With the resurgence of racism and discrimination across Europe, combating it requires urgent action, not just noble words.
The issue of racism is climbing up the agenda of the European Union. Last Friday, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the EU organised its first European Anti-Racism Summit.
‘Racism is around us in our societies. It doesn’t always make the headlines but it is there,’ said the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, in her opening remarks. ‘I know we can be better than this. Europe must be better than this.’
The summit built on the EU’s Anti-Racism Action Plan for 2020-25, which seeks to spearhead action that brings together key stakeholders in the fight against racism and to marshal some of the EU’s budget to combat this scourge. The commission also pledges to collect better data on racism and to reassess the EU legal framework, proposing new legislation as necessary.
Roma individuals comprise Europe’s largest minority and also its most marginalised. Ðorđe Jovanović, president of the European Roma Rights Centre, told the summit of the daily and profound discrimination they faced across Europe. Jovanović not only criticised EU anti-racism policies as not going far enough—he also questioned why these policies were formulated by white policy-makers without sufficient consultation of Roma communities. ‘Roma civil activists are only put in the box of victims,’ he said. ‘I’m tired of providing only testimonies.’
This lack of engagement manifests itself in how the EU approaches police profiling, for example. ‘Profiling is commonly, and legitimately, used by law enforcement officers to prevent, investigate and prosecute criminal offences,’ says the action plan. ‘However, profiling that results in discrimination on the basis of special categories of personal data, such as data revealing racial or ethnic origin, is illegal.’
As someone who has endured ‘random checks’ in countless places around the world, I see the inherent contradiction in describing profiling as ‘legitimate’ while saying that if this results in discrimination it is ‘illegal’. ‘Police misconduct is one of the most common forms of discrimination facing the Roma,’ Jovanović emphasised. ‘It is often the only face of the state that our people see.’
One particularly toxic form of discrimination facing Roma communities, and to varying extents other poor minorities, is environmental racism. Last year, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) released a report on how discrimination against Europe’s Roma manifests itself physically—quite literally, by pushing them to the toxic margins of society. Not only are Roma communities too often forced to live in polluted ghettoes. They are also systematically excluded or marginalised from basic environmental services, such as water supply and waste management, as well as healthcare and education.
The consequences of environmental racism have been lethally underscored by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has affected Roma communities disproportionately, as with other marginalised minorities in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Given its harmful and poisonous impact, the EU needs to recognise environmental racism explicitly and put in place policies to combat it.
Fanning the flames
While second and third-generation immigrants, as well as members of indigenous minorities such as Jews, must confront the ills of racism and discrimination, newcomers who arrive as undocumented migrants and refugees have it even tougher, because they do not enjoy the benefits of citizenship or the legal protection of an official status. Yet public hostility towards migrants and refugees is mounting in Europe, with right-wing and some mainstream leaders, claiming to represent the majority, fanning the flames of xenophobia.
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A report on building a wellbeing economy which the EEB will be releasing next month, in the context of the Climate of Change project, explores ways of combating racism and anti-migrant sentiment through robust policies and a change in the negative narrative on migration. EU action in this regard is welcome and necessary—but problems in its member states are bound to percolate and resonate in Brussels.
Not only is there still a long way to go before we achieve true equality—the ‘whitelash’ against growing empowerment has intensified. Almost wherever one turns, from Brexit Britain to nativist Hungary, racist politicians and policies enjoy significant and in many cases burgeoning support.
Even centrist politicians have not been above pandering to these bigoted tendencies. The most prominent recent instance has been in France. Despite the fanfare surrounding Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, in the 2017 election, the president and his government have embraced a narrative on Islam and Muslims that parrots her Rassemblement National.
France has also not been immune to the jingoism which has conquered Britain in recent years. A small example of this is how 2021 has become the Year of Napoleon, to mark the 200th anniversary of Bonaparte’s death. Napoleon undoubtedly exercised a massive impact on the modern world—from the grand, such as the Napoleonic code, to the mundane, such as driving on the right side of the road.
There is however a dark and murderous side to the self-declared emperor of France, largely missing from public discourse. Napoleon reintroduced slavery in France’s colonies, a few years after the revolution had abolished it. ‘I find it particularly galling to see that France plans to celebrate the man who restored slavery to the French Caribbean, an architect of modern genocide, whose troops created gas chambers to kill my ancestors,’ wrote Marlene Daut, a professor of American and African diaspora studies at the University of Virginia.
Of course, Napoleon is not the only problematic historical figure in Europe. Across the channel, Britain’s World War II hero Winston Churchill, once voted ‘greatest Briton of all-time’, sparked the Bengal famine which killed three million during the war, among many other atrocities.
That does not mean we should excise such men from our collective consciousness as European. It means we need to build a more critical and honest understanding of these leaders—not raise them on a pedestal as infallible heroes.
Just as national politics and government are largely dominated by white people, the same applies to the EU. Although Brussels is one of the most diverse cities in Europe and the world, that is not reflected in the institutions, where members of minorities are few and far between.
The commission and other institutions have pledged to lead by example to promote diversity. Equinox, a new racial-justice initiative, has come out with a blueprint on how the EU can set in motion lasting change.
This also applies, to a lesser or greater degree, to the civil society engaging with the institutions. Even the European environmental movement is predominantly white and a recent petition demands that green NGOs take more action to promote diversity and become actively anti-racist.
The EEB, for one, recognises this challenge. In addition to the research and campaigning on environmental racism and justice it carries out externally, it is endeavouring to get its own house in order, working to create greater awareness of the issues and promote diversity within the organisation.
Biases and structures
My own career has provided me with insights into the unconscious biases and structural issues standing in the way of greater diversity. Most of the jobs I have done have made me feel, to paraphrase Michael Kiwanuka, a little like a brown man in a white world. When I started off in journalism over two decades ago, the English-language media landscape was almost exclusively white, even when it came to those covering the middle east.
With few role models to emulate and no clear path for entry, the task ahead seemed daunting and required a confidence in my abilities not necessarily shared by the world I sought to enter.
The rejections did take their toll. But refusing to accept the knock-backs, I kept going until I broke in and then kept pushing the limits as far as I could. Eventually, I got my byline into some of the world’s leading publications.
Along the way, key allies and mentors played a pivotal role in giving me the chance to prove myself or taking a gamble on me. When all is said and done, I have been rather fortunate. But the Europe I want to live in is one in which members of minorities succeed, not in spite of the system but because of it—one in which they have an equal chance of making their dreams come true.