculturalism with integration of immigrants, since the diversity of our societies is not only brought by migrants. Multiculturalism is also recognising the capacities of cultures and identities to dialogue and to evolve.

To go futher

On Nouvelle Europe

To read

  • Brubaker, R. (1995, Spring). "National Minorities, Nationalizing States and External national Homelands in the New Europe". Daedalus, What Future for the State ? Vol 124, n°2, Vol 124(n°2), pp. pp.107-132.
  • Figures concerning unemployment in the USA are from the 2000 Census. Presented in McClain, P. and Stewart Jr, J., 2006, “Can We All Get Along?” Racial and Ethnic Minorities in American Politics,  Dilemmas in American Politics Series, Westview Press

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