On today’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Pier-Luc Dupont makes a strong case on why racism – deeply embedded in structure and society – should be an unforgotten target in our efforts to address justice and fairness. 

Like many injustices, racism can be a frustrating target. In good times, when the norms of ‘political correctness’ are upheld in the public sphere, it seems to be a non-issue, a historical wrong that has already been redressed through philosophies of tolerance, anti-discrimination laws and multicultural festivals. In not-so-good times, when elections are won on promises to keep poor or Muslim immigrants out, arsonists attack asylum-seeker shelters, and deaths of Black men at the hands of police officers go unpunished, it seems so overbearing as to crush any faith in the promise of its eradication, enshrined over half a century ago in the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

However, for the growing community of scholars who search for its origins or activists who denounce its manifestations, racism is neither buried nor invincible. It is a huge contemporary challenge that can be overcome, but only at the cost of deep intellectual and institutional change.

Let us first address the shape of the target. Racism starts with phenotype but it does not end there. Now as in Europe’s explicitly colonial past, it feeds on all manner of cultural, including religious, stereotypes. Islamophobia exacerbates racism because it triggers suspicions against all people with ‘brown’ skins. Hence, curing Islamophobia is a crucial step toward curing racism. Racism also has a moral dimension. As Boaventura de Sousa Santos noted at the ETHOS annual conference in Coimbra, Europeans have spent centuries trying to impose their values (including their hegemonic meanings of justice) on the ‘uncivilised others’. Perhaps it is time to pause and ask what may be learned from different experiences and worldviews.

Racism is often conflated with outright hostility among a few bigots, but most of the time it merely consists in anxiety, pity or ignorance among people who want to be egalitarian – people like us. Progressive politicians, journalists, teachers, researchers and artists perpetuate racism every time they fail to tackle its cultural underpinnings, despite having the power to do so. As long as we keep learning that a masterpiece looks like the Mona Lisa, we will disregard painters who don’t look or see the world like Leonardo Da Vinci.

This is not to forget that individual activists’ ambitions are constrained by institutions. Teachers and artists reproduce racist theories and sensibilities because education ministries and arts funding bodies often adhere to them. In turn, they adhere to them because decision-makers disproportionately identify as White. Such institutional racism needs, and is fortunately starting, to be politicised. Positive action, not long ago a taboo, is now explicitly allowed by the EU Race Equality Directive (Article 5) ‘to prevent or compensate for disadvantages linked to racial or ethnic origin’. It nevertheless remains unpopular, and few organisations make use of the opportunity. Sometimes the law itself stands in their way, for instance by prohibiting the collection of ethnic data or its use in recruitment procedures. These laws also need to be contested, in and beyond the courts. They are a violation of international human rights standards (see General Recommendations 24 and 32 of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) and a scar on the European ethos.

Pier-Luc Dupont
University of Bristol