Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Was multiculturalism a failure in Germany?

By Irene Bloemraad

The outrage against multiculturalism continues to grow.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently made headlines when she pronounced multiculturalism in Germany a failure. A few weeks before, an editorial in the Globe and Mail, a prominent Canadian newspaper, argued that Canadians should eradicate multiculturalism from their vocabulary and refocus on citizenship. Similar sentiments have been expressed in many countries, including famously tolerant Sweden and the Netherlands, places where anti-immigrant political parties did well in recent elections.

The current wisdom suggests that multiculturalism is antithetical to building unity in increasingly diverse societies.

The current wisdom is wrong.

Social scientists can measure multiculturalism in a society by examining the number and content of public policies and government pronouncements around cultural recognition and accommodation. Such indices show that Germany is not, and has never been, a multicultural society.

Multiculturalism can’t have failed in Germany because it was never tried. Turkish guest workers and other immigrants were never welcomed as future citizens – only as temporary labour.  If Germans are now concerned about the consequences, the blame certainly doesn’t lie with multiculturalism.

These indices also group countries such as France and Norway with Germany as least multicultural, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United States as moderately multicultural, and Australia and Canada as most multicultural.

Do practices and policies of multiculturalism hurt attempts to forge common citizenship out of diversity?

Absolutely not. Consider how many immigrants become citizens. The least multicultural countries count the lowest levels of citizenship; the moderate multicultural countries have somewhat more. In comparison, an overwhelming majority of immigrants proudly take up citizenship in Canada and Australia, the two countries that went furthest in the multicultural experiment.

The positive link between multiculturalism and citizenship is further supported by comparing Canadian policy with that of the United States. In 1971, the Canadian government began promoting a multiculturalism-based integration policy, which was enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 and expanded in 1988, when the Multiculturalism Act became federal law. Over this same period, the U.S. enacted no formal immigrant integration program or multiculturalism policy.

In 1970, in both Canada and the U.S., about 60 per cent of foreign-born residents had acquired citizenship. By 2006, the American Community Survey estimated that, of the 37.5 million foreign-born people living in the U.S., just 42 per cent were naturalized citizens. By that same year, 73 per cent of immigrants to Canada had acquired citizenship, one of the highest rates in the world.

There are, of course, many possible explanations for this statistical gulf, but here are some factors that did not play a predominant role: different immigrant streams; the large undocumented population in the U.S.; different costs and benefits of citizenship; easier or faster processing in Canada.

My research points to multiculturalism as a key factor driving Canada’s success at citizenship integration. It legitimates diversity, provides a sense of inclusion and, through the multitude of (oft-maligned) government grants given to community-based organizations – not only for multiculturalism but also for a host of integration programs – it provides the support structures to help newcomers join the country as full citizens.

Eliminating multiculturalism from efforts to promote “common” citizenship runs the risk of transforming integration initiatives into a one-way street, as is happening in Europe.  Migrants need to take a highway towards the majority, while an unused rutted road provides a path of accommodation from the majority to minority.

Multiculturalism is about two-way integration: immigrants should become a part of the institutions where they reside, but non-immigrants should appreciate, work with, respect and learn from immigrants.  Both groups have a role in successful integration, which will lead to common, not divided, citizenship.

[An earlier and slightly different version of this post was published as a commentary on the Globe and Mail website on October 28, 2010.]