Epic Nation

Saturday, October 23, 2004

WaPo story unfair to Sweden

The Washington Post had a big story in friday's paper about racial tensions in Sweden. The writer, Keith Richburg, obviously spent some time over in Sweden researching for his report, but didn't stay long enough.

It is true that Sweden is struggling to integrate its growing immigrant population. In many citys there exists two seperate communities; one at the center of town for ethnic Swedes and another on the outskirts dominated by foreigners - usually from Northern Africa and the Middle East. This is perhaps the single point that Richburg is able to get right. But he fails to understand Sweden's difficulties throughout the story.

Richburg attempts to draw a parallel between the problems Sweden is facing and those American's have faced for years. Without any explanation he assigns the immigrants victim status not realizing, I assume, that the great majority of these people came to Sweden as refuges. If these people were ever victims it was at the hands of their former governments, from which Sweden saved them. Not appreciating the great generosity of the Swedish people, the author bases his article on the premise that it is racist Swedes that are the problem. Richburg reports:

Another 17-year-old student from Iran, Honey Ghaffari, agreed. "They look at you and see dark hair and assume you can't be Swedish," she said. Ghaffari has also lived in Sweden almost her entire life. [...] Sometimes, in small stores, if there's an old lady, she'll look at me like I'm shoplifting something," said Charles Anderson[.]

Storys like this are all too common in the United States, but they are far from the norm in Sweden. Keith Richburg is an African American, so it isn't difficult to understand why he would take comments like this and let them set the premise for his entire article. This bias is made more evident when examining even further the types of quotes he used - and possibly sought out - for his story:

"They don't feel they are a part of this community," he said. "They don't know this society. They don't know the codes. ... There's that feeling of 'we' and 'them.' "

Sweden has opened its borders to these people willingly. These are not American minorities that most US journalists are used to covering. They weren't brought to Sweden by slave ships and they didn't have to outrun a border patrol dogs to get there, they were welcomed! If there is a "we verses them" attitude it certainly isn't being permiated by ethnic Swedes.

The problem with this piece is that it was written through the lense of an American who can only rely on his own self-reference criteria. Meaning, he attempts to write a story on Swedish social ills using the framework of American race relations. It is for this reason that Richburg fails to comprehend the problems facing Sweden.

The failure to fully integrate immigrants in Sweden is in large part due to the fact that upon arrival most of them are put into government built housing projects. In the past decade these projects have increasingly become ghettos, where Swedish law is secondary to youth gangs. Its ironic that Richburg chose to focus on Malmo, a city where police have lost control of entire neighborhoods and ambulances refuse to enter without police escort.

These housing projects are part of an even larger problem in Sweden: the bloated welfare state. An immigrant in Sweden, who cannot speak the language, and in all likelyhood does not have job skills that are of great value to an industrialized nation, is usually better off collecting money from the government than trying to find employment. Even Richburg stumbles accross this point, but misses the importance:

Hosseinkhah [division head of the district's employment and training office] said Sweden's generous welfare system is partially to blame. "We have a welfare system in Sweden that is usually a help to people, but it is also a problem," he said. For some immigrants, he said, "they don't need to get a job, because they get an allocation from the state." He said his office has handled immigrants who had lived in Sweden as long as a decade and had never worked.

Sweden's policy towards refuges is in dire need of reform; a subject that goes far beyond the scope of this post. But the main point I would like to get accross is that American journalists would serve themselves well by learning about true nature of Swedes before they try to smear a people they know little about. Casting judgement on other countries through the prism of American stereotypes not only erodes their credibility, but also makes them look like total jack asses.

One funny note before I wrap this up: This has little to do with my disagreement with Richburg's story. But its still a telling sign of how serious he was about trying to find credible sources for his report. In the closing paragraph of his article (which most writers try to make the most powerful), who does Richburg choose to quote? What great hero of the Swedish masses did this journalist want to close his argument with? None other than Swedish hip-hop "artist", Timbuktu:

Timbuktu knows something about racial prejudice — as a black man born in Lund, Sweden, whose first language is Swedish, but who for most of his life has had to deal with the stares, the taunts, the curiosity and the inevitable question: "But where are you really from?"

My Swedish girlfriend wonders if any prominate Swedish journalists will be hanging their rhetorical hats on the opinions of Vanilla Ice. We'll have to wait and see. After the unfair hand dealt to Swedes by Keith Richburg, they just might.


  • Great blog Kev, you definately nailed all the flaws in this article! Not only was this story inaccurate, it was horribly unfair. Unfair to all those Swedes who have spent hours lobbying for immigrants to be able to stay in Sweden and not having to be sent back to their home lands where they will most likely end up killed. Unfair to all those Swedes who have put their own lives on the line, and risked going to jail while hiding immigrants that were not allowed to stay in Sweden. It is unfair to all those immigrants, who are currently living a nice, safe, well integrated life in Sweden, because it tells them "you might think you're being accepted but in fact all Swedes are keeping an eye on you to make sure you're not stealing from them or something worse. You will never be a part of the Swedish society, so there is no use in trying". This is simply not the case. Racism does occur, I won't deny that, but so does bad immigrant behavior. If anyone, the groups of immigrants committing crimes and perpetuating stereotypes should be blamed for the racial tensions in Sweden, and other immigrants should condem them, and their behavior, rather than the Swedish people who have been more than generous in welcoming them into their country despite the heavy burden it has resulted in on their welfare system.

    Timbuktu didn't grow up in a ghetto, he didn't have a tough childhood with gang fights and random shootings. How do I know this? Because back then, there simply wasn't any ghettos in Sweden. In my home town we had perhaps a handful of black kids, all adopted, and we never once thought of them as any different from the rest of us. I suspect Timbuktu has seen one too many movies like Blood in blood out, and thinks it fits his image better if he comes off as a "boy from the hood".

    - Anna

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:26 PM  

  • Good article . . .

    Clearly the Swedes are an open group. Osama Bin Laden even mentioned them as an ally!

    - Steve

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:55 PM  

  • Thanks for pointing that out Steve! :-P
    A journalist for one of the biggest newspapers in Sweden even wrote an article claiming Sweden should be proud that he mentioned us, because contrary to George Bush, bin Laden actually knew something about Sweden. It is outrageous! I can't think of one reason George Bush would need to know something about Sweden. The fact that bin Laden mentions Sweden is just proof how bad it is getting over there.

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