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The racial tensions behind Sweden’s idyllic facade

Stockholm’s outskirts reveal a segregated, racially unequal and Islamophobic society

June 9, 2014 12:30AM ET

Last month, I went to Stockholm on a reporting trip. The city seemed idyllic: bicycles aplenty standing unlocked outside at night, Volvos with their doors open and engines running, and not a cigarette butt in sight. In trendy Hornstull, bearded bros high-fived each other over Brooklyn craft beers. But everyone, it seemed, was white.

I got chatting with some of these happy hipsters and asked where I might find some of the million Somalis, Kurds, Iraqis, Chileans and Syrians who began arriving in the ’70s seeking asylum in what many perceived to be a Scandinavian “paradise.” Ever since, Sweden’s immigrant population has largely reflected wherever there has been conflict or unrest in the world. “They live in the suburbs, at the end of the blue metro line,” Karl informed me, adjusting his sunglasses in the dimly lit bar. “Don’t go there now, though, it's pretty dangerous. They’re pretty angry, and it's nighttime; black people get pretty angry when there’s no sun.”

“Don’t you think that’s pretty racist?” I asked. Karl hesitated for a moment, shooting a look at his drinking companion before removing his Ray-Bans and turning back to me. “I’m not racist,” he said. “I’m Swedish.”

My time in Sweden suggested that Karl’s articulation of the apparent exclusivity of these two concepts was not an anomaly confined to late-night drinking. Sweden proclaims itself to be an inclusive and tolerant society despite its segregated cities, racial inequality and Islamophobia. But that’s false. One only has to look at the main entrance to the Central Mosque in the middle of Stockholm to see the remains of the swastikas painted on the doors. The rise of the far right, and the entrance of the Sweden Democrats into Sweden’s parliament, have created a space to further isolate those who don’t look “Swedish.” Twice in central Stockholm, when accompanied by two Swedish-born Somalis, I was told to go back to my own country. Recent statistics show a large increase in hate crimes against Muslims, Jews, African-born residents and the Roma community. 

Hate crimes and inequality

Sweden’s rising inequality plays a role in these social tensions, but racism is not a new phenomenon in this society. Regularly overlooked in Sweden’s history is its role in the slave trade and colonialism. Under King Gustav III, Sweden held colonies such as Saint Barthélemy in the Caribbean and profited directly from the slaves who were imported onto the island and then sold to French colonies and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Sweden actively participated and embraced the agreements in the dividing up of the African continent in the Berlin conference of 1884–85. More recently, in 1922, the country was the first to establish a National Institute of Racial Biology at Uppsala University to measure the racial makeup of the population and the size of people's heads in a vain attempt to learn about hereditary illnesses. This institute was associated with a eugenics movement network that “may have been relatively small but it was nevertheless historically significant,” writes Maria Björkman of Linköping University, “because of its intimate ties with that part of the German eugenics movement that would shape Nazi biopolitics.” It has not been until the last few years that this dark history has begun to be fully examined.

Today, politicians are helping to solidify outmoded notions of “difference” in Swedish society. In 2012 the prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, buying into the rhetoric of the increasingly popular far-right political party the Sweden Democrats, made headlines by speaking about “ethnic Swedes.” The same year, the minister of culture displayed outrageous ignorance by cutting into a cake depicting a racist caricature in an attempt to highlight female genital mutilation. Is it any wonder the “they” whom the Hornstull hipster described are angry? 

The portion of Sweden’s population whom certain politicians see as ‘other’ is close to 28 percent.

Such incidents are happening in a country with a foreign-born population of over 1.5 million — about 15 percent of the total population. This level is comparable to rates of foreign-born citizens in countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and Norway. However, Sweden stands out for its disproportionate number of European Union asylum applications. In 2012 the country received 13 percent of the EU’s total applications. There are an additional 695,775 citizens who have one foreign-born and one native Swedish parent; there are also those 467,697 Swedes born to two foreign-born parents. In fact, the portion of Sweden’s population whom those politicians see as “other” is closer to 28 percent.

Much to the surprise of the world’s media, these “others” rioted last year in suburban Husby. Police brutality certainly played a part, but the incidents indicated much bigger problems in Swedish society as a whole. For one, Swedish cities are segregated by design. The well-meaning “Million Program” of the 1960s and ’70s, which set out to build affordable housing developments across the country, was ambitious and well intentioned. However, it concentrated low-income rental properties in faraway and inconvenient suburbs, which began the fragmentation of Swedish society.

Those arriving from abroad in the ’70s could afford only to move into these distinctive Million Program rentals, while the white middle and upper classes moved into cooperative housing or bought houses outright in the “Swedish-looking” accommodation mainly situated in the centers. This resulted in what Irene Molina, professor of social and economic geography at Uppsala University, has called “the racialization of the city.”

Another Sweden

Take Tensta, a suburb that was part of the Million Program: It lies on the northern edge of Stockholm’s metro map, buried deep underground. In order to get there from the central station, one has to walk down three escalators, to the deepest section of the city’s main metro station where the blue line runs north. Here we see another, more complete Sweden of different colors and communities.

In Tensta and other suburbs, children go to schools whose student body is composed of 90 percent first- or second-generation immigrants. I visited a local school called Tensta Gymnasium, which prides itself on its immigrant-heavy student body. I asked if attracting blond-haired and blue-eyed Swedish schoolchildren to Tensta Gymnasium might aid integration, to which principal Sofie Abrahamsson replied, “Why should we put money into attracting those from elsewhere, when we know they won’t come?”

Abrahamsson’s resigned attitude makes sense. Outside the archipelago of immigrant islands such as Tensta, Rinkeby, Alby and Husby, racism and Islamophobia are commonplace. Social media have provided a small ray of hope, with Instagram accounts such as Svartkvinna (Black woman) and Muslimskvinna (Muslim woman) offering a platform for those “others” to articulate their stories. Johanna Lihagen, a Swedish woman who converted to Islam, created Muslimskvinna and told me that, as a Muslim, “you must always be prepared for questions — when you're at the dentist, at your local grocery store, at work, when you are meeting a doctor. You can never believe the things doctors ask a Muslim woman.”

Beacon of hope

Externally, Sweden projects itself as an egalitarian beacon of hope in an intolerant world. Swedes love to hold seminars, create associations and broadcast panel discussions about their “integration problems.” But seminars and short-term policies won’t help. Sweden needs a radical reorganization of the way its cities are planned, its educational systems are structured and its minorities are represented across all levels of society to prevent repeats of the Husby riots.

Toward the end of my stay in Sweden, I sat on a bench in Tensta’s main square. People talked to each other outside the bustling Iraqi-run market. A Syrian asylum seeker tried to sell me a pack of dodgy cigarettes before asking about my family. There was a sense of community in the suburbs that I didn’t experience in the center of the city.

A young Somali woman came and sat next to me. “I’m three times screwed in Swedish society: I’m black, Muslim and Somali,” she said. She paused to acknowledge her friends as they headed to school, before summing up what so many Swedish suburbanites told me: “Swedes are so image-conscious that they forget to look at what’s really happening in our country. We, the foreigners, are so many, but we are hidden on the outskirts of society and on the fringes of the city. They put us here so we can’t be seen.” 

Sam Piranty is a freelance journalist.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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