Combating racism is a race against time

By Khaled Diab

The European Union has committed itself to dispelling the spectre of racial prejudice. But with the resurgence of racism and discrimination across Europe, combating it requires urgent action, not just noble words.

Image: Jon Tyson, Unsplash

Wednesday 8 April 2021

The issue of racism is climbing up the agenda of the European Union. This is reflected in the first high-level European Anti-Racism Summit which recently took place.

“Racism is around us in our societies. It doesn’t always make the headlines but it is there,” said 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 builds on the EU’s Anti-Racism Action Plan for 2020-2025, 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.

Under the action plan, the European Commission also pledges to collect better data on racism and to reassess the existing EU legal framework and propose new legislation if and when necessary.

Roma on the margins

The Roma are Europe’s largest minority and also its most discriminated against. Ðorđe Jovanović, president of the European Roma Rights Centre, spoke of the daily and profound levels of discrimination faced by Romani communities across Europe.

“Roma civil activists are only put in the box of victims,” Jovanović told the summit. “I’m tired of providing only testimonies.”

Jovanović not only criticised the EU’s anti-racism policies towards the Roma as not going far enough, he also questioned why it was that these policies were formulated by white policymakers without sufficient consultation of Roma communities.

The result of this lack of engagement manifested itself in how the EU approached, for example, police profiling practices. “Profiling is commonly, and legitimately, used by law enforcement officers to prevent, investigate and prosecute criminal offences,” states the Anti-Racism 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 experienced and endured the joys of “random checks” in too many random places around the world to recall here, I can 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.”

Pushed to the wastelands

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 by, quite literally, 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.

“Our work on environmental racism against Roma has shown that pushing marginalised communities to the wastelands is a systemic problem closely tied to [other forms of] racism,” explains my colleague Patrizia Heidegger, the director of global policies and sustainability at the EEB.

The consequences of environmental racism have been lethally underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted Roma communities disproportionately, as it has other marginalised minorities in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Given environmental racism’s harmful and poisonous impact, the EU needs to explicitly recognise it and put in place policies to combat it. “The EU must step up measures to ensure environmental justice for all communities and address situations where racialised communities are not granted an equal right to a healthy environment,” insists my colleague Diego Marin, who works on environmental justice at the EEB.

Migrating to the margins

While second and third-generation immigrants, as well as 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 towards migrants.

A new report on building a wellbeing economy which we will be releasing next month, in the context of the Climate of Change project, explores ways of combating racism and anti-migrant sentiment through both robust policies and a shift in the negative narrative on migration.

Also in the context of Climate of Change, we will be releasing a major survey of young Europeans’ attitudes and awareness of the links between climate change and migration.

Tolerance amid whitelash

EU action to combat racism is welcome and necessary. However, since the union is (more than) the sum of its member states, the problems at national level are bound to percolate up to the EU and resonate in Brussels.

Although the integration of minorities has progressed massively since I was a child in 1980s London, not only is there still a long way to go before we achieve true equality but the whitelash against the growing empowerment of minorities has also intensified.

Almost in every direction you turn, from Brexit Britain to nativist Hungary, racist and xenophobic politicians and policies enjoy significant and, in many cases, burgeoning support.

Even centrist politicians have not been above or beyond pandering to these xenophobic and bigoted tendencies. The most prominent recent example of this has been in France. Despite the fanfare that once surrounded Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, the French president and his government have embraced a narrative on Islam and Muslims that parrots the Rassemblement National (formerly, Front National).

National heroes and villains

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, like the Napoleonic Code, to the mundane, like driving on the right side of the road.

However, there is a dark and murderous side to the self-declared emperor of France that is largely missing from public discourse in France. For example, Napoleon reintroduced slavery in France’s colonies a few years after the French 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. For instance, across the Channel, Britain’s World War II hero Winston Churchill, the man once voted the ‘greatest Briton of all-time’, sparked the Bengal famine which killed 3 million during the war, among many other atrocities.

That does not mean that we should excise men like Napoleon or Churchill from our collective consciousness as Europeans. It means that we need to build a more critical and honest understanding of these leaders and not raise them on a pedestal as infallible heroes.

White Brussels

The situation in member states influences the reality in the EU capital. Just as national politics and government are largely dominated by white people, the same applies to Brussels.

Although Brussels is one of the most diverse cities in Europe and the world, this diversity is not reflected in the EU institutions. The Brussels bubble may be diverse in terms of the European majority cultures represented there, but minorities are few and far between.

The European Commission and other EU institutions have pledged to lead by example to promote diversity. Meanwhile, Equinox, a new racial justice initiative, has come out with a blueprint for 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, where I have been working for the past couple of years, is predominantly white and a recent petition is demanding that green NGOs take more action to promote diversity and become actively anti-racist.

At the EEB, where I work, the organisation recognises this challenge. In addition to the research and campaigning on environmental racism and justice that we carry out externally, we are also endeavouring to get our own house in order by working to create greater awareness of the issues and promote diversity within the organisation.

In a white world

My own career has provided me with insights into both 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. This does not bother me on a personal level and I have never had problems with my white colleagues. But this de facto exclusion does trouble me on a structural level.

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, especially when considering my non-mainstream political convictions, and required a level of confidence in my abilities that was not necessarily shared by the world I sought to enter.

That said, the rejections do take their toll. Was I not contacted or invited for an interview for this or that job opportunity which I felt was tailormade for me because of a glass ceiling associated with my name and ethnic background or because there truly were better candidates?   

But refusing to accept knock-backs and rejections, I kept going until I broke in and then I kept pushing the limits as far as I could get them to shift. Eventually, I got my byline into some of the world’s leading publications. Determined not to be typecast and confined solely to the ghetto of writing about the Middle East and ‘ethnic’ issues, I also expanded my repertoire to cover a wide plethora of topics and issues.

When I first moved to Brussels in the early 2000s, the bubble was even whiter than it is today. And when I joined my NGO a couple of years ago, I was, for a while, the only touch of colour in a white officescape.

Along the way, key allies and mentors played a pivotal role by giving me the chance to prove myself or taking a gamble on me. Without them, I would have stayed on the margins.

When all is said and done, I have been rather fortunate. But the Europe I want to live in is one in which minorities succeed not in spite of the system but because of it, a Europe in which they have an equal chance of making their dreams come true as the majority.

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This is the extended version of an article that first appeared in Social Europe on 22 March 2021.

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