By any genuine measurement, America is the most tolerant place on earth. This is an easy fact to forget for those who experience it. And these days, it’s also an unfashionable thing to say. But the level of peaceful cooperation between people of truly diverse backgrounds, faiths, and creeds — or anything even approaching it — is wholly unprecedented in human history.
Though the European Union was conceived to maintain peace on the Continent and compete with the United States, it has never come close to replicating the comity of American life. No single country in Europe has come close to replicating it. Certainly not in the past, and definitely not today. Despite perceptions, minorities in Europe are worse off. Anti-Semitism is reaching dangerous levels — again. European policies have made it nearly impossible for immigrants to assimilate successfully. In nearly every Western European nation, as well as many Eastern and Central European ones, these problems have sparked ugly nativist reactions.
None of this is to contend that prejudice doesn’t exist in America. Such a claim would be preposterous. Still, many Americans live under the false notion that the United States is — by its nature, its founding, its destiny — an inherently racist and xenophobic enterprise. And so do many Europeans.
According to polls, at least seven in ten adults living in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom believe racism is “a major problem” in the United States. That might be an understandable position if more than a tiny percentage of those Europeans believed the same of their own nations. “To the World, We’re Now America the Racist and Pitiful,” reads the headline of a 2020 piece by a race-baiting Robin Wright in The New Yorker. These days, says the essayist, apparently unacquainted with the ethnic and racial animus in places such as India, China, the Islamic world, and the banlieue ghettos of France, “the United States is destroying the moral authority it once had.”
“Black Americans head overseas,” read a headline in USA Today. “It wasn’t until I had left the USA to experience Spain that I really got a sense of what freedom looks like. I was able to be 100% myself without having to worry about safety and without needing to have too much of a complex identity,” said Brooklyn native Sienna Brown, who now resides in Valencia on the Mediterranean coast. One must concede, indeed, that a cloistered life in Valencia might be preferable to living in a borough of New York. As is the case with many Americans who visit areas teeming with luxury resorts, Brown confuses a prosperous area curated for tourists with the Continent proper.
American universities such as New York University have long had to implement special programs to prepare students abroad for the rank racism they will encounter in places like Italy, France, and Spain. “Whenever I go back to my childhood home in Orange County, Florida,” a student who spent a semester at the NYU campus in Florence wrote not long ago in the New York Times, “I am not surprised when I see the Confederate flag flying on high poles, plastered on car bumpers and worn proudly on T-shirts. But it surprises me that even the Dixie flag — and all it represents — doesn’t get to me as much as the outright and physical disrespect I experienced very far from home.”
The stories of students reporting back from England are also replete with incidents of intolerance and physical abuse. One African-American woman who went to a London program of the Center for Global and Intercultural Study at the University of Michigan wrote on the school’s website: “In Europe, sometimes it can feel as if segregation hasn’t ended. During my first week I was denied service at a restaurant because I’m black, and one of my friends on the trip was denied entry into a club for the same reason. In the States, I’ve never been denied service or told that I can’t participate in something.”
These accounts are anecdotal, of course, but they are bolstered by social research and historical evidence. When researchers Lorraine Brown and Ian Jones surveyed the international students at a university in the south of England, of the 153 postgraduate students, 49 had experienced some form of direct abuse. Most of the abuse was verbal, but racism manifested physically for a large minority of students. “Strong emotional reactions were reported, including sadness, disappointment, homesickness and anger. There was a consequent reluctance to return to the UK as a tourist, or to offer positive word-of-mouth recommendations to future students,” the authors noted.
When the European Union conducted a study of black Europeans in 2018, it found that 30 percent of respondents said that they had been racially harassed in the past five years — with 5 percent having been physically attacked. In Finland, 63 percent of minorities felt harassed. The highest rates of racist violence were also recorded in Finland (14 percent), Ireland, and Austria (both 13 percent). A sizeable majority of black Europeans felt as if the police had racially profiled them within the past five years. A quarter of black Europeans claimed to have experienced racial discrimination at work or in a job search.
Research from Northwestern University comparing conditions in nine countries — Canada, the United States, and seven European nations — found that racism in hiring practices was far worse in Europe than in America. The most discriminatory nations were France and Sweden. When Swedish economists attempted to gauge a country’s level of racial tolerance, they turned to something called the World Values Survey, which has been measuring global attitudes and opinions for decades. Among the 80 questions that World Values asks, the Swedish economists found one that they believed best measured tolerance: Whom would you not want as neighbors? The United States and other Anglophone nations — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — were least racist while a number of European nations — among them, yes, France — were the worst.
Indeed, the French seemed to be perhaps the least tolerant people on the Continent, with 22.7 percent saying they didn’t want a neighbor of another race. Then again, not a single European nation had a majority that believed increasing diversity was a net positive for their country, with the lowest numbers found in Sweden (36 percent) and Spain (31 percent). In places such as Greece (63 percent) and Italy (53 percent), people believed that growing diversity makes their country a worse place to live. Roughly four in ten Hungarians (41 percent) and Poles (40 percent) agree.
These numbers are strongly contrasted by Americans’ positive views on the topic — buoyed, no doubt, by decades of successful integration. About 60 percent of Americans say immigrants make the country a better place to live, compared with just 7 percent who say they make it a worse place. A majority of Americans say the fact that the U.S. population is made up of people of different races and ethnicities is a very good thing for the country — in a recent poll only 1 percent said it was “bad.” Now, we can’t bore into the souls of poll participants and determine that they truly believe the answer they offer. We can, however, note that Americans, even if they’re lying, understand that there is a national expectation to embrace all people.
Americans are in a good position to debate anyone in the contemporary world on tolerance. One can just look at the European Union’s political institutions to understand why.
Not long after the Black Lives Matter protests broke out, an EU commissioner, Margaritis Schinas, whose self-proclaimed charge is “promoting the European way of life,” argued in an interview with Politico that “there is no doubt that Europe as a whole has been doing better than the United States in issues of race, also because we have better systems for social inclusion, protection, universal health care.”
There is, in fact, great doubt. Just take a look at the European Union’s governing body itself. After the George Floyd protests, the European Commission put together a special task force to study and debate racial tensions on the Continent. Every person on the race commission was white. That is hardly shocking, considering that at the time, every one of the 27 European commissioners was white as well. If you can’t find a single minority representative of color, perhaps your problems with race are more deep-seated than you contend.
There are somewhere around 15 million black citizens living in the European Union nations, and the number of ethnic minorities living within European states is somewhere in the vicinity of 50 million, or around 10 percent of the population. What is the percentage of minority Europeans employed by EU institutions? Around 1 percent. In the 2014–19 European Parliament session, only 17 of the 751 representatives could be called a member of a minority group, though that number went up to 30 MEPs in the next election. Once Britain left the Union after Brexit, however, it fell back to 24, or 3 percent of all MEPs. Every single representative of South Asian descent, for example, was from Britain.
By far, the most diverse international institution housed in the European capital of Brussels is NATO — and for that you can thank the United States.
“Europe has long been suspicious — even jealous — of the way America has been able to pursue national wealth and power despite its deep social inequities,” Robin Niblett, the director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, told The New Yorker’s Robin Wright. “When you take the Acela and pass through the poorest areas of Baltimore, you can’t believe you’re looking at part of the United States. There’s always been this sense of an underlying flaw in the U.S. system that it was getting away with — that somehow America was keeping just one step ahead of the Grim Reaper.”
Granted, when seen through the windows of an expensive high-speed train, America’s inequity might seem crippling. But if the United States is only one step ahead of the Grim Reaper, where does that leave Europe? One of the most common cases Europhiles make for implementing a welfare state in the United States is that it would heal the imbalances of economic life and lift up minorities. Surely, then, it would stand to reason that minorities who live under Europe’s welfare-state economic policies — bolstered by an alleged abundance of tolerance — are thriving in places such as Germany, France, and Britain.
Not really. Let’s put it this way: If people of color in the United States formed a nation unto themselves, they would have a higher living standard and more wealth per capita than nearly any country in the world — including most of Europe. If Britain became a state, it would rank the second-poorest, behind Mississippi. Most European nations — sans a couple of tiny city-states — would rank in the bottom third.
Only 15 percent of black Europeans own property, as opposed to 70 percent of the EU’s general population. In the United States, African-American homeownership has consistently stood at over 40 percent. Before the COVID pandemic broke out, black unemployment rates had reached near-historic lows in the United States. Over the past 20 years, American minority entrepreneurial efforts, already exceeding those of any European nation, jumped by nearly 37 percent. Thirty-six percent of all black-owned businesses were headed by women, the highest such share within any racial or ethnic group in the nation.
In Europe, black men under 30 regularly experience sky-high levels of unemployment — far exceeding the rate of the general population. According to the British Sociological Association, black Britons suffer from far higher levels of unemployment than do black Americans, especially during recessions. During the three downturns prior to COVID, unemployment among black British men was as much as 19 percentage points higher than among black American men.
Black women in Britain fare far worse than those in the United States, where, by 2019, that group had added 1.6 percentage points to the employment rate since 2007’s Great Recession — which was the second-largest growth of any prime-age working group, after Hispanic women.
The true outrage in the United States isn’t that minorities are worse off in Chicago than they are in Paris, but rather that they haven’t reached the economic levels of others in the United States. But there is no evidence that any European nation has concocted a better policy formula to reach this equity.
In recent years Europeans have begun blaming the United States for their own tribulations. Sandrine Lemaire, an expert on French colonialism, noted after the killing of a black man, Adama Traoré, by the Paris police that her nation was merely “importing ideas from the US,” because while the deaths happened in similar circumstances to George Floyd’s, “our historical baggage is not the same. There was no lynching here, or racial laws.” There is, of course, no excuse for America’s ugly history on race, but it should be noted that not only is France an impoverished place for contemporary black communities — which really began immigrating only in the mid 20th century — but it once subdued what are now the entire nations of Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Niger, among others. It was a leading force in the slave trade, buying and selling millions in its African colonies. In the years leading up to World War II, only 2,000 black men under French rule were afforded citizenship, while the vast majority lived under summary justice and forced labor.
Things haven’t gotten much better. When researching this piece, I ran across a 1973 article in The New York Times Magazine headlined “Europe’s Hired Poor: The Immigrés Do What the French Won’t.” The writer, Edward Sheehan, noted that the poorest French “are the Arabs, the Portuguese, the black Africans — that wretched subproletariat that performs the dirty and dangerous drudgery the French will no longer deign to do themselves.” It is one thing for immigrants to generationally work their way into more successful societal strata. Yet that piece might well have been written in 2021. It is unconstitutional for the French government to collect data on ethnicity or race, but it estimated that 3 to 5 million people, or somewhere above 7 percent of the population, are black. In France’s suburbs, third and fourth generations of immigrants from North Africa are still among the poorest in Western Europe. More than a third of households of immigrants from Africa live in poverty, compared with 13 percent of the general population.
Many of the banlieues that North African immigrants live in were erected in the 1960s to house the working-class families who were participating in the European post-war economic boom. As the expansion slowed and industry changed in the 1970s, the neighborhoods were specifically opened to house immigrants. Since then, these developments around France have been blighted by unrest and radicalism, and police are not welcome. No matter how soft the policing, any intervention in banlieues has the risk of starting a riot. French politicians regularly argue that sending authorities into these dangerous neighborhoods is counterproductive.
Other European nations are making the same mistake. When Sweden opened its country to Kurds, Bosnians, and Somalis in the 1990s, it placed newcomers in abandoned public-housing units, immediately insulating them from the rest of the community. These housing projects are often awkward for large families and typically far away from available work. In many cases, the reason the buildings were empty in the first place was that whatever industry they were built to support had already gone under and the native population had moved elsewhere. Whether the state does it or not, warehousing immigrants in neighborhoods with high unemployment does not bode well for their future, tending to create frustration and criminality. With the sudden influx of migrants, and shiftlessness spurred by unemployment, many European cities have seen a spike in crime, a resurgence of hate crimes, and political unrest, creating more cultural tensions and racism.
On the other hand, name any ethnic group in the United States, and they will have higher living standards, higher educational attainment, and more freedom than do those who live in the place they came from. Ethnic Japanese Americans have a higher standard of living here than people in Japan have. Ethnic Russians in America have a higher standard of living than people in Russia have. Same goes for Somalis. Palestinians. Vietnamese. Italians. Lithuanians. Mexicans.
“Europe is a kaleidoscope of cultural diversity,” wrote Jeremy Rifkin in his poorly aged 2004 book The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream. “The Union’s inhabitants break down into a hundred different nationalities who speak eighty-seven different languages and dialects, making the region one of the most culturally diverse areas of the world.” Indeed, when we speak about Europe as a whole, it is quite diverse. The problem is that this diversity is highly compartmentalized, not merely among individual nations but often within those nations themselves.
From top to bottom, from the past to contemporary history, European society has been rife with intolerance and bigotry, open and implicit, of the most nefarious nature. It is unsurprising, as Europeans have a deeply ingrained disdain for one another. For centuries the French and Germans, Italians and Austrians, English and French, Russians and Germans could hardly live near each other without conflict, much less assimilate minority groups without bloodshed. It is only in recent history, and under the protection of the American military — which allowed liberal democracies to exist on the Continent — that war between nations has abated. Before we came to the scene, these ethnic and ideological resentments, large and small, often manifested in tragedies.
In the past, Americans might well have been guilty of idealizing and romanticizing their own history. Which nation did not? It was certainly preferable to the guilt-ridden self-flagellation that’s been adopted by our many Europhiles who want us to look across the Atlantic for guidance on the matter of tolerance. If you happen to come from European stock, rest assured that the place your ancestors emigrated from was not as welcoming or pleasant as the United States, or you probably wouldn’t be here. Even though the world has experienced tremendous change over the past two centuries, there has never been a wave of immigration out of the United States to Europe — or anywhere else for that matter.
That’s one of the reasons we have been so successful at assimilation, whereas Europe has not. Europeans attempt to artificially replicate our arrangements by adopting vacuous and relativistic slogans — the European Union motto, “United in Diversity,” for example — but miss the most vital ingredient. American cultural and political life offers space to honor the past while making demands in the present. Despite much sloganeering, “diversity” does not make us stronger, though it is the flavor that enhances our personal and cultural lives. Our success is predicated on the ability to convince disparate people from various cultures to surrender their old ways and adopt American norms: a unifying ideology, a shared understanding of civic life, a hierarchy of societal values, respect for law and order, basic foundations of liberalism, and acceptance of a meritocratic society and social contracts. The United States, notwithstanding all its inequities and sins, remains the most tolerant place in the world — though increasingly it seems we’ve forgotten this.
This essay is adapted from Eurotrash: Why America Must Reject the Failed Ideas of a Dying Continent, coming from Broadside Books on October 26.
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