Europe's Divided Racial House

A common feature of Europe's extreme right is its racism and use of the immigration issue as a political wedge. The Lega Nord in Italy, the Vlaams Blok in the Netherlands, the supporters of Le Pen's National Front in France, are all examples of parties or movements formed on the common theme of aversion to immigrants and promotion of simplistic policies to control them. While individuals like Jorg Haidar and Jean-Marie Le Pen may come and (never to soon) go, the race question will not disappear from European politics anytime soon.

An aging population at home and ever more open borders imply increasing racial fragmentation in European countries. Mainstream parties of the center left and center right have confronted this prospect by hiding their heads in the ground, hoping against hope that the problem will disappear. It will not, as America's racial history clearly shows. Race relations in the US have been for decades - and remain - at the center of political debate, to the point that racial cleavages are as important as income, if not more, as determinants of political preferences and attitudes.

The first step to address racial politics is to understand the origin and consequences of racial animosity, even if it means uncovering unpleasant truths. This is precisely what a large amount of research in economics, sociology, psychology and political science has done for the US. This research shows that people of different races trust each other much less; whites are less willing to support welfare spending because it is perceived to favor minorities; more racially fragmented communities have less efficient governments, more corruption and patronage, more crime and fewer productive public goods per tax dollar.

This does not mean that the answer is to eliminate heterogeneity and create racially homogenous communities, but an acknowledgment of the reality of these issues is needed in order to start constructing solid public policies toward race relations. Of course, Americans disagree on how to do this. Some favor affirmative action programs that provide preferences for minorities in job allocation, college admission, and public contracts. These policies are seen as a way of offering reparation for past injustices and, more importantly, for creating role models and for overcoming residual and perhaps involuntary discrimination.