We need to do more than talk about racism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Racism runs deeper than individual acts of hate - it is embedded in the EU’s social, economic and political system. With the Anti-Racism Summit and National Action Plan Against Racism, the EU has a huge opportunity to truly tackle racism, but to do so it needs to tackle it structurally, writes Alfiaz Vaiya. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER MATTHYS / POOL]

Racism runs deeper than individual acts of hate – it is embedded in the EU’s social, economic and political system. With the Anti-Racism Summit and National Action Plan Against Racism, the EU has a huge opportunity to truly tackle racism, but to do so it needs to tackle it structurally, writes Alfiaz Vaiya.

Alfiaz Vaiya is a co-founder of Equinox Initiative for Racial Justice and former coordinator of the Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup in European Parliament.

This week, the EU will host its Anti-Racism summit. With it comes the opportunity to show that the calls for change from last summer have been heard and that the EU is committed to seriously tackling structural racism.

More than talk

To do this, some major changes are needed. As President Von der Leyen acknowledged in her historic speech to the European Parliament in June 2020, racism in Europe is structural. It pervades laws, policies, institutions, as well as individual behaviours.

The EU itself is not immune, and it shows us in policy across the board, from law enforcement to housing, from education to migration.

And yet, we need to do more than “talk about racism”. The EU’s legal and policy framework on racism remains inadequate. Historically, the EU’s approach has been to focus on racism as an individual issue, manifesting in isolated cases of hate crimes and discrimination.

Not only are remedies under this framework difficult to reach, they fundamentally exclude structural and institutional discriminations. When two-year-old toddler Mawda Shawri was killed by Belgian police, this abhorrent act of discrimination would not have been covered under EU law.

When Muslim women are discriminated against at work for wearing the headscarf, Europe’s highest court only partially protects them. And as people continue to die on unsafe journeys to Europe, the EU’s response has been further criminalisation, detention and surveillance.

At best, EU law and policy is falling short when it comes to structural racism. At worst, it is exacerbating harm and violence. Racialised people in Europe are bearing the brunt.

A shift toward racial justice

The upcoming Anti-Racism summit needs to mark a fundamental shift in the EU’s approach to anti-racism. The Equinox Initiative for Racial Justice, a people of colour-led advocacy initiative has outlined the fundamental changes the EU must make to achieve racial justice.

The first shift must be away from the individualistic way of addressing racism, toward a structural one. Racism is a “Fortress Europe” migration policy that leads to the unnecessary deaths of people simply seeking asylum.

Racism is the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on racialised people who are overwhelmingly frontline workers. Racism is police violence against black and brown people. Racism is the EU, US and UK blocking patent-waivers so that the Global South is unable to access vaccines.

The EU’s insistence at treating racism as a problem of individuals has meant a focus on a voluntary code of conduct against hate speech, and diversity and inclusion agreements with companies operating within the union. The latest proposal to designate hate speech as an EU crime shows that the EU continues to miss the mark.

Secondly, racial equality needs to be mainstreamed in all areas of EU policy – from economy to migration, security & foreign policy to counter-terrorism, climate and digital. Failure to do so creates contradictions, inequalities and gaps in human rights protection for racialised communities.

For too long, racism has been confined to areas of equality and hate crimes, overlooking the broader impact of structural racism.

Furthermore, the EU needs to look at the structural connections between all forms of racism. Until now, the EU has taken a largely ‘siloed’ approach to racism, separating “antisemitism”, “anti-muslim hatred” and racism against Roma as if they are fundamentally different phenomena.

Not only has this “divide and conquer” approach fostered competition and animosity between racialised groups, it has also erased certain racialised communities. People of African Descent, Middle-Eastern, Arab, Asian and Latin-American people all face structural racism in Europe but are rarely mentioned in EU policy.

It is also important that any new EU policy or legislation is addressed through an intersectional lens. This would recognise the specificity of the multiple struggles of racialised women, people with disabilities, migrants, and LGBTIQ and other marginalised communities.

Looking inward

Further, dismantling structural racism will also require a long, hard look at the EU institutions themselves.

In addition to addressing the poor representation of racialised communities in the EU institutions, there is an emphatic need for greater cohesion as to how units are organised, and for a shift away from siloed and single-axis racial equality policy work, in favour of greater recognition of the intersectional and connected nature of racial justice and equality.

The EU must also ensure that policymaking is informed by real expertise on racial inequality and that all policy is reviewed with a racial justice angle, akin to the European Commission Advisory Committee on Gender Equality.

The adoption of the EU Anti-Racism Action Plan (ARAP) is a step in the right direction, recognising the need to tackle institutional and structural racism.

However, for the ARAP to fully reach its potential, there must be a fuller understanding of how structural racism operates, its connection with EU policy and a clear strategy of implementation putting this vision into practice.

President von der Leyen herself said: “it is always possible to change direction if there is a will to do so”. The Anti-Racism Summit will be the test of this political will.

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