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The truth about integration

By Laurent Chambon

5 February 2009 - When Rita Verdonk or Geert Wilders are busy with « integration », whatever that really means, most people know what they are really after: cheap populism to gain votes. It is not really nice, but it seems that every country needs some sort of extreme right movement after all, so be it.

But when my own party, the progressive and social-democratic PvdA, the party of Aboutaleb and Albayrak, starts tackling the subject with more or less the same intellectual tools as our very own Dutch Front National, I am worried. And what worries me even more is that it seems I am the only one worried here.

The leader of the PvdA wants to be tough and press where it hurts? Fine, let me explain exactly what Dutch people should know and expect. For real.

First, let’s define things properly. Integration means that someone speaks the language, with or without accent, has a decent job and somehow participates in society while respecting the law. As far as this definition goes, most of the « allochtones » I know are perfectly integrated, well, at least when they have a job.

The next step after integration is assimilation. This is usually possible only for the second generation, for people who were born in the country, or who arrived at a very young age. Assimilation means speaking the language without accent, knowing all the unwritten social rules besides the law, and a high probability of exogamy (marrying someone from another ethic group).

That said, assimilation should not be confused with ethnocide, which is a process by which a culture is intentionally destroyed. And that is wrong, in case you didn’t get it. Contrary to ethnocide, the assimilation process does not mean that people disappear with their original culture: they blend in, genetically and culturally, in a new and broader culture that takes the best of each original culture. A good example of assimilation is what happened to the Indonesians: they married the Dutch, and live on somehow through the arts, some new words, yummy food and actresses with nice cheekbones.

The first truth about integration is that it only really happens when people have a job. That means that the first thing we should do to improve and accelerate the integration process is to fight unemployment, exclusion and discrimination. If the government really wants allochtones to integrate, it will have to seriously punish discrimination, and not just at the discos. A first simple step would be to hit where it hurts, that is, in the wallet: no government contracts for firms that discriminate.

The second truth about integration is that it is not enough, and that we should aim for assimilation, because there is no other way. Most of the second generation allochtones I know are completely assimilated, except for one crucial point: exogamy. I find it fascinating that Moroccans in France, England or the United States assimilate very fast and marry the locals, while they still marry within their own group or even get a bride or a groom from the motherland when they live in the Netherlands. It tells us more about the Dutch than about the Moroccans, I’m afraid. So let us say it out loud: assimilation means that your daughter may marry a Turk, or that your son might have babies with a Moroccan or a Surinamese.

If you are not able to accept that, you might want to quit the entire integration / assimilation debate at once and stop bothering us with it.

The third truth is that integration and assimilation mean that the country will change. Wilders did not like it when then Minister Ella Vogelaar said the Netherlands will be a Christian-Jewish-Islamic country in the future, and she may have put it the wrong way, but she has a point. The Netherlands are not some remote island in the Pacific, or some savage tribe lost in a wild forest; it is a modern, open country, with a long history of immigration and emigration. So if some people are not comfortable with who they are and think extra couscous and merguez will kill the Dutch identity, I recommend a few courses in Dutch history. Only people who ignore their own roots feel threatened in their core identity so easily.

Now that I told you a few true facts, I will also give you a few recommendations that will soothe the whole process and make it happen without too much pain, based on previous experiences in other countries.

The first one is that one cannot stop assimilation, one can only delay it. To make sure assimilation takes place as painlessly as possible, the best thing to do is to have mixed schools, as soon as possible. Only kids who have grown up together know that there is a lovable person beyond this blond hair or this dark skin. So bring an end to white and black schools, once again by hitting those concerned in the wallet: in the big cities, reserve public funding to mixed schools. The schools that are reserved for blond people, rich people, Black people or Turks should find their own source of money.

My second recommendation is that we should focus on long term emancipation through work. One can toy with a Dutch Islam, some specials classes for illiterate mothers or mixed football matches, but what makes people feel at home is a good honourable well-paid job. Fight discrimination, starting with white Dutch women who cannot even make it to the corporate boards or become prime minister. If even white women cannot achieve this, how do you expect allochtones to do so?

My third recommendation is that social mobility is extremely important: when people are assimilated but are still excluded, drama is at the door. Riots in the French banlieues happened because migrants did assimilate perfectly, but the elite never accepted to share its wealth and produced social exclusion. One cannot expect migrants to assimilate if one is not ready to share the good jobs and the nice neighbourhoods. One can only merit if meritocracy exists.

My fourth and last recommendation is that instead of forcing integration, one should create desire. It is because speaking French meant emancipation from the Church and the nobility, and access to a broader culture, that my grandparents made the switch from Breton to French. For similar reasons, migrants so eagerly learn English in the United Kingdom or the United States: it means possible access to nice jobs and to an exciting, broader culture. Nice movies, sexy literature and funky music are much more efficient at producing desire to learn a culture and a language than forced courses and humiliating integration classes.

I short: exogamy, social mobility, no discrimination, an innovative and exciting Dutch culture, sexy people and yummy food. That is what we should be meaning when we talk about integration. Why is it so hard for my party to tell it like it really is?

Laurent Chambon is doctor in political sciences, specialist of integration processes, member of the PvdA and an elected member of the Council of Amsterdam Oud-Zuid. Photo: Olivier Colas


UPDATE 8 February 2009 - Alexandra Richards sent in the following response to Laurent Chambon’s article:

I just read Laurent Chambon’s article “The Truth About Integration”. It is so good to read someone who speaks clearly and openly about integration. I also find the differences between immigrating to the Netherlands and immigrating to the U.S. (where I am from) very interesting. Whereas the U.S. prides itself on being a “melting pot”, the Netherlands never will think of itself as such.
Having said that, I also feel that a lot of this “melting pot” pride is hollow and has become conditional in the U.S. “We will happily take in immigrants as long as we have good jobs and don’t have to see or hear you too often.” seems to be the real feeling in the U.S.

I grew up in California and went to integrated schools. Integration in school was mandatory and some kids were bused all over town to make sure schools were mixed. I still believe this is a good thing and well worth the effort. I think the Netherlands should mandate the same. I was shocked to come here and hear people talking about “white” and “black” schools. I was surprised that the government allowed this to happen! I was very naïve.

There is something interesting happening in California these days. It seems to be reverting to the fear of being overrun by immigrants and I fear a backlash coming. There are so many people from Mexico coming to live in California (legally and illegally) that “whites” are feeling very nervous. This nervousness is especially felt because the Mexicans who come to live in California often don’t learn to speak English. They don’t have to. The government is bending over backwards to make sure they don’t have to. Voting can be done in Spanish. Government documents are in Spanish and English. I was in L.A. about 10 years ago and while walking down a city street I stopped a cop walking his beat to ask for directions. He didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish. I was shocked that a policeman could not speak English. I fear that California, and other places in the U.S., are turning a blind eye to the tension they are creating by ignoring the importance of integration. Immigrants become isolated from society through language, and the mainstream fears and hates those in their communities who they can’t understand. It’s a recipe for disaster.

I hope that the voice of Laurent Chambon’s, and those who agree with him, become louder than those who are afraid to speak these truths or are too self serving to even see the truth that is all around them. I hope that in this generation people will start to understand what immigration means to a society and to understand that this is the society we have brought about and must learn to embrace it. I hope that the Netherlands can turn around and become a good roll model for my birthplace because I fear my birthplace has lost its way.

Best regards,
Alexandra Richards



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