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Racism: troubling truths

Fighting racism in Europe is not easy when Europe has two hands tied behind its back—debilitated by neo-liberal policies on the one hand and the securitisation of minorities on the other.

Fifty-four years ago, on March 21st, 69 black demonstrators were massacred in Sharpeville, South Africa. They were demonstrating for equality—they got bullets in return. The date has been declared International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in recognition of the harmful impact of racism, and the violence it legitimises, on those targeted on the basis of visible characteristics of difference. We know racism kills but how far is the insecurity of minorities taken on board?

Insecurity is multi-faceted. The quest for security, and against precariousness, can be conceived anthropologically: human survival has been a struggle to bring stability to existence. Human beings settled and started farming to escape the insecurity of hunter-gathering. They flocked into fortified cities to reduce the insecurity of nomadic or rural life. They invented laws to protect themselves from the insecurity generated by the whims of tyrants and other arbitrary power-holders. Some imagined gods and goddesses to reassure themselves about the Hereafter at least. This struggle against all forms of insecurity has of course increased in complexity, parallel to social development, but efforts at repelling insecurity have been an historical constant.

After World War II Europe was home to the last two major attempts to further public security: in Western Europe via welfare states linked to a degree of redistribution; in Eastern Europe, Russia included, through state appropriation of the means of production with significant redistribution. Both aimed to provide stability for the longer term, with linear career development, assured progress for dependants and general improvement of living conditions. Tremendous progress was made: universal access to health services, improved housing conditions, access to tertiary education for up to 35-40% of the population … Until the 70s, narratives on both sides of the Iron Curtain were highlighting the post-war leap forward by European societies.

Neo-liberal policies

By the early 80s, in Western Europe, neo-liberal policies had gained currency among decision-makers and were on their way to comprising a hegemonic narrative. Some social-democrat leaders, converging in social and economic policies with conservatives and liberals, shifted the terrain to cultural values to differentiate themselves. They thereby opened a broad avenue to far-right and other chauvinist movements, whose core focus is identity politics. (Their social and economic stands, beyond the nativism of “national preference” in employment, are deeply neo-liberal: less “state”, less solidarity and less redistribution but lots of high-octane exclusivist rhetoric.) Since this unfortunate shift in social-democrat politics, the far right and the populists have been on a rising curve and have made electoral gains.

Identity politics, which zoomed in on migration and, as a corollary, on the ethno-cultural and religious aspects of identities, meshed very well with neo-liberal ideology. Counter to the development of mankind over recent millennia, this actively promotes insecurity as a way of life. As a former chair of the French business association MEDEF put it, if life and love are precarious, why should it be otherwise in employment? She was echoing in euphemistic fashion the extreme Thatcherite assault in the UK on trade unions, which would knock down workers’ solidarity in preserving the social acquis for decades to follow.

After 30 years of such politics, with various levels of violence and ensuing popular demobilisation, the insecurity of most Europeans West and East after the fall of the Wall has soared to alarming levels which have severely affected public well-being. Yet the mainstream discourse on security does not address the primary economic, social and existential insecurity generated by neo-liberal policies: the dismantling of states’ obligations with regard to welfare and in sustaining demand, the weakening of workers’ status amid a race to the bottom within EU states and social dumping between them, extensive white collar fraud and tax evasion—estimated at two trillion euro a year in the EU—and so on. All this against the background noise of the incapacity of political decision-makers, faced with ‘the markets’, to bring any progressive paradigm to bear on the deteriorating reality Europeans experience. One in four is sunk in poverty, while the next quartile just breathes with its nose above the waterline, fingers crossed that nothing bad happens before the end of the month.

Unequal protection

The insecurity about which we are constantly informed is rather linked to living conditions in multi-ethnic, multi-cultural neighbourhoods (subtext: “there is a white flight from this area”, “these people don’t want to integrate and live in their ghettoes”), where there is petty street crime (read: by “Roma”, “Arabs”, “Pakistanis” …) and where religious practices are visible in the public space (“Muslims are testing the boundaries of the Republic”). Such narratives about insecurity, or more precisely the feeling of insecurity,[1] address only the purported threats posed by minorities to the well-being of the “historical” majority in any given place.

Among these communities, a feeling of being besieged, without access to protection from the authorities or redress in the face of violence, has been growing steadily over the past decade.

Thus “ghettoes” do not spring from a desire by members of minorities to find themselves together—sometimes at the expense of an increased social control which they had sought to leave behind—but are the result of the failure of the majority to ensure equal protection of minority individuals. When political discourses drive only towards heavier policing, control and securitisation of minorities (for the implicit protection of the majority), they do not in any way protect minorities from violence by members of the majority—one of whose most salient aspects is violence by unaccountable police forces.[2]

Absent from such discourses, including in the mainstream media, is any recognition of the need to protect ethnic-minority individuals from violence in majority neighbourhoods, as a key security concern endangering peaceful coexistence. Such violence is recorded as discrete “racist incidents”—as if the victim were merely unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—rather than perceived as symptomatic of a lack of protection of minorities in the context of specific discriminatory patterns.

A similar logic is at work in “counter-terrorism”: the stress is on the insecurity supposedly generated by Muslim populations towards majorities and their institutions. Little is said and done to protect members of minorities from organised violence themselves. Thus in the National Socialist Underground case in Germany obsession with the securitisation of Muslim communities diverted resources within the police, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the judiciary from monitoring and controlling extreme-right groups and the threat they represent to ethnic and religious minorities right across Europe—in particular Roma, Muslim and Jewish communities. Since “9/11” such groups have been implicitly considered a low-security threat for the white majority, while the risk they constitute to migrants and other minority members has been completely overlooked.

Among these communities, a feeling of being besieged, without access to protection from the authorities or redress in the face of violence, has been growing steadily over the past decade. In many Eastern countries, the frequent failure of the courts to take into account the racist motivation of crimes committed against Roma has reinforced this sense of insecurity and lack of support from the state—especially when the authorities have been keen to prosecute criminal acts or misdemeanours committed by Roma themselves.

Collective well-being

The “race” factor plays at more than one level in narratives of insecurity. It provides useful diversion from the purposefully organised insecurity deployed to put pressure on workforces and avoid claims for stronger redistribution. And it legitimises systematic discrimination in security policies targeting specific minority groups while failing to protect minorities from majority violence. Racism and related discrimination will only be dealt with consistently if they are inserted in the broader social and economic conversation, applying the right policy levers to decrease their impact.

The bulk of responsibility ultimately lies with the majority when it comes to bringing change which will protect minorities. Instead of blaming minorities for their lack of integration, legitimising increased securitisation, the EU and the member states should turn the tables, recognising—including in terms of cost-effectiveness—that it would be much better to protect equally members of minorities and majorities, to play down tensions in society and move towards inclusion of all. It is about equality, solidarity and, ultimately, our collective well-being.


[1] Some interesting studies have been conducted which put the “feeling of insecurity” into perspective, being much higher than the actual insecurity as revealed by police reports of the incidence of crime and studies of victimisation (see, for example, research by the King Baudouin Foundation in Belgium: http://www.kbs-frb.be/publication.aspx?id=294891&langtype=2060).

[2] See among others the Open Society report on ethnic profiling in Europe (www.opensocietyfoundations.org/reports/ethnic-profiling-european-union-pervasive-ineffective-and-discriminatory), the work of Stopwatch (www.stop-watch.org/) and the observatory of police violence in Belgium (www.obspol.be/).


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