The air conditioning on the train still hadn’t turned on. Not only has it been a record-breakingly hot summer in Scandinavia, but the train to Gothenburg was full. With the late morning sun pouring in additional heat through the wide windows, we crawled along, already failing to make up time from our late departure. I sat still and tried to focus on my breath. The gnawing hunger of approaching noon and the increased heart rate of readjusting to strong Swedish coffee added additional layers of excitation that my body expressed as a thin layer of sweat that refused to evaporate in the painfully still air of the cabin. The heat I poured into the seat was now forming an unwanted blanket along my back. I had to stand up.
The dining car was not yet serving food, but it was mostly empty of warm bodies, and it seemed to be pulling cold air from somewhere. The high top dining counter added coolness that I could lean my forearms upon while I stood in relief that I had stopped sweating.
When the cashier opened, a line started to form. Two young men stood at the back of the line, close to me. One asked if we were in line. It was not obvious because we were both staring at our phones and leaning against opposite sides of the train car. Not having the Swedish words, I simply signaled for him to join the line with a polite smile. The other guy just moved into the line, saying something softly that I didn’t catch. The inquisitor, a shifty Swede of short and slim stature, asked another question. With one earbud in, I didn’t know if he was talking to me or the other guy. He asked again, looking at both of us with a kind but nervous smile, but the new end of the line was more interested in his phone than starting a conversation, so the answer fell to me.
“Forlåt?” I said, indicating that I didn’t understand. I’ve impressed myself with how much Swedish I’ve remembered, but I never got comfortable conversing in my strongest second language.
It was multiple seconds after he repeated the question yet again that I comprehended that he was asking if I was going to Gothenburg.
“Oh, uhh. yes,” I answered in English, feeling rushed and not wanting to add yet another delay as I thought how to indicate that I was continuing on to Oslo.
“Oh! You speak English!” He responded, switching languages effortlessly, as most Swedes do.
“Sorry. My Swedish is terrible,” I made an excuse.
“Ah. I was in prison,” he started. “Nobody in prison speaks Swedish. Nobody!”
I laughed nervously, not sure where to take this conversation.
“Not at all. Terrible. And bad English too,” he shook his head rapidly. Judging by his unkempt hair and constantly agitated motions, I wasn’t surprised that this guy had gotten swept up into activities of ill-repute. “Russian… Polish … “ He failed to find another example. “No Swedish. At all.”
I wanted to dig deeper, but I had no idea how to proceed from such a start to the conversation. It was an awkward situation as it was, so I found it acceptable to turn back to my podcast. He joined the slowly moving line and waited quietly and orderly with his fellow Swedes.
The exchange was exceptionally apropos. I was currently listening to a Sam Harris podcast in which he discussed with his guest Coleman Hughes the issue of racism in America. There seems to be a faction of the progressive activist community in the US that has fully gotten under Harris’s skin (and that of many others of the “intellectual dark web”), who have come to see many of the major social ills in the United States purely as a product of racist or sexist prejudice both among individuals and institutions. It is a view that I have long subscribed to. Indeed, in the American education system, there really isn’t any other explanation. But a close examination of the data just doesn’t support the theory.
Of course, the hangover of slavery and Jim Crow cannot be ignored, but there is a whole lot more to the story. Institutional measures of racial segregation have disadvantaged black Americans basically since the founding of the United States, a country whose original constitution made space for race-based slavery. But blacks are not the only group to have faced systemic discrimination. Throughout the country’s history, almost all immigrants have faced significant hurdles to success. Minorities including immigrants from Ireland, Russia, China, and Japan as well as stateless Jews have faced severe discrimination in both personal relations and legal limitations. However, all of these groups have been successful in integrating, and some of them tend to outperform the average American household in terms of income and educational attainment. Even within the black demographic, those from the West Indies (Caribbean islands) have had significantly more economic success than those whose ancestors were brought to mainland North America. Yet, they have faced all of the same racial prejudice. So, what accounts for this difference?
I could speculate, and Sam Harris only tentatively posits a few guesses, but the point of the conversation was that this conversation is not being had. The idea that blacks are disproportionately poor in America purely because the white man has kept them down is the accepted answer and to challenge it automatically signals one as racist, bigoted, and blind to their own white privilege. Fortunately for Hughes, he gets a pass because he’s black.
I am personally not privy to this ideological war going on because I have not been involved in American academia or in academia in the social sciences anywhere, but the fact that such issues are prevalent in the places where I’d expect the tough questions about race to be debated is a bit unsettling.
Race is a real thing. It is not a social construct. There are phenotypic differences between people whose families have spent many generations in different parts of the world. We humans, being so good at grouping things, recognize these general phenotypic categories instantly. I can guess with some certainty whether someone’s heritage is from Scandinavia, Germany, Iberia, or Poland. It’s even easier in more isolationist societies like Korea or Japan. The question that Sam Harris has recently gotten himself embroiled in is whether or not these differences are only skin deep. Do these differences apply to other biological functions? (by the way, the answer is yes; very few of the cycle cell anemia cases are people not of African descent.) But do these differences apply in psychology? This question only seems to be controversial outside of the field of psychology. I dug into this issue a bit when I was first introduced to the work of Charles Murray, who has spent an enormous amount of time (possibly too much) on the question of IQ and average differences between groups.
But what I want to bring up is the question of culture. Why do West Indian African-Americans do better in the US than native-born African-Americans? Even accepting the data on racial biological differences and the prejudices against blacks in America, there is a significant measurable difference.
One place to look is culture. People tend to group together with people who look, act, and speak like them, especially in immigrant communities. This means that ethnic groups tend to have some measure of isolation that generates their own culture. Could these aspects of culture have an effect on the proclivity of the members of that group to succeed?
Think about the stereotypical East Asian immigrant family. They’re extremely frugal, their kids are studying all the time (or else), they are vehemently self-reliant, and they hold in high esteem those in the professions of law, medicine, or science. Yes, it’s a stereotype and doesn’t apply to all, but stereotypes have some basis in truth. On average, East Asian immigrants tend toward these qualities. These preferences and habits are a product of their culture. The result? Asian-Americans have the highest median family income of any demographic.
Now think of the stereotypical black family. How do they handle their money? What do their kids aspire to? How do they view academic performance? Based on the data that Hughes provided, it’s just the opposite of Asian families. Sure, this may be a result of the learned helplessness of generations being in de jure or de facto slavery and having no motivation to pursue life improvement, but now that those restrictions have the lifted, the cultural chains continue to hold back the next generation of black kids.
Having relocated to Europe, I am interested in the question as it applies here. There is no history of race-based slavery in Europe, but racial tensions certainly exist and are growing. The number of African and Middle Eastern immigrants in Europe continues to grow rapidly. These immigrants bring with them not only their bodies. They bring ideas, and en masse, these ideas constitute a culture. What aspects of African or Middle Eastern culture are clashing with those that have developed in Europe over the past several hundred years?
The next book on my reading list is Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe in which he explores what is happening to Europe as its demographics shift not only in the racial makeup but in cultural shifts and culture clashes. As I try to make my home here, I’ll be curious to see how these groups and those who have their roots here in Europe learn (or fail to learn) to adapt to their new neighbors.