Argument: Ethnic enclavesDenmark Wants to Break Up Ethnic Enclaves. What Is Wrong with Them?

Published 2 December 2019

In 2018, following a series of violent incidents in Mjolnerparken, a sprawling housing projects on the outskirts of Copemhagen which is home mostly to Muslim immigrants, the Danish government drafted, and the Danish parliament approved, a new “ghetto” law, aimed at dealing more effectively with the ills of ethnic enclaves. “Denmark’s ghetto law reflects growing European discomfort with districts dominated by ethnic-minority groups,” the Economist notes. “From Oslo to Milan, grumpy natives complain of districts that no longer feel like the country they grew up in.”

In 2018, following a series of violent incidents in Mjolnerparken, a sprawling housing projects on the outskirts of Copemhagen which is home mostly to Muslim immigrants, the Danish government drafted, and the Danish parliament approved, a new “ghetto” law, aimed at dealing more effectively with the ills – especially high levels of poverty, unemployment, and crime — afflicting ethnic enclaves in Denmark. The Economist writes that crimes in those areas were to be punished more harshly and public day care for toddlers made mandatory to inculcate Danish values. Public-housing corporations were ordered to sell off some apartments to wealthier newcomers.

“Denmark’s ghetto law reflects growing European discomfort with districts dominated by ethnic-minority groups,” the Economist notes. “From Oslo to Milan, grumpy natives complain of districts that no longer feel like the country they grew up in.”

There are two main objections that Danes and other Europeans raise when they explain their objections to the current system of ethnic enclaves. First, the very existence of poor immigrant districts undermines public support for their generous welfare systems. “That claim is hard to prove or disprove. But a second objection is easier to examine—that ghettos harm their residents, in part by keeping them poor,” the Economist writes, adding:

Such a bold policy [as reflected in the Danish ghetto law] suggests that the evidence for ghettos being bad is overwhelming. In fact, it is mixed. In the 1920s, at the end of a wave of immigration to America, sociologists at the University of Chicago argued that ethnic enclaves facilitated assimilation. Immigrants first settled in big cities, drawing on the knowledge and contacts of their former compatriots. Over generations, they adapted culturally and climbed the economic ladder, mixing with the native population.

Economists say that there is evidence to support both the argument that ghettos are harmful for their residents, and the argument that they are beneficial. In a 1997 paper, two Harvard economists

noted that theoretical arguments could point either way. On the one hand, ethnic enclaves limit their residents’ exposure to economic opportunities and cultural knowledge outside their own ethnicities. On the other, they give new immigrants access to information and connections acquired by earlier arrivals, and may provide them with role models.

The Economist says that the free market offers at least a partial solution to the problem of ethnic encalves in big European cities:

Gentrification is the main engine of free-market desegregation in cities these days. Even native Danes like some diverse districts. Mjolnerparken borders Norrebro, an ethnically mixed district where shops selling hijabs sit next to vegan cafés. Not all such areas are central or attractive enough to appeal to gentrifiers. But even in concrete banlieues, there are less punitive ways for governments to encourage integration than by labelling them ghettos and pushing some of their residents out.

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