On tackling #dailyracism in Belgium

On Wednesday evening, about 40km from the European capital of Brussels, 210 peaceful protesters were arrested for attempting to stage a mass sit-in in front of Antwerp City Hall in Belgium.

They were protesting against what they saw as the unacceptable and racist comments made on the subject of integration, radicalisation and racism by the city’s mayor, Bart De Wever.

De Wever was talking about Belgium’s Moroccan – specifically Berber – community, and his comments, apart from relativising racism, essentially cast Moroccans as the victims of prejudice and discrimination by the work of their own hands.

People of Moroccan heritage comprise the fourth biggest immigrant group in Belgium (after people of Italian, French and Dutch origin) but suffer the highest levels of unemployment, feature disproportionately in the country’s crime rates, have the lowest education levels and are visibly centred in various forms of social exclusion.

This, by De Wever’s logic, is due to their ‘failure’ to integrate.

A ‘failure’ made possible by ‘open door’ migration and the subsequent absence of a robust integration policy.

“Racism, or rejection, comes from somewhere,” he told the popular Flemish current affairs programme Terzake (To The Point) on Monday.

In response to a question about the link between racism and radicalisation [Belgium has the largest number of foreign fighters in Syria, per capita], De Wever clarified his own previous comments which made the link between racism and the radicalisation of young Muslim Belgians.

“[Racism] on its own it has nothing to do with radicalism. It only serves hard-core radicals, the truly convinced ones to recruit more people by playing on feelings of rejection.”

Protesters led by Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Belgian-Lebanese writer and activist from the civil rights group Movement X, called on De Wever to apologise or resign.

Instead they got rounded up by armed police, bundled off into police buses and then fined 250 euro for illegal assembly.

Dangerous comments

As the leader of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), De Wever is Belgium’s most popular politician in terms of numbers, even though only people in the Flemish part of the country can vote for him.

But when he speaks, there are millions of Dutch-speaking Belgians who listen – that’s why his comments are so dangerous.

De Wever rejects the accusations that he is racist because he doesn’t believe in the biological inferiority of Moroccans. For him, the problem is cultural and behavioural.

By fixing this community’s perceived delinquent, anti-social behaviour, by forcibly teaching them Dutch, by ‘liberating’ their women from the headscarf, i.e. through their total assimilation, De Wever and his supporters seem to believe that racism can be tackled.

Yet, there are hundreds of thousands of first, second, third and even fourth generation Belgians who will tell you otherwise.

You can speak all the French or Dutch you want; you will still be discriminated against because of the colour of your skin or the sound of your last name.

On the International Day against Racism last Saturday, Bleri Lleshi, a Brussels-based political philosopher and activist, called on people to share their personal experiences with #DailyRacism via Twitter and Facebook.

The response has been staggering, both in content and volume.

Thousands of people responded with stories, like the student whose teacher made him write a letter of apology immediately after 9/11. Or the poster, who as a 10-year-old, was told by his teacher during a class on table manners: “This does not concern you. You’ll never go to a restaurant.”

As an academic, born and raised in Belgium and now living and working in the UK, I often find it difficult to explain the very particular, virulent strain of racism that exists in this country, and Flanders in particular.

There are the petty, demeaning and ridiculous incidents which, all too often, people refuse to recognise as racism: the annual Zwarte Piet [Black Pete] tradition; Barack and Michelle Obama photo-shopped as monkeys in a leading ‘progressive’ newspaper; our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Didier Reynders, making international headlines for wearing blackface.

But more importantly, racism also manifests itself in the abysmal racialised poverty, in the unemployment figures, and in the education and housing statistics, which are the worst in Europe.

Finally, both as a consequence and cause of its perpetuation, you see it in our unyieldingly monochrome and monocultural centres of power.

From politics to the media to the private sector, non-white Belgians are almost totally absent from positions of power.

For too long, there was scant reflection about this absence.

Today, the conversation about quotas and affirmative action has begun, but the debate continues to be a difficult and painful one.

I am not sure how long the topic of racism will remain headline news in Belgium, and it will certainly take more than a hashtag to solve a problem that lies at the very heart of this country’s social fabric. But at least it becomes harder to deny its existence.

Today’s debates are indebted to the unfailing efforts of those who, for decades, have kept the excruciating anti-racism conversation going. With social media amplifying the message, and more and more minorities speaking out against racism with confidence and entitlement, I can only hope that the urgency of tackling racial discrimination will be impossible to ignore in the long term.

A longer version of this article was originally published on Olivia Rutazibwa’s blog.

This article was updated and adapted by Equal Times with the author’s permission.