What the Refugee Crisis Says about Race in Europe
While many Europeans have felt growing humanitarian concern on being confronted with images of desperation among refugees seeking entry, across the continent a large minority have suggested any sympathy is misplaced.
Some arguments focus more on practical concerns – that encouraging people to come to Europe will lead to greater danger, or that we cannot afford to take more than a few hundred or thousand. These concerns don’t really respond to the horrible conditions and even poorer economies of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey where most refugees are currently living in camps, but they at least recognise shared humanity and European values.
Some rejectionist responses, however, question the humanity of the refugees or our (Europe’s) obligation to do anything to help them. These rejections flirt to variously open degrees with two sorts of claims. First is the denial that all human beings have equal moral worth. In discussions of racial discrimination the focus is often on the labour market or criminal justice system, and on the socially unequal outcomes that Black and minority ethnic people experience across Europe. Such evidence should be more widely understood and directly combated, but the basic denial of our shared humanity is arguably the foundational harm of racism. Our continued inability to address historic violence and racism is so damaging not only because it leaves us ignorant of our own history, but also because it fails to recognise the deep pain and indignity suffered by millions of people, an indignity that apparently is still happily flouted by some of Europe’s leaders and publics.
A second claim is less overtly racist, but more widely affirmed, namely that there is (or should be) an ethno-religious account of who counts as ‘European’. Democracy, equality, liberty, fraternity, humanitarianism: all these are nice values, the thought goes, but what really counts is if you’re a white Christian. A more sophisticated version of this claim might be that Christian Europeans are uniquely suited to or committed to values of tolerance, humanitarianism and democracy, but proponents obviously don’t think undemocratic or intolerant white Christian people should be expelled from or denied citizenship by Europe’s different nation-states. However this sort of view is expressed, the key point for us is that Syrians or Eritreans could never become British or Hungarian even if they are the most committed democrats.
Central European politicians are most vocal and also publicly criticised for such views. But it’s not only the Hungarian Prime Minister who thinks that ethnicity and religion matter more than values. A significant proportion of Europeans now vote for far-right parties and so fail to affirm ‘European values’. This isn’t simply an ‘Eastern’ problem; when asked to imagine a prototypical Norwegian or Dane, it’s not only nationalists who will conjure up a blonde-haired blue-eyed individual. And despite the undoubted progress we’ve made in Britain, there’s a sense in which thugs from the English Defence League are more ‘English’ than a London-born Black person.
Instead of wholly denying these associations, we should rather seek to reject their significance. We can and should say: yes, there is a sense in which someone whose great-great-great- ancestor cleaned Lord Agincourt’s boots is more ‘English’ than those whose great-great- ancestors were enslaved and transported on English merchant ships. However, the white and black descendants of these distant ancestors share more in common with each other, not only in terms of technology or modern culture, but also in terms of identity – or in terms of what they mean by Englishness. Furthermore, in looking forward and building a positive identity based on shared contributions, the older exclusively ethnic sense of Englishness has no obvious use.
Such claims are obviously rejected by the far-right demagogues across Europe’s landscape, including here in Britain, where many clearly feel that centuries of ancestral connection allow them to have greater say over how the country should be envisaged and run. When central European politicians and publics have affirmed their tribal form of white ethno-religious nationalism, they’ve further claimed that their rejection stems from looking on in horror at the (in their view failed) multicultural experience in, e.g., Britain.
This leads to a concluding observation that may be particularly relevant for Black History Month. While it’s important that we celebrate such a month, and the enormous achievements of non-white people towards global and indeed British history, we must also attend to the sort of country we’re building today and in the future. Of course different cultural traditions have made impressive contributions to our shared humanity and they should be celebrated as such.
But we should also go further, and emphasize what unites us, and indeed focus on the most morally or politically relevant arenas in which we share a common experience. We don’t all need to wear the same clothes, eat the same food, have the same mitochondrial DNA, or indeed speak with the same accents. However, we should indeed focus on values as what unites us.
It is indeed what unites are values. In that sense Syrian refugees committed to freedom and democracy would not only prove better neighbours than fascist activist, but they are also better able to claim the mantle of ‘European-ness’ and indeed ‘British-ness’. Our shared future should be underpinned by the sorts of values and history that will allow Europe to flourish in the 21st century, and that is where all of us need to work harder to make our democracy a more just and equal one.
Our political leaders too should affirm the value of our current diversity, and its consistency with the future based on justice and democracy that we are all seeking to build. Here we should hear stronger condemnation not simply of the definition of Europeans and democracy in terms of whiteness and Christianity, but also an affirmation that diversity has been a success and is a huge resource for Britain and other countries with greater experience of migration than some in Central Europe (though we should of course be careful of assuming that Poland or Hungary have always been ethnically homogenous nation-states).
This may seem a long way from Black history month, but the message I want to get across is that the struggle against racism fought for by Black people throughout the world should indeed be recognised, and these communities and their struggle against injustice shown greater respect. But we should also affirm that race equality is a British and indeed a European value, and that those of us fighting to remove racial discrimination and to find a safe harbour for those fleeing violence and oppression in Asia and Africa are more committed to British and European values than our opponents. In time we can only hope this message is taught more centrally in the British curriculum, as it focuses not only on memorising the ruling dates of the various Tudor monarchs, but more effectively teaches all of our children the values we require for a more just and equal democracy. In other words, if we’re serious about values such as tolerance, democracy and justice, teaching Black history is something we shouldn’t just do this month, but every month.
Omar Khan, Director,. Runnymede Trust (and an UKREN Steering Committee member)