What Living in Belgium Taught Me About American Progressivism and Racial Justice

It is an interesting time to be writing and pursuing research on economic inequality. Like most of the rest of the world, the US is currently reckoning with a global pandemic that is widening inequalities—between higher wage workers who can do remote work and those who can’t, for example—, and the murder of George Floyd triggered a global conversation about white supremacy’s historical role in a particular kind of racial inequality.

Yet income and wealth inequity has been endemic in the United States, particularly since the 1970s. This is partly why I moved to Belgium to study the impact of technological shocks (e.g. artificial intelligence) on the gap between the rich and poor as part of a Fulbright grant. And I was excited to learn more about Europe’s experience with progressivism from a Belgian perspective. As many in the US continue to push for policies like universal health care and higher tax rates for the wealthiest households, parts of Europe are often heralded as positive models.

Until recently, I was based in Ghent, Belgium—a Flemish city with canals and medieval-style buildings often built after the Second World War (pictured). And the presence of government policy and an approach to statecraft that favors greater inclusion and a higher standard of living for the most vulnerable people can be seen very apparently. Public transportation is robust, cheap, and flexibly priced for younger people; bike paths are ubiquitous; universal health care is taken as a given; college is cheap; there are very few homeless people. And despite the presence of some sections of Ghent that were more accessible to wealthier residents, most people have access to an affordable baseline and high quality of life.

Ghent streets empty in March during the lockdown

And yet, my time living in Ghent showed me that this wasn’t a complete story. Belgium’s history with race, in particular, tells a more nuanced tale about the conditions in which European progressivism often exists as well as an even broader lesson about the relationship between racism and movements in economic progressivism.

Put simply, though Belgium has managed to excel relative to the US in its ability to maintain a strong quality of life for most people, national conversations about racism seemed often underdeveloped. And the resurgence of the far right Vlaams Belang party has ushered in a wave of xenophobia and nationalism directly into Flemish politics. The particular brand of old-school racism the party espouses stood in a startling contrast to the impressive standard of living and quality of life provided by Belgian’s otherwise progressive institutions. It was a type of racism resembling the euro-nationalist and often white supremacist rhetoric of the identarian movements present in many European countries. That is to say, it was centered around a nucleus of ethnic and cultural “purity” as well as the expulsion of foreigners and any inkling of multiculturalism. A leader of the party stated, for example, that women wearing the hijab had “effectively signed their contract for deportation.”

Photo of a far right identarian ad I took while on a trip with Ghent classmates in Vienna

Anti-Islam sentiment and opposition to “political correctness” are clearly present in parts of the American right. Yet the specific rhetoric used by the Flemish far right seems more overt and less thinly disguised in its racist subtexts and advocacy of cultural purity. The problem of racism in Flanders, however, extends beyond this into the center of Belgium’s institutions. This is apparent in, for example, the case of the African Museum in Brussels. For years the museum was criticized for not providing a sufficient depiction of the atrocities that occurred in the Belgian Congo. In recent years, the museum has admirably attempted to address this problem. And yet, as Fulbright program participants saw on a group visit to the museum, there remains a stupefying lack of recognition of how bad King Leopold’s colonial effort was and the scale of the human rights abuses that he committed.

Photo of some of my classmates at Ghent University

How can we reconcile the presence of robust social safety nets and systems of progressive policy on the one hand with the classical xenophobia in pockets of Belgian life and institutions on the other? The answer, I believe, comes down to demography. And it is something that I believe can tell us a considerable amount about America’s experience in attempting to facilitate a national conversation on racial justice.

Put simply the US is on track to be a minority White country by 2045, and the presence of Black and Hispanic minorities has always been a central component of the American political and cultural experience. It would be inconceivable for a modern Presidential election cycle to not address questions of racial justice and inequality. This has created, if nothing else, the beginnings of language that can be used to describe concepts of systemic racism. And in places like the African American History Museum in Washington DC, there is a broad, powerful, and growing movement to reconcile and understand the vehicles of white supremacy that allowed for racism to manifest in the violent forms that it did.

And yet, the same multiculturalism and diversity that has allowed the US to undergo the process of constructive conflict and conversation about racism has also created a culture that is more antagonistic to progressive economic change, such as universal health care and redistribution. A study by The Brookings Institution found that, despite the resurgence of a desire to provide a greater social safety net after the “unifying experiences” of the Great Depression and Second World War, those feelings were superseded by a decline in support for those progressive programs as the US reached high levels of immigration (as high as 1 million a year) in the second half of the 20th century. Just as America’s diversity demanded a greater emphasis on questions of racial inclusion in future discourse, it also kindled underlying racist resentment and eroded national comradery and the desire for redistribution.

Belgium, by contrast and like much of the rest of Europe, is far more racially homogenous than the US. And so, the power of racial and ethnic minorities to enter into conversations and create spaces to engage in national discussions of racism is considerably weakened. Yet it is possible that this homogeneity has also been a condition that allowed for progressive policy and redistribution to flourish.

There are clearly many reasons for America’s embrace of free market capitalism and antagonism to “socialist” ideas (e.g. the Cold War). Yet it also seems clear that historical moments in favor of progressive shifts toward universal health care were suppressed by a subsequent backlash to welfare brought on by racial animus in an increasingly multicultural country. And in recent years, right wing parties in Europe such as the Vlaams Belang too have responded to the rise in multiculturalism and an increase in migrants with a shift toward narrowing the size of welfare or the scope of who qualifies.

This underscores a major lesson I learned from my time in Belgium, and it’s one that I continue to think about as I research inequality. As the effort for greater egalitarianism and social progress took hold in Europe, seemingly antithetical subtexts of free market capitalism and rugged individualism took hold in the US. And yet, the same multiculturalism and diversity that eroded American unity and impulses for redistribution created the conditions that also made conversations about race inevitable. By contrast, Belgium and European inclinations for redistribution were at least partially a consequence of a feeling of greater unity. This was in turn contingent on a racial and cultural homogeneity that allowed questions of colonialism and racism to persist in a more unchecked form. 

Born in Ithaca, New York, Julian is a recipient of the Fulbright scholarship in Belgium to pursue a Master’s Degree in Global Studies from Ghent University and the London School of Economics. He is the Founding Editor in Chief of the Brown University Journal of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), a journalist, and a public speaker. He has published more than 35 articles and essays in 15 publications and has conducted interviews with Bernie Sanders, Paul Krugman Noam Chomsky, Peter Hitchens, Tom Perez, and Reza Aslan among others. For over a year, his work has focused on emerging technology and the effects of artificial intelligence on US income inequality and American democracy. His research on the topic was used to support his senior thesis, supervised by political economy scholar Mark Blyth. He has also worked as an intern at The Brookings Institution and in President Barack Obama’s post-presidency office, where he supported the 44th President’s correspondence, communications, and speechwriting teams.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.

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