Has European society, once championed as a model of tolerance, equality, and respect for human rights, suddenly become a hotbed for racism?
Has there been a shift in the values of Europeans or in their attitudes toward minorities, and if so, what explains this? How does racism in Europe manifest itself today, and what can be done do to counter it?
The European Network against Racism (ENAR) brought together international experts from NGOs and academia, as well as public institutions, to address these important questions in a two-day symposium on the “Varieties of European racism(s)” The gathering was organized in partnership with the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and supported by the Open Society Fund to Counter Xenophobia in Europe.
Old Racism(s), New Contexts
No one can understand racism in today’s Europe without a critical analysis of Europe’s past. Any recollection needs to go far beyond World War II and the constitutional or international commitments taken by the European states since then. Taking a long look back at the construction of Europe’s nation-states, Maleiha Malik, professor of law at King College London, explains how national identities in Europe became defined by excluding “outsiders” since their very beginning in the middle ages. In fact, a traditional feature of Europe’s history is to use exclusion and the dehumanization of certain groups based on geographical origin, racial, or religious identity, to consolidate own, local and ethnic identities. Europe’s invention of the transatlantic slave trade, the Holocaust, and the Porajmos—the extermination campaign conducted by Nazi Germany and its allies against the Roma which culminated during World War II—represent only some of the best-known and most recent, but certainly not the sole manifestations of this tendency. In today’s Europe more traditional forms of biological, pseudo-scientific racism, such as Afrophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Gypsism persists under the surface alongside newer more overt forms of racism(s).
Emerging Forms of Racism(s)
The ingredients for the changing racial discourse in 20th century Europe are historical, political, and economic. If the scientific rejection of biological racism after World War II led to an apparent universal consensus, Europe never broke completely from its longstanding tradition of building “otherness.” Two main trends have developed since then. On the one hand, from the 1980s, “cultural racism(s)” emerged and continues to develop today. In line with this phenomenon, grassroots groups, as well as leading intellectuals spark fears that European and non-European cultures are incompatible and ought to live separately. It is easy to see how this discourse resonated in the new multi-ethnic landscape that the post-war economy built in European societies, and especially to the most industrialised ones.
On the other hand, race is not in itself the main ground for racism(s) and discrimination anymore. As Dagmar Schiek, Director of the Centre of European Law at the University of Leeds, explains, contemporary forms of discrimination are increasingly intersectional and target individuals that, more often than not, bring together several of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Religion, nationality, age, class, gender, and gendered identity became intertwined in the notion of race, opening the door to new groups of “others”. Young Muslims of the banlieues, veiled women, third country nationals coming from the least industrialised parts of the planet, Romanian Roma, Polish plumbers: racial identities are continuously redefined.
Manifestations of racism(s) targeting these “new others” have sometimes become more unconcealed and politically acceptable than those which persistently affect the more traditionally racialized groups. In some cases, opportunistic political entrepreneurs have gone so far as to invoke the freedom of expression so dear to most of the Western world, to justify their freedom to explicitly hate and incite hatred against specific others.
Countering Racism(s). The Role of States and Civil Society
International political events have added fuel to reviving and normalizing racist attitudes. In the first decade of the 21st century, the terrorist attacks and some counter-terrorism measures adopted by European states in the wake of 9/11 have contributed to mainstreaming Islamophobia. The European Union, its member states, and local authorities have legally established different ways of treating Europeans and non-Europeans. Today’s visa and social security policies in Europe treat categories of third country nationals differently, frequently in a way reminiscent of color lines. Irresponsibly, public authorities have not engaged in any serious way to counterbalance this trend. Rather, most European states do not implement checks on racial profiling by their own police officers, nor do they adopt serious scientific methods to measure discrimination, as noted by François Héran, the Director of the French Institute for Demographic Studies. European civil society needs to act more proactively to hold states accountable, requesting that laws outlining equal treatment are duly implemented and also accessible for enforcement, and that independent authorities charged with fighting discrimination, such as equality bodies, are given the legal and financial means necessary to operate.
Influencing Racist Attitudes
The most recent economic downturn and international financial crisis have meant many Europeans are experiencing also a crisis of trust in their governance system and in the elites and values sustaining it . Xenophobic populist parties and groups, stoking frustration and offering simplified scapegoats, have been among the winners of Europe’s recent crises, and digital media has become the new channel for these messages of exclusion. To change these, now in many cases normalized, racist attitudes we need to critically think about racism(s) and remind ourselves that racism(s) is not innate. Racist attitudes and xenophobia are frequently unconsciously built through institutional racism, i.e. messages, norms, and practices that do not appear as racist on the surface but which relay hidden motivations to exclude.
Mutuma Ruteere, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism, highlighted the need to teach children critically about history and different cultures, and how inequalities in the past still have an impact on the present. Affirmative action is also, above all, a means to change attitudes, and not a method to right wrongs by benefiting minorities. In the various forms that affirmative action can take, its ultimate aim is to increase the representation of minorities in areas and professions that are usually overcrowded by majorities. This method serves the aim of breaking the automatic mental connection between minorities and poverty or minorities and crime.
The attitudes of minorities themselves also need to be targeted. Working at the micro, local level to stress commonalities, instead of difference, and build trust between minority groups and with the majority is the task of the Hope not Hate campaign. Hope not Hate engages in the communities where the support for xenophobic parties is on the rise or risks increasing. It creates bridges among the different communities allowing them to discuss their concrete problems and issues on the basis of their own values and through their own means of expression.
In January, ENAR will publish an edited volume containing a record of the debates within the symposium and a collection of short papers by the participants: “Taking Stock of the Challenges of Racism in Europe Today—A dialogue between academics and NGOs.”