The big challenge is to move from a perspective of individual discrimination towards addressing systemic racism.
Racism made unprecedented headlines for weeks in Europe, following the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the United States and the ensuing mass protests around the world. It seemed Europeans were finally waking up to this reality but the news cycle has already moved on. Yet the racial-justice movement is pursuing its vital and relentless work to dismantle structural racism, as it has for decades.
Evidence from anti-racist organisations, other NGOs and bodies such as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) consistently shows how racial discrimination is recurrent, straddles all walks of life, is part of how European societies have been historically constituted and has a compound impact on the wellbeing, dignity and rights of whole segments of the population.
Recently, we have witnessed how the pandemic has exacerbated structural racism and inequalities in the labour market—in housing, in health or in institutions such as the police—with vulnerable and disadvantaged groups bearing the brunt. Evidence also shows that members of racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to die from the coronavirus.
When it comes to police brutality and discriminatory policing, EU policy-makers often point fingers at the US but institutional racism in the police and criminal-justice systems is rife across Europe. For decades, the European Network Against Racism and anti-racist organisations on the ground have been reporting what racialised communities experience at the hands of the police: criminalisation, disproportionate stop-and-search and racial profiling, abuse, violence and even death.
In the context of Covid-19, we have documented numerous cases of racial profiling, arbitrary checks and fines, police brutality and violence against people from racialised groups. There has however been little public acknowledgement and lack of accountability for these actions engenders impunity within the police. Who, beyond activist circles, has heard of Adama Traoré, Adil C, Oury Jalloh, Christy Schwundeck, Jimmy Mubenga, Mame Mbaye … who died at the hands of the police (or contracted security) in France, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain in recent years?
Criminalisation of migration
Racism in Europe is increasingly playing out in policies and discourses towards refugees and other migrants, which have become substitutes for debates on exclusion and security and have resulted in the criminalisation of migration. Several EU member states, politicians and other commentators have represented irregular, ‘Muslim’ and/or African arrivals—however much in need of humanitarian protection—as ‘economic’ or ‘illegal’ migrants. The EU’s agenda, similarly focused on securitisation, reinforces police brutality against those fetching up at the union’s borders.
Recently, the European Commission co-opted the framing of xenophobic parties across Europe, purporting that Europe needs to be protected from migrants, when it nominated a commissioner for ‘protecting the European way of life’—responsible for migration and security combined. The verb was later changed to ‘promoting’ but the divisive, ‘othering’ undertone remained. Thousands of people of colour continue to die in the Mediterranean every year, with violence and unlawful pushbacks by border guards.
The Black Lives Matter movement is bringing attention not only to police brutality but to how racism goes to the core of western social structures. Ordering factors include race and class but migration laws, the economy, the labour market, the criminal-justice system and education all shape society. While we still have a problem with direct and indirect forms of racial discrimination, the structures developed over centuries create racial inequalities and the conditions for exploitation and oppression.
Racialised social systems have developed from racial categories being assigned certain characteristics and positions of power, reinforced by late-stage capitalism (characterised by deregulation, austerity, inequality and privatisation). Racism is thus systemic—pervasive and deeply embedded in institutions, reflecting powerful social hierarchies.
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EU institutions do not reflect the make-up of European societies. This was most strikingly obvious during the all-white commission debate on racism in June. The European Parliament is also lagging behind: people of colour make up only 3 per cent of MEPs. The lack of targets, measures or monitoring of race equality within these institutions only perpetuates the problematic idea of ‘racelessness’ in Europe, which excludes racialised groups and their interests from the European polity. People of colour exist on the margins and have little possibility to challenge the established norms and valueswithin the institutions in any fundamental way.
There has been little willingness, within EU institutions and national governments, to acknowledge and address institutional and structural racism. Denial of longstanding systems of oppression in European societies—of historical injustices, persisting racial inequalities and repeated experiences of state violence and impunity—means we cannot progress to race equality.
So the recent widespread public mobilisation behind racial justice is an unprecedented moment for Europe. The EU can no longer turn a blind eye to deep structural inequalities and the population’s demands. Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on racialised groups has rendered all the more acute the need to rethink a system failing to deliver equality and justice for the most marginalised and to refocus on solidarity.
For this momentum to translate into real change, there needs to be a commitment by EU and national leaders to walk the walk. Following Floyd’s death, the parliament agreed a resolution on anti-racism protests and the commission presented an action plan against racism.
This plan is ground-breaking: for the first time, the EU explicitly acknowledges the structural, institutional and historical dimensions of racism in Europe and the need to address them, through wide-ranging, proactive policies. This is an important shift from a limited focus on combating racial discrimination by individuals.
Twenty years ago, the EU adopted landmark laws to prohibit discrimination based on race or ethnic origin. It also adopted legislation to sanction racist crimes. These laws were an important breakthrough at the time but we have more than enough evidence to show that they do not go far enough.
Focusing mainly on individual aspects of racism fails to address structural and institutional dimensions, such as racial profiling, lack of protection of undocumented migrants or discrimination against Muslim women. Existing legislation is also not properly implemented, whether through lack of awareness, the under-reporting of racist incidents, prejudices in the judiciary or the difficulty, cost and mental burden of bringing cases to court.
We therefore need a strategic vision to tackle structural racism at different levels and how it affects all racialised minorities, including migrants. The commission’s action plan could be an important step towards achieving equality and justice outcomes.
For instance, it strongly urges national governments to agree national action plans against racism and it will adopt common principles for their implementation. It also calls for consistent and improved collection of equality data, disaggregated by racial or ethnic origin, which is crucial to uncover and address existing structural inequalities, while ensuring due respect of privacy. It identifies the need for potential new legislation to address racism in law enforcement. This would be crucial as police brutality and criminalisation of racialised groups play a key role in maintaining racial inequalities.
It is encouraging that the plan foresees strengthened participation of civil-society organisations working with racialised groups for its implementation. Meaningful participation is essential to ensure legitimacy, ownership and efficiency of the plan.
EU policies should not have a detrimental impact on racialised groups or contribute to further inequalities. Criminalisation by law-enforcement services, for example via policies on migration or ‘counter-terrorism’, needs to be addressed as a prerequisite. Economic policies—as also policies related to youth, education, employment and healthcare—need to be scrutinised, through systematic equality-impact assessments, so that they do not reinforce inequalities.
Although the plan acknowledges structural racism, many of the actions do not go far enough. For example, there is a need for stronger measures and incentives, so that member states do indeed collect and publish disaggregated data and the structural dimension of racism faced by migrants is tackled.
The EU’s role is important in setting the tone but solutions are needed at national and local levels to have an impact. Without the commitment of member states, this ambitious action plan will remain just a piece of paper. Comprehensive national action plans are crucial to address the failure to implementat existing laws and to push for further public policies to tackle more structural forms of racism.
National plans could include: review of anti-discrimination laws to prohibit racial profiling, accessible and independent complaint mechanisms, amendments to school curricula, remembrance and reparations measures, increasing racial diversity in institutions and more. They should take an ‘intersectional’ approach, addressing the severity of discrimination based on race, class, gender, disability, age and other characteristics of diversity.
EU members should collect disaggregated equality data, key to revealing the extent of racial inequalities and making structural discrimination and racism visible. Such data should enable intersectional cross-analysis, for example to identify specific experiences of racialised women.
National governments also need to understand that racial profiling and other discriminatory policing techniques which target poorer neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of people of colour can reproduce racial inequalities. They should propose long-term measures for the future of policing, reflecting on the use of violence and divesting resources from law enforcement to investment in services which serve the community.
In a time of rising racist violence, persistent discrimination and racial inequality, we need strong and bold actions to achieve equality and justice, so that people from racialised communities can feel safe and able to live, grow and thrive in the EU—which will ultimately benefit the wellbeing of all Europeans.