Cultural explanations are hot. In particular problematic or criminal acts by individuals with a migrant background are quickly understood to be culturally determined. Not surprisingly, specific policy approaches are seen as the answer. For a long time the government earmarked significant sums of money to be used in the area of security and justice in municipalities with a large proportion of (first and second generation) Antilleans and Moroccans in order to develop and implement specific policies.
In stark contrast, the government is now trying to get rid of migrant-specific policies. Amsterdam and other municipalities have gone as far as abandoning the term ‘allochtoon’. The national government is not taking that step, but it has decided that policies should be based on people’s future and not on their background, in Dutch: niet herkomst maar toekomst telt, which is a major turnaround.
For a long time, the Netherlands pursued an integration policy that focused on combating disadvantages while at the same time accepting that ethnic groups maintained their cultural identities. Besides canals, clogs, prostitution and drugs, the Netherlands was also known for its ambitious long-term integration policy which dates back to the early 1980s. Curbing disadvantages was enabled by a comprehensive registration of a person’s ethnic background up to the second generation according to uniform definitions. These ethnic registrations (which were not allowed to the police, but researchers managed to get round that) are used extensively in all kinds of research and policy documents. As data on ethnic background is more accessible and of better quality than data on educational level or social class, almost every social phenomenon is now linked to ethnic differences, thereby feeding the cultural debate.
Although the current cabinet’s plans are being criticised for being too much on the side of policies putting pressure on migrants to assimilate and adapt to ‘Dutch standards and values’, we could also look at this turnaround more positively. After all, specific policies geared towards disadvantaged groups often have the unintended side effect of stigmatisation. (See the recent publication 'Het minderhedenbeleid voorbij')
Three things crossed my mind when thinking about this more optimistic explanation. Firstly, stigmatisation can stem from official policies, but that is never the whole story. If societal discourse remains so focused on the criminal involvement of migrants and if problems are still blamed easily on people’s culture (though not in the case of Dutch people, as they do not seem to have a culture), stigmatisation will continue to take place. Secondly, the integration paper by the Rutte I cabinet indeed starts on a positive note, but very soon it is more about adaption and normalisation. This could easily lead to more subtle, though perhaps even worse, kinds of stigmatisation. Thirdly, in order to seriously tackle stigmatisation, the government should probably go even further and stop talking about registering ethnic background completely as recently suggested by the Council for Social Development (Raad voor Maatschappelijke Ontwikkeling). As a researcher I am not immediately enthusiastic about the latter. But I do think that, at least in the area of policy on security, it is a good step to stop so-called specific policies as there is very little evidence that they work. And even worse - we often have no idea what is so specific about these policies. As far as the domain of policy on security is concerned, a firm general policy is a much better bet. Besides being more effective and efficient, it will end the endless carrousel of short-term projects which are never properly evaluated. And maybe it will also help put a halt to increasing stigmatisation.