The divisive issues tearing Europe apart--crime, race, poverty, politics--have many echoes for Americans who lived through the turbulent 1960s and '70s. Then, as now, the problems were seen as hopelessly intractable, the result of deep historic and powerful social forces. But the remarkably increased safety of America's city streets today and its sharp improvement in race relations should serve as encouragement in the face of a seemingly impossible task. Europe can learn much from the American experience, if it chooses to do so.
The parallels between the U.S. in the '60s and Europe today are not exact. Europe's current social problems stem, in part, from an increasingly Islamicized immigrant population that is ambivalent about integrating fully into secular French, Dutch, or German culture. At the same time, European societies are worried about integrating a large, culturally conservative group with a very different religion. America didn't have any of this. Its "outs" wanted "in." Plain and simple.
But the U.S. did have a terrible combination of crime, poverty, and racial tension that degraded life. Europe must deal with this same mix. It took two decades of effort to make the U.S. safer, including changes in cultural attitudes toward crime, a vast prison-building program, and, most important, a booming job market that integrated minorities into the economic system. None of this is yet happening in Europe.
For most of the '60s, street violence was tolerated and rationalized in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities as minor quality-of-life crimes that stemmed from social injustice, especially racism. Criminals were not seen as being personally responsible for their actions. Politicians and police put little effort into solving robberies, muggings, or threatening panhandling. There is a similar rationalization of crime today by Europe's mainstream politicians and police. And people believe their pleas for protection are falling on deaf ears.
In the 1980s and especially the '90s, Americans' attitude toward crime shifted. They began to view criminals as personally responsible for their actions, not as passive victims of social injustice. Tougher criminal laws were passed, and nearly a million criminals were taken off the streets. It was a draconian move by world standards.
But it was jobs that really made U.S. streets safe. Fast economic growth created labor shortages, especially in the '90s. A tight labor market made welfare reform possible, integrating millions into mainstream society. Working class salaries rose sharply, opening opportunities for the American underclass, especially African Americans and Hispanics. Money and investments started to reinvigorate old ghettos such as New York's Harlem. The vicious cycle of poverty, racism, and crime was ameliorated.
It can happen in Europe, too. There is much talk within the European chattering classes that the 20% to 25% of the electorate who chose far-right candidates recently represented a backlash against globalization and a modern new European identity. Maybe. But the central promises of any modern society are safe streets and opportunity for all participants. Perhaps if Europe's political elite focused more on the daily lives of ordinary people, they might get the consensus they need for a larger European Union. They might even persuade the alienated children of immigrants who are turning to radical Islam that a secular European society has a place for them, too.