Sweden’s Shameful Record on Racism Shows Why We Need Black Lives Matter

Liberal pundits in Sweden are quick to assert the country's Black Lives Matter protests are an “import of American racial discourse,” at odds with local realities. Yet neoliberal welfare reforms and a racialized war on drugs are eroding the egalitarian policies that have long made Sweden so distinct.

Protesters march through Stockholm City Centre in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and against police brutality. Linnea Rheborg / Getty

Over the past weeks, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have been organized all around Sweden, both to show solidarity with victims of US police brutality and demand an end to violent racist policing practices at home. Although the protests have been mostly nonviolent, footage has circulated online of Swedish police officers using forms of violence that range from knee-holds to pepper spray — used unprovoked on adults and children alike.

To many observers, the Swedish BLM protests have been surprising. International media coverage of Swedish politics and society rarely discusses race relations and inequality, much less police violence. Instead, it tends to paint the country as an egalitarian utopia. Indeed, even national media has largely dismissed the Swedish BLM movement calling it inorganic — not a response to the realities of racism and policing in Sweden but rather an “import of American racial discourses.”

Yet Sweden is neither some postcapitalist, post-racial utopia, nor does it have a magically benevolent police force. On the contrary, the country has handily participated in the two historical processes that have come to define racist criminal justice systems in the United States and elsewhere — and against which the Swedish BLM movement is now rising up — white supremacy and neoliberalism.

The Colonial Legacy of Structural Racism

Despite the place it holds in the global left’s imagination, Sweden has its own vicious history of racial subjugation and white supremacy,  its colonial and economic roots having been built on the back of racial slavery. The Swedish colony of Saint Barthélemy, for example, was a locus of the Caribbean slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, facilitating the buying and selling of thousands of slaves.

In its heyday, in the early nineteenth century, the island brought in a considerable profit for Sweden as the local port of Gustavia became a major transition point for Caribbean goods. Indeed, although the Swedish involvement in the slave trade is often overlooked, Sweden was one of the last countries in Europe to abolish slavery, fourteen years after the United Kingdom.

After abolishing slavery, Sweden extended its tradition of being white supremacist by helping develop the pseudoscience of race biology. In the eighteenth century, the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus gained international fame not just for his work in botanical taxonomy, but also for being the first scientist to divide people into biologically-defined races. These biological definitions helped justify the subjugation of nonwhite people around the world for centuries.

In fact, through the Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology, Sweden continued to take a leading role in international “research” dealing with racial eugenics well into the 1930s. Research produced by the institute facilitated the implementation of forced-sterilization laws which pertained to certain groups of people with “unwanted” genes, such as the Swedish Romani population or the indigenous Sámi people — laws which were only completely abolished in the 1970s.

Like in the United States, structural racism in Sweden survived the abolition of both slavery and race biology, and continues to shape its politics and institutions today. Although few Swedes today are descendants of slaves, over one-quarter of all Swedish citizens have foreign heritage — including approximately 350,000 Afro-Swedes, most of whom arrived in the past fifty years.

To these black and minority communities, structural racism is apparent everywhere from the frequent occurrence of racially-motived hate crimes to the widespread prevalence of discrimination in the labor market. And as Black Lives Matter protestors have pointed out, racism also extends to the Swedish criminal justice system:

“It’s important that we realize that Sweden has a high degree of racism in society, including in the criminal justice system,” says Ibbi Chune, one of the organizers of the first BLM protest in Stockholm. “Afro-Swedes like me and my friends know this well from our lived experiences. We are constantly being stopped and harassed by police and security officers, and often using violent measures.”

From Social Democracy to Neoliberalism

Although modern structural racism in Sweden can be traced to the country’s disturbing history of colonialism, slavery, and race biology, it has been bolstered in recent years by a contemporary global political development: the growth of the neoliberal state. In Sweden, as elsewhere, this development has exacerbated racial inequality and introduced new techniques for racialized policing.

On the American left, politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez often speak of the “Nordic model,” pointing to Scandinavian countries, and especially Sweden, as successful examples of democratic socialism. However, despite their historical differences in national politics, economic policy in Sweden and the United States have seen an increasing convergence since the late twentieth century when the socialist and working-class coalitions that built Swedish welfare lost much of their momentum.

Over the past four decades, a succession of Swedish governments have drawn inspiration from the neoliberal models advanced by the British and American center-right. Between 1990 and 1991, the Social Democratic Party agreed with the Liberal Party to install the “tax reform of the century,” slashing the top marginal tax rate from 80 percent to 50 percent. Other economic reforms have enabled the privatization of state-owned enterprises, increased the deregulation of labor protection, and led to an expansion of New Public Management through the outsourcing of health, education, and other social services to the private market.

These policies have dismantled much of the social welfare systems that defined Sweden throughout the twentieth century; since the 1990s, income inequality in Sweden has increased faster than any other country in the world.

And although neoliberal policies have adversely affected all working-class Swedes, they have disproportionately impacted racial and ethnic minorities, a trend which is particularly prominent in many of the densely populated suburbs of Stockholm, Malmö, and other major cities.

According to sociologist Tobias Hübinette, suburbs with high populations of immigrants have been increasingly subject to similar trajectories as black neighborhoods in the United States during the Reagan era. This means that a decline of low-skilled living wage jobs has been accompanied by deteriorating housing conditions, a decrease in the quality of education, and increasing racial segregation. Unemployment rates for Swedes of a non-European background currently stand between 25–30 percent — compared to 2.5 percent for white Swedes — and approximately one-third of minority workers have unstable jobs.

Neoliberalism and Racialized Policing

As immigrant neighborhoods have become increasingly marginalized, Sweden has primarily sought to solve the growing prevalence of social unrest through increasing policing and security activities. In the past three years, the Swedish Police Authority received an increase of 7.1 billion SEK ($760 million) in government financing.

The decision followed a growing public discussion of immigrant criminality filled with populist tropes of “no-go zones” and minority lawlessness. Police departments have also introduced new techniques for control and surveillance including the deployment of CCTV in public areas, the development of intrusive software for digital wiretapping, and the adoption of new stop-and-search practices, particularly inside immigrant communities.

Similar to the American discourse on “thugs” and “superpredators,” Swedish police operations have extended their target demographic to encompass an entire generation of black and minority Swedes through the deployment of racial profiling. In Randomly Selected: Ethnic/Racial Profiling in Sweden, a recent report by criminologist Leandro Schclarek Mulinari, Afro-Swedes, Muslims, and Romani minorities detail how they are stopped, harassed, and intimidated by police and security guards based on their appearance, oftentimes using unnecessarily violent and intimidating methods.

And although some policing techniques are contemporary developments, the racist stereotypes at the core of racial profiling can be traced back to Sweden’s long history of racial biology — both Linnaeus’s “sly African,” and black and brown residents of Stockholm’s suburbs are considered inherently predisposed to crime.

In fact, by over-policing immigrant communities, the Swedish police have also inflated crime rates for minority Swedes and fueled a racist narrative of immigrant delinquency. For instance, statistics from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention show that police reports for possession of narcotics increased by 79 percent over the past ten years, primarily due to expanded investigative and intervention activities.

According to Schclarek Mulinari, this supposed clampdown on drugs has disproportionately targeted black and minority Swedes through “selective policing,” despite higher self-reported drug usage in majority white neighborhoods. Today, a second-generation immigrant male is almost two and a half times as likely to be prosecuted for a crime compared to a white Swede, with narcotic-related crimes constituting a majority of these charges.

Like in the United States, working-class minorities in Sweden have suffered from the intersection of structural racism and neoliberal strategies for managing social instability. Because black and brown Swedes are blamed for the unrest produced by political disinvestment, they are not only missing out on much-needed programs of affordable housing, living-wage employment, and youth support. For they are also forced to carry the psychological and physical burden of racialized surveillance and intrusive policing.

Dismantling the Neoliberal Police State

Although racism in the Swedish criminal justice system often takes a different — usually less violent — form from that in the United States, protestors in both countries are rallying against similar patterns of racialized policing, surveillance, and harassment.

As the BLM movement has shown, however, the question of criminal justice is also a question of class and racial inequality under neoliberalism. In both Sweden and the United States, protestors are not just asking to reform or defund the police, but also for a redistribution of resources, to invest in communities long overlooked by white and upper-class politicians:

“What we need is a reversal of funding and resources,” says Chune. “We have to stop closing down youth centers, cutting back costs in the education sector. We need to stop putting more resources toward police and security officers. Over-policed neighborhoods do not make us feel safe, but rather the opposite. Instead, resources should go to supporting the youth, improving our infrastructure, and creating sustainable employment. This needs to happen not just here in the suburbs of Stockholm, but everywhere.”

By suggesting that inequality and crime can be addressed through community support and distribution of resources rather than policing, the BLM movement does not just challenge a global structure of racism and white supremacy. It also represents a reversal of the neoliberal ideology and governance that, in recent years, has found its way into even the most socialist-friendly countries.