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In the Ghetto or Out of Society? A Review of the Debate Surrounding the "Ghetto Plan"

In early November of 2010, a small and largely unnoticed headline announced Danish People’s Party leader Pia Kjærsgaard’s visit to the housing area of Tingbjerg, an area officially categorized by the Danish government as a “ghetto.” Earlier in 2010, she had been part of a number of government leaders who helped to form the “ghettoplan,” a comprehensive government initiative intended to reintegrate what she and others have often called “parallel societies.” She had also made calls to ban residents in these so- called ghettos from owning satellite dishes. Despite apparently holding such strong views towards these ghettos and residents in these housing areas, Pia Kjærsgaard’s visit to Tingbjerg in November was the first time that she had ever visited a ghetto.

This attitude is not limited to Pia Kjærsgaard and the Danish People’s Party. Her opinions are part of a much larger discourse that has arisen in Denmark over the past year revolving around these so-called “ghettos.” Despite the amount of attention that has been brought to these ghettos by politicians, public officials, and journalists, it seems that like Pia Kjærsgaard, very few of these figures have a strong understanding of life in these neighborhoods. Nonetheless, the rhetoric that has become common in the Danish media and political debate is increasingly toxic and has significant effects on popular perception of these areas and their inhabitants.

Since the introduction of the ghetto plan, depictions of Denmark’s ghettos and attitudes towards areas defined as ghettos have become increasingly commonplace in the media. For example, a simple search for the term “ghetto” on Berlingske (a major Danish newspaper) returns 173 results since the ghettoplan’s introduction in October 2010. This is only one example of how so-called ghettos and the “problems” associated with them have become a media fascination. Much of this media attention reflects the vigorous debate and plethora of opinions that have erupted in the political sphere in response to the the ghetto plan, particularly from the current parties in power. In response to these strong statements, we decided to explore the underlying causes and effects of this stigmatization of these public housing areas and to provide perspectives from individuals who both work and live in these so-called “ghettos.”

Much of the recent discourse related to the Danish “ghettos” has come about in response to the government’s introduction of the “ghetto plan.” In October 2010 the Danish government proposed a new strategy called ”The ghettos back to the society – the bringing down of the parallel societies” (free translation). This plan lays out the government’s proposed solution to the “ghetto problem;” that is, at least as defined in the strategy document, that there are “places in Denmark where Danish values are no longer the foundation” (free translation). The short-term part of this strategy is the ghetto plan, in which the government proposed numerous suggestions for changes in the selected public housing areas that the government labeled as “ghettos” in order to bring Danish values to these “parallel societies.”

As part of the ghetto plan, the government designated specific zones as official “ghettos” and provided recommendations for how to address the “ghetto problem.” 29 areas were labeled as ghettos based on three statistical criteria: a percentage of 50% or more residents with non-Western backgrounds; a rate of 40% or greater unemployment among adults aged 18-64; and a presence of 270 or more inhabitants with criminal backgrounds for every 10,000 residents. Based on these classifications, the government created 32 recommendations in order to address the lack of “Danish values” and other problems in these areas. The suggestions for improvement of the areas ranged from more police patrols in the area, to tearing down certain houses, to extra Danish language classes help for children and youth. Many of the suggestions called for limitations in the already limited social welfare available for unemployed or new immigrants, and made it more difficult for immigrants to find housing in these areas. According to the government, these suggestions were created in order to address the threat caused to the Danish society by ghettos. These areas were described as a threat to the Danish society because they function as parallel societies, and the measures suggested were a way to create more diverse areas and give incentives for the residents in these areas to change their behaviors.

The ghetto plan was criticized by some and applauded by others. Hassan Preisler, actor and lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, has a critical view of the plan and told us during an interview that there is certainly a need to create more diverse housing areas, but that he believes that the housing situation is much more complex than the political and media discourse characterizes it as. For example, as Hassan argued, the housing situation is the way it is because people live where they can afford to live and there is in many ways a shortage of affordable housing in Denmark. As a result, he called for a broader discussion about housing and integration policy. In contrast, the Danish People’s Party has applauded the plan, and released a statement that it was a good step to improve what they called areas “where catastrophe rules.”

Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen has taken a particularly vocal stance on the issue, even going so far as to question whether ghettos are an actual part of Denmark, stating that “Danish standards regarding security, equal rights, the legal system and respect for public authority don’t exist there.”  According to Hassan Preisler, this ideology is at the root of the problem between what the state classifies as ghettos and the rest of Danish society.  When someone attempts to challenge the widely held belief that everyone in Denmark is tolerant, accepting, and equal, they are met with a backlash from the larger Danish society.  As Hassan explained, it’s a horrible feeling to have your beliefs challenged, but it’s an even worse feeling to have your values challenged when your entire society is based on these beliefs.

One peculiar aspect of the ghetto plan is the official use of the word “ghetto.” The term “ghetto” has been used infrequently in the past in Denmark to describe less affluent public housing areas by tabloids and sensational news outlets, but the government began using this as an official term with the introduction of the so-called ghetto plan. The media in turn began using the term “ghetto” as part of the rhetoric revolving around these housing areas and the government policies directed towards them. Despite its recent use in Danish housing policy discourse, the use of this term is unusual in that it has very little historical context in Denmark. The term ghetto originally comes from areas that Jews were forced to live in during the medieval times in Venice, and it was used extensively during the national socialist regime in Germany in the thirties. Since then, it has been used most widely as a non-official name of disadvantaged housing areas in the United States and elsewhere. However, the term “ghetto” has not been a common word in Danish until only recently.

In order to get an inside view on the decision to introduce this term, we talked with the Head of the Press at the Ministry for Social Affairs, Jesper Huvsgaard. He stated that he did not know the exact reason why the term had been introduced, but that he believed it had been a conscious strategy from the government to introduce the term “ghetto” into the public discourse. Nonetheless, there have been public officials who have criticized the use of the term ghetto. Johan Reimann, chief of the Copenhagen Police Department, stated soon after the introduction of the ghetto plan that “If you call an area like Mjølnerparken a ghetto, which it isn’t in my point of view, then those with more resources in the area will move out, because who wants to live in a ghetto? It creates the problem they are trying to solve” (free translation).

In order to discuss the use of this term with an activist who works in these areas, we met up with Ali Sufi, a hip hop artist and social activist from Copenhagen active in the New- Dane Youth Council. He said that the introduction of the term “ghetto” into the political discourse signaled a major change in the use of the term. According to Ali, ”When the government started using the term, it became a legitimized word and all the media started using it as well.” His insight reflects the way in which these housing areas have become stigmatized through the use of the term “ghetto” in such a short period of time.

We also discussed the use of the term “ghetto” with Hassan. Hassan moved around frequently as a child, but at one point lived in an area that today would be designated as a “ghetto.”  Hassan makes note of the fact that while living in the area, he never considered it to be a ghetto, and argues that few people would consider their own neighborhood a ghetto. Moreover, according to Hassan, the term “ghetto” is like many terms before it (foreign workers, guest workers, immigrants, foreigners) that have been used to describe the “other.” He argues that this creation of an other through terms creates a stigma and attaches concepts of fear and a feeling of insecurity to the term’s meaning. Hassan argues that if the government is truly serious about creating more diverse housing areas, then there should be an alternative ghetto plan to diversify the more affluent “ghettos.”

To get to know a bit more about how youth actually feel about the situation, we also interviewed a young man named Sultan, a 17 year old who lives in a disadvantaged public housing area in Copenhagen. According to Sultan, “The use of the word "ghetto" is very, very inappropriate. There are several ways to define a city district as "ghetto" but I cannot help but think that the citizens in these ghetto areas may feel undermined and "pushed" away from the rest of the country.” He feels that the ghetto plan was not based on an understanding of the so called ghettos and the problems that the residents in the area face. Sultan has many things he would like to change about Danish society, but in reference to the so called ghettos and the politics surrounding it, he says, “I think that the Danish Government should approach this ‘problem’ differently. They should make it desirable for the citizens in the "ghetto" areas to move away and live in other places.” Though Sultan feels that the situation in Denmark today is not very good, he has hope for the future and says that more and more youth are becoming active in civil society and in their neighborhoods, and he is confident that things will change for the better in the future.

Abdallah, a 14 year old middle school student from Svendborg, disagrees with the way media portrays the public housing areas. Abdallah commented, “I’m done with the media. They’ve done nothing for the people. They are making a big issue out of nothing and they are saying things that are not true.”  He also disagrees with the way in which politicians talk about ghettos and he feels that parliamentarians with an immigrant background have a special responsibility to create a better debate about so called ghettos. Abdallah himself wants to be a politician when he gets older. Like Sultan, Abdallah feels that things are going to get better in the future when his generation grows older and becomes more active.

More youth voices have also spoken out against the prevailing rhetoric pertaining to so- called ghettos. The New Dane Youth Council, where Ali Sufi is a board member, criticized the ghetto plan, stating that the plan had no basing in the real problems in the so-called ghettos, and that they didn’t base the ghetto plan on opinions of the people living in the area. In response to the ghetto plan, the council gathered youth from these areas and made their own “Alternative Ghetto Plan.” Their plan had five different suggestions: to increase the influence of the youth in these areas; to stop the stigmatization of the ghetto image and the media profiling; educational support for youth; rewards and incentives for ambitious youth from these areas; and the creation of a positive culture to counter the alienation that many of these youth face.

Activists involved in working with youth in these areas have also expressed their views towards the ghetto plan and the stigma related to ghettos. Ali stressed the importance of youth participation to create positive changes in the so-called ghettos. He criticized the ghetto plan for not being connected to the problems of the communities and that the plan punished already poor and vulnerable groups instead of creating opportunities for them. We also met with Simon Prahm, director of the urban youth sports organization Gam3 to hear his views on disadvantaged housing areas. He also stressed how the usage of the term “ghetto” creates a feeling alienation of the youth who live in these areas. He said that as a result, these youth don’t trust the politicians and they feel like they have already been judged by society before they have done anything wrong. He stresses that although some of the youth approve of using the term between themselves, they are aware of how the rest of the society views the so-called ghettos and the labels that are placed on them.

Newspapers and mass media have also played a large role in creating and shaping the discourse around these so-called ghettos. Even though most newspapers in Denmark are independent of any political party, the Danish newspaper field can generally be divided into two major groups – those that support the right wing and those that support the left wing. As the ghetto plan was championed by the right-wing government, it would most likely follow that the Danish newspapers would follow party lines on the issue. A search on these four newspapers’ websites for articles related to the ghetto plan quickly confirms this assumption. Politiken and Information--two newspapers known for supporting the left-wing parties--have numerous articles similar to Politiken’s critical perspective as portrayed in “The government has created the ghetto-problems.” At the same time, Jyllandsposten had an article entitled “Ghetto-children shall go in school longer” which stated, “It is doubtful whether anybody wants to buy a house where the bullets are flying around their ears,” thus further stigmatizing “ghetto” inhabitants. Tabloids, such as Extrabladet and B.T, known for their xenophobic language, also wrote in praise of the ghetto plan, arguing for the need to address crime and the lack of Danish values in the so- called ghettos. Although the media contained views on both sides of the debate, the continued use of the term “ghetto” and the increasingly negative view of these residents had significant effects on the tone of the debate.

Many of the activists we talked with discussed the role of the media in formulating the stereotypes regarding disadvantaged housing areas. Simon said that he believed that the media rhetoric plays a large part in forming the general social discourse around both so- called ghettos and social problems in general. He stresses that the media predominantly writes about immigrant youth in negative contexts, in that people with immigrant backgrounds only gain media coverage when it is about troubled neighborhoods and/or integration issues. Ali believes that the media rhetoric in Denmark has moved so far to the right that it will take a long time to change the discourse into something more positive. The media discourse works together with the political policies to create a feeling of alienation for the youth who lives in disadvantaged areas. Ali suggests that civil society should become more vocal and take back some of the media spotlight in order to change the way disadvantaged housing areas and youth with immigrant background are portrayed.

The effect of the media and political discourse regarding Denmark’s disadvantaged housing areas is said to have numerous negative effects. According to Hassan, many people in Danish society don’t understand the word “ghetto,” but they do know where it places a person in society. This results in many youth from disadvantaged backgrounds facing increased discrimination in work, housing, and other sectors. By allowing the usage of stigmatizing terms such as “ghettos,” he says, the larger Danish society becomes “not responsible, but part of the problem.” According to Ali, this stigmatization often has a very negative effect on youth growing up in these areas. He believes that they sometimes feel that the whole society is against them, which makes it hard for the youth to stay motivated in school, leading to further inequalities.

Soon after the ghetto plan’s introduction, Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen addressed youth in these so-called ghettos during a speech, saying, “Have a little self- respect. And show a little self-respect for the country that you and your parents have chosen to be a part of. Then we’ll also respect you.” His words, however, seemed to lack an understanding that these kids had only recently gained the title “ghetto youth.” This apparent lack of “self-respect” was not any sort of conscious decision by youth growing up in Denmark’s less-affluent neighborhoods to stigmatize their own neighborhoods. Rather, the government’s decision to reintroduce the term “ghetto” and the following media portrayals of these areas have forced an unwanted stigma upon Denmark’s increasing number of so-called ghettos and the inhabitants that live there.

Despite most politicians’ lack of experience with the reality of life in these areas, the ghetto plan has been created on the principle that these areas lack Danish values. The reality is that the introduction of the ghetto plan and the term “ghetto” has only served to reinforce these stereotypes. Just as ghettos have been used to create an “other” in the past, the current discourse around ghettos only serves to alienate the inhabitants of disadvantaged housing areas from the broader Danish society. This leads to a self- fulfilling prophecy, where youth in these areas lack social mobility to move out of these areas and lose faith in the political system.

In order to address the broader societal impacts of geographical segregation in Denmark, we call for a more inclusive and respectful discourse around these housing areas and their inhabitants. The negative stereotypes associated with living in public housing areas can only be addressed by changing the language that creates these negative stigmas. If these areas are to be integrated more successfully into society, more comprehensive approaches must be employed that address the societal and economic factors that inhibit social mobility and opportunity in these areas. Most importantly, solutions to the issues that these neighborhoods face should be formulated with the residents in these areas, who are better equipped to identify the issues present in Denmark’s disadvantaged housing areas.

 

References

Interviews

Abdallah, Student, 2011-06-26

Huvsgaard, Jesper, Head of the Press at the Ministry for social Affairs, 2011-06-27

Prahm, Simon, Director of Urban Sport Organization Gam3, 2011-06-26

Preisler, Hassan, Actor and lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, 2011-06-26

Sufi, Ali, hip hop artist and member of the board of the New-Dane Youth Council,

2011-06-25

Sultan, Student, 2011-06-26

Articles and Documents

Debat: Flere muskler og mere hjemsendelse i ghettoplan, Kim Christansen, Dansk

Folkeparti

<http://www.danskfolkeparti.dk/Flere_muskler_og_mere_hjemsendelse_i_ghett0 plan_.asp>

Kjærsgaard braves ‘ghettos,’ The Copenhagen Post

<http://www.cphpost.dk/news/local/87-local/50378-kjaersgaard-braves-ghettos.html>

Løkke til unge i ghettoer: Stop jammeren, Berlinske

<http://www.b.dk/politik/loekke-til-unge-i-ghettoer-stop-jammeren>

Politichef revser politisk ghettoplan, Politiken

<http://politiken.dk/indland/ECE1081840/politichef-revser-politisk-ghettoplan/>

PM: Are Ghettos Really Denmark?, The Copenhagen Post

<http://www.cphpost.dk/news/politics/90-politics/50213-pm-are-ghettosreallydenmark.html>

Regeringens ghetto-plan strider mod ekspertråd, Marchen Neel Gjertsen, Christian

Lehmann, Information 

<http://www.information.dk/248857>

Official document

Ghettoen tilbage til samfundet - Et opgør med parallelsamfund i Danmark

Oktober 2010:34

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HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2011

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