The Dream Revisited

Reflection on Segregation and Integration: A Swedish Perspective

by Roger Andersson | September 2014

In 2000, the Berkeley geography professor, Allan Pred, published his book Even in Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical Imagination (2000). The title alluded to Gunnar Myrdal’s The American Dilemma (1944), and also made the point that even a country renowned for social cohesion and progressive social politics was plagued by racially based behaviors, and faced increasing problems integrating new immigrants. Pred, like Gunnar Myrdal in the U.S., provided somewhat of an outsider’s perspective on what was going on in Sweden. If anything, his prescient book is even more relevant now than it was fifteen years ago.

Having had the privilege to spend a full academic year at NYU, I as well have reflected on how similar and simultaneously how different the U.S. and Sweden are, and how difficult the challenges of racial and ethnic integration are in both contexts. The wider contextual differences are of course profound and span many dimensions: history, geography, constitutionalism, party politics and welfare regime. Let me briefly touch upon some current issues.

Contrary to U.S. social science research, attention to race and ethnicity until relatively recently played a marginal role in European segregation studies. This difference was likely due to a stronger emphasis on social class and a relative absence of immigrants in Europe. Today, however, the proportion of foreign-born in some European countries is equal or greater than that of the United States. What is still a key difference, of course, is the legacy of slavery and what this means for all aspects of American life and politics.

Not only have European scholars started to study racial/ethnic segregation patterns and processes, but the conceptual frame for doing so has more or less been imported from the U.S. (from the Chicago school of urban sociology to later works by William Julius Wilson (1987), Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton (1993), and many more). For U.S. scholars interested in comparisons, there is a growing European body of literatures addressing issues such as spatial mismatch, selective migration and neighborhood dynamics, white flight and avoidance, discrimination in housing and work, and contextual (school and neighborhood) effects. The availability of register-based longitudinal data provides richer data in many European countries than in the U.S. to address a range of research questions related to neighborhood and school segregation.

Many European countries have recognized that segregation in the form of concentrated disadvantage needs to be addressed by targeted political efforts. A large number of countries have launched area-based urban programs with the aim to improve housing stocks and infrastructure, to encourage local employment opportunities, to combat crime and to put extra resources into schools and cultural facilities. As far as I know, no European country has embarked on a route similar to theMoving to Opportunity (MTO) program as a means to combat negative effects of concentrated poverty (by moving individuals from one place to another). MTO of course has some merits, but for many Europeans it also evokes feelings of a defensive and individualistic way of handling structural problems. Instead of launching long-term structural reforms to make society less socioeconomically and racially polarized, it boils down to a policy assisting some individuals to escape poor contextual conditions.

Unfortunately, area-based programs also face severe constraints as a counter-segregation measure. They point at particular places – neighborhoods providing homes for often socially marginalized people— as being problematic, instead of highlighting the whole segregated city or city region as the problem. Area-based programs often turn out either to displace problems somewhere else or to be simply ineffective (Andersson & Bråmå 2004, Andersson & Musterd 2005, Andersson, Bråmå & Holmqvist 2010), and sometimes even further stigmatize the targeted area. As I see it, they are sometimes necessary but need to be launched in a framework of wider structural reforms (Andersson 2006).

 In countries like Sweden, social/public housing has often been used as a tool to either provide housing for both the middle and working classes or to offer affordable housing in mixed-tenure developments. This has been very successful, and shows that income mix in neighborhoods is not an unachievable illusion but rather a matter of political will. However, recent developments in Sweden show that such mixed neighborhoods can rapidly become less mixed if the role of public housing changes (Andersson and Magnusson Turner 2014). Finding effective measures and planning practices to avoid poverty concentrations in neighborhoods is a challenge everywhere and it requires stronger market regulations and institutional reforms. Although neither seems likely in the short-term, it is important for social researchers to keep emphasizing the importance of such a normative planning ambition if we would like to secure less conflict and more equal social opportunities in the decades ahead. Patrick Sharkey is right (see blog entry) in emphasizing that we should have a sound research-based rationale for mixing strategies; however, I do think that housing policy has a role to play in achieving greater socioeconomic equality (however maybe not in relation to racial mix). What we’ve found in Sweden is that mixing low and middle income households has positive neighborhood and individual impacts (Galster, Andersson, Musterd 2014, Musterd, Galster & Andersson 2012) but that focusing on avoiding ethnic clustering makes less sense from an economic integration perspective (Andersson, Musterd & Galster 2014), at least if ethnic concentration does not co-vary strongly with employment frequencies.

In the aftermath of the recent financial crisis in Europe, we have witnessed the rise of populist, right-wing, nationalistic and anti-immigrant parties, which are increasingly affecting the daily life of racial, ethnic and/or religious minorities. Most agree that the loss of job opportunities for less educated people following de-industrialization, along with a sustained period of increasing income disparities, provide fertile ground for anti-democratic developments. The same processes take place in the U.S., but the majority vote system, maybe along with a very long history of immigration, probably makes it more difficult for such sentiments to make a political breakthrough. I nevertheless would argue that, in short, because socioeconomic disparities are bigger in the US, the poverty of the poor is deeper, segregation along class and race dimensions more profound, crime rates are still higher, and the opportunities for intergenerational upward mobility even more limited than in Europe (where the cost of higher education generally is much lower), economic and ethnic/racial segregation are still an even bigger challenge in the U.S.

Let me finally discuss one aspect of the institutional setup for dealing with the challenges facing all who believe a reduced level of socioeconomic and racial/ethnic segregation is a good thing.

In his recently published book, George Galster (2012) uses a Detroit case study to explain how a lack of regional political and planning coordination can ruin a city. Yes, Detroit has a particular history tied to capital in the form of the motor industry, and yes, it has experienced severe class and racial conflicts. It is, however, astonishing for someone coming from a country where all municipalities are guaranteed a similar per capita tax base, that people (predominantly whites) can abandon a particular jurisdiction and avoid paying for the externalities of their behavior. This situation seems fairly similar across the U.S., posing a severe threat to the ability to build social cohesion and provide reasonably equal opportunities. In Sweden, municipalities are financially strong, have the right to decide on local income tax levels (normally around 21% plus around 11% in county income tax), but are also compensated by the central state if their inhabitants collectively earn little income. Tax equalization measures have been in place since the early 1900s. In 2014, all municipalities dispose of at least 115 percent (yes, 115) of the national average income tax-base. In addition, there is also a type of ‘Robin Hood tax’ that distributes tax money between municipalities, calculated according to demographic composition and population change, employment frequency, social deprivation, and to some extent geographical features (climate, population density). Together, these resource allocation mechanisms make sure that social services like schools, daycare, care for the elderly, public transportation, water and sewage services, etc. can be provided relatively equally across jurisdictions, which reduces incentives for households to relocate to avoid ‘problems’. The system does not put an end to segregation dynamics, but it does mitigate segregation and reduces its negative consequences.

The concept of metropolitan planning was launched in the U.S. towards the end of the nineteenth century, in response to rapid urbanization (Friedmann and Weaver 1977). Some metropolitan planning still does take place –particularly with respect to transportation systems– but it does not and never did include housing or tax redistribution. Political fragmentation of city regions is a notorious problem everywhere, constraining efforts to desegregate communities, but in the absence of efficient reallocation of resources from rich to poor localities, the U.S. faces bigger problems in countering segregation than many other developed countries. I have learned during this year that if anything sounds like a progressive political idea, it will probably be ruled unconstitutional. But maybe I’m wrong and that the “real stuff of equality” (Mary Patillo) can begin to materialize sooner rather than later.


Andersson, Roger. 2006.  ‘Breaking Segregation’—Rhetorical Construct or Effective Policy? The Case of the Metropolitan Development Initiative in Sweden. Urban Studies, 43: 4, 787–799.

Andersson, Roger and Bråmå, Åsa. 2004. Selective Migration in Swedish Distressed Neighbourhoods: Can Area-based Urban Policies Counteract Segregation Processes? Housing Studies 19: 4, 517-539.

Andersson, Roger,  Bråmå, Åsa and Holmqvist, Emma. 2010. Counteracting segregation: Swedish policies and experiences, Housing Studies 25: 2, 237 — 256.

Andersson, Roger and Musterd, Sako. 2005. Area-based Policies. A critical Appraisal. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie 96:4, 377-389.

Andersson, Roger, Musterd, Sako and Galster, George. 2014. Neighbourhood Ethnic Composition and Employment Effects on Immigrant Incomes. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 40: 5, 710-736.

Friedmann, John and Weaver, Clyde. 1977. Territory and Function: The Evolution of Regional Planning. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Galster, George. 2012. Driving Detroit. The Quest for Respect in the Motor City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Galster, George, Andersson, Roger and Musterd, Sako. 2014. Are Males’ Incomes Influenced by the Income Mix of their Male Neighbors? Explorations into Nonlinear and Threshold Effects in Stockholm. Forthcoming in Housing Studies.

Massey, Douglas S. & Denton, Nancy A. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Musterd, Sako, Galster, George and Andersson, Roger. 2012. Temporal Dimensions and the Measurement of Neighbourhood Effects. Environment and Planning A.  44:3, 605–627.

Pred, Allan. 1995. Recognizing European Modernities: A Montage of the Present. London and New York: Routledge.

Pred, Allan. 2000. Even in Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical Imagination. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

This website also explains the Swedish inter-municipality resource redistribution schemes but it is unfortunately not available in English.

Roger Andersson is a Professor in Social and Economic Geography in the Institute for Housing and Urban research (IBF) at Uppsala University, Sweden. His research covers the dynamics and effects of residential segregation and policies aimed at reducing it.

More in Discussion 7: Comparative Perspectives on Segregation