Healing our broken societies: Tackling the scourge of racism

Michael O’Flaherty
Hand with text saying we are all one.
Shadowchaser for Fine Acts.
FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty elaborates on the scourge of racism affecting society and the importance of fixing it. The speech was delivered as the Annual Human Rights Law Centre lecture on 31 October at the University of Nottingham.

Dear friends, before I begin, I must make one point: I am focusing on the topic of racism, and I have to say, at the very outset, that I do not belong to a racialised minority. I am well aware of that fact, and the fact that I have had great privilege in my life. I have never been the subject of racist attack, ever.

But I still have to speak about racism, and I hope you will agree that we all have to speak about it, because, as we say in the title of this lecture, it is a scourge in our societies that we all have to fix. And so, I enter into the territory with a certain amount of trepidation, but I hope that the spirit and the context from which I chose this topic is understood.

A few years ago, I was in a train station. While I was standing there waiting for a train, I spotted a Black man who was resting on the floor, his back against the wall, surrounded by his bags. As I was watching, an older white man passed by. When he saw the man on the ground, he stopped and turned around so that he had his back to the man on the ground. He dropped his trousers and performed a number of what I can only describe as obscene actions.

I remember it and I recall it tonight because of some elements of that horrific memory. The first: what that man was doing was committing an act of that age-old practice of ‘othering’. Of setting somebody aside, shoving a person away, because of their difference. ‘Othering’ has been in our lives and in our societies since the beginning of history.

What is more, this particular act of ‘othering’ was profoundly racist. It is obvious that there was a strong racist dimension in what he chose to do. There was not an act of physical violence on this occasion - although it was an act of disgusting behaviour – but there often is a quality of physical violence in these forms of racist othering.

They often occur, as this one did, in a busy place where people react with indifference. Everything went on just as normal.

And, of course, the older man got away with it. There is a quality of impunity to these types of commonplace action.

Still further, we can acknowledge that what happened in the train station back then was completely at odds with the goal of respecting human dignity, and therefore completely at odds with every dimension of the human rights project, as captured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Finally, if I can bring that story to today, it is a story of a form of ‘othering’ which is getting worse. We know it is getting worse through many sources, including through the work of the agency that I direct, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. The agency is the human rights advisory body of the European Union. We are based in Vienna and our role is to support the EU institutions and EU Member States to be human rights compliant when they act in areas of EU competency. We work across every imaginable issue, from migration to artificial intelligence and everything in-between, in a large toolbox of methods; one of which – just one which I’ll mention, as it is relevant to what I will say next – is the undertaking of surveys. We are the largest gatherer of survey-based, human rights data in the world. We go out on the streets, and we meet with impacted individuals and groups, to understand their experience from a point of view of human rights.

I mention that, because we know that racism is getting worse in our societies, on the basis of a brand-new FRA survey, which will be launched later this week, on 2 November, at a conference in Barcelona. It is called ‘Being Black in the EU’. It draws from an interviews with 6,700 people who are either from sub-Saharan Africa, or are first generation with origins in sub-Saharan Africa in the EU. Their views were captured in 13 EU Member States. This is the second time we conducted such a survey; the first was in 2016, which means we can do some assessment of changes over time.

Some key findings: when we asked people how many times they had experienced an act of racial discrimination in the past five years, the average across the 13 countries was that 45 percent of them had experienced some form of racial discrimination. This had been recorded as 39 percent in 2016, so we see an increase.

We then asked, “Of those of you who experienced discrimination, how many of you reported the incident?”. The answer was just nine percent. This is a figure we find repeatedly across all the similar work that we do: very low rates of reporting.

We asked, “When you did complain, how many you went to the official complaint body of your country?”, which in many countries on this continent is known as an equality body. Just four percent reported to an equality body, which again tells you something about levels of awareness of these institutions.

Moving on from discrimination to harassment, how many had experienced an act of harassment in the past year? Thirty percent said they had experienced such an act, and of those, just one third had reported it to the police or to the other relevant authorities.

Staying with the police. Obviously, there is an issue of trust in the police that has to be constantly tested. We tested that through examining incidents of police stops. We asked how many people had been stopped by the police within the past five years, and then how many of those who were stopped perceived the stop to be racist. Twenty-five percent of the entire group surveyed said they had been stopped by police. Twenty-five percent, which is significantly higher than the similar figure if we were to ask the general population. Half of those that has been stopped said that they perceived the motive to be racist. Again, here we see a rise in the figures since 2016.

Just one more finding from the survey, relating to school bullying. We asked how many parents were aware of their child being bullied in school in the past year. Forty percent said their child had been bullied in the past year and a startling 25 percent of those who said yes, also said that the bullying had involved physical violence.

Now, that is all data in the context of racism against sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants in the EU, but I look to other groups and report very similar findings, again drawing from the work of the Fundamental Rights Agency.

Take the Roma and Traveller community, for example. That is the largest single minority on the European continent. In the EU alone, it comprises six million people, and it is a community pushed to the very edges of our society, by every imaginable measure and indicator, shoved to the very periphery in patterns of discrimination, harassment, and anti-Gypsyism.

As a result, if you are an average member of the Roma and Traveller community on the European continent, you will have a life expectancy of 10 years less than the general population. A few years ago, I went into a Roma home, where I met a woman and her children. She continuously apologised to me: for the poor condition of her house, for the lack of an indoor toilet, for the lack of nice food to offer me. She just kept apologising, so much so that I found myself losing my temper. Not with her. I got so angry, and I said to her, “Madam, you must stop apologising; we must apologise to you. We are the reason that you are in this situation.” The Roma community remains in a very worrying situation.

Moving on to two other groups, who experience an interplay of racial discrimination and religion-based discrimination and they are the members of Jewish and Muslim communities, two other groups with which we work very closely. I do not have the time to go into specific figures this afternoon, but if I could just recall yesterday, I visited a Jewish community in London. To gain entry to their building, I had to go through security, the like of which you would rarely see. Airport security was nothing compared to the checks that had to be done on me before I could go through the four locked doors into the main part of the building. I am not complaining about that security, I am not complaining that it was put in place by that Jewish community. But I am outraged that any group, anywhere in Europe, has the need – not just feel the need, but has the need - to surround themselves with such layers of security. That is deeply unacceptable.

It is equally unacceptable that the incidents of anti-Muslim hatred have risen to such a level on the European continent, particularly the EU, which is the focus of my work, that we at the Fundamental Rights Agency are now maintaining a live online database of reported incidents of anti-Muslim hatred. It is a big database, growing bigger by the day, and that is no less unacceptable.

Moving beyond specific groups, be they Jews, Muslims, Roma, or whatever other context, to understand the phenomenon of racism, we also must factor in the aspect of intersectionality. You cannot do any assessment of the lived experience of being subject to a racist attack, if you do not take account of the way two of your characteristics can interplay to greatly magnify the negative impact on you of racism. I think intersectionality does not need much more explanation than a couple of examples. Think what it is like to be not just Roma, but to be a Roma child. Now think what it was likely to be a Roma child back in 2020, who was sent home to distance learn during Covid. How could a Roma child distance learn, in a caravan where the roof was leaking, where there was no internet connection or even a computer.

There is another layer I suggest we need to undertake to understand and therefore tackle the racism in our societies and that is the need for us to contextualise the experience of racism. The contextualisation of racism and racist acts in order to engage them is very context-specific and any list I offer you today will be an open-ended one, and a highly imperfect one. What is more, the things I will mention now, apply to a greater or lesser extent to different settings and forms of racism.

Allow me to briefly mention seven elements for contextualisation.

First, of course, is the legacy of colonialism. I came late to an understanding of the extent to which we have to put that at the heart of our understanding, and it plays out at the heart of our understanding in many diverse ways. Many of you will know far more about this than do I, but nevertheless, the models and assumptions of racial superiority which lie behind the architecture of colonialism, and the impact of the architecture of colonialism in its day and in the post-colonial must be taken into account.

Second and very closely related, is the extent to which we have to acknowledge the existence in our societies of systemic and structural racism. I resisted these terms for many years because they are not particularly visible in the treaties; they are visible in the practice of the oversight bodies, but I was quite conservative for a while, until I had to accept that the only way to explain the persistence, the endemic nature of racism, in so many contexts, including policing in some places, is the extent to which the very structures and systems support the racist attitudes and actions.

A third of my seven, which is again highly complex and plays its role in many diverse ways, is the current situation of irregular migration into our countries. My point here is not that it should not happen; I am not discussing more broadly the law and policy around migration. I am saying that it engages the context in ways which are then handled in a racialised manner in many places. One worrying dimension to mention right now is the two-tier system. We cannot deny that, if you are Ukrainian, you get a very different treatment when you arrive in our countries, then if you come from another country. This is a simple reality. In the countries that I deal with, the EU Member States, we have a system in which the Temporary Protection Directive gives a gold-plated welcome to Ukrainians. We have nothing equivalent for people who come from anywhere else.

Closely related, the fourth point I would make is the need for us to take into account the impact in our societies of the far right, of the proponents of crazy theories, whose voices are increasingly amplified in our societies and who are playing a very mischievous role. Take for example, the extent to which far right proponents funded from places unknown are promoting a piece of nonsense called ‘The Great Replacement’ theory. Even giving this the word ‘theory’ elevates it to a stage it does not deserve. This is, in essence, the idea that there is a Jewish conspiracy whereby Europe would be flooded with migrants so that the indigenous white people will have to go somewhere else. This is believed by increasing numbers of people, notwithstanding the utter nonsense of it.

Again, closely related to this is the sad reality in far too many places that the fears stoked up by such crazy theories, as I just said, are exploited by some politicians for political gain; so-called ‘populism’. It takes different forms and different places. It is very real and persistent.

Sixth of my seven, which relates to and engages almost everything I have said already, but has to be acknowledged in its own right, is the movement of hate online. It is very important that we grasp and engage this context for the expression of hate. Jews will tell you that, by far, the most common place to experience antisemitism today is online. We hear about the swastikas painted on synagogues, but those acts are measurably smaller than then the extent of antisemitism expressed on platforms.

One of the dimensions of the movement online of hate, is the challenges it raises from a geographic point of view, because, of course, an online expression of hate knows no boundaries and models of responding to hate, to racism and so on, have traditionally and historically been constructed around the model of the state. The online phenomenon also means that the idea that you could say your country is free of a given form of hate is increasingly untenable today, because of the way, hate spreads so freely across borders.

Finally, the seventh of my contexts is one I would not have mentioned a month ago, but we have to watch with horror what is happening in the Middle East and observe how that awful situation is impacting and exacerbating expressions of racism and hate against various communities in Europe.

So, enough of the analysis of the situation; we need to discuss what to do about it. Allow me to say a few brief words on law, policy, and practice.

First law, and rather briefly, a quick review of the legal protections against racism, at the UN and regional levels. At the United Nations, the crown jewel in respect of legal pushbacks against racism is a very interesting treaty called the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It is interesting for many reasons. It is the first of the UN human rights treaties, adopted in 1965, a year before the adoption of the two covenants, one on civil and political rights and the other on economic social, and cultural rights. That is interesting because that reminds us that the push to combat racism, the struggle against apartheid was the primary driver of the development of the norms back in the 1960s. Some would argue that, were it not for that driver, we would not have achieved the two covenants in 1966.

It is also interesting because of its content. It is extremely short - you would read it in few minutes – but it is packed full of content in terms of what states must do, what states must prohibit, what states must criminalise (considered rather controversial), and what states must promote in the form of what you could almost call positive discrimination. The interesting dimensions of the treaty are reflected in the fact that many states that ratified it have entered declarations of their understanding of provisions, which they found problematic. For example, the criminalisation of racism as it is expressed in the treaty was considered to introduce an excessive restraint on speech by some states, as a result of which they entered declarations.

Nevertheless, the treaty is very important in the history of the pushback against racism. It is, to this day, monitored by a monitoring committee called CERD, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. I served as Secretary of CERD for two years, many years ago, and I remember CERD being an extremely conservative and cautious Committee. It rarely grabbed the opportunities to aggressively push back against the contemporary manifestations of racism. The Committee has moved on since then.

The treaty has one extraordinary quality, which I only appreciated when I visited a group that was subject to profound racism. Back in 1995, I was invited to represent the Committee at the first ever human rights conference of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders in Australia. We gathered outside Sydney in a resort called Coogee Beach, and there, for the first ever time at such an event, the Aboriginal flag was flown. It was very moving; there were a lot of tears. Today, that flag flies on many Australian embassies. Everyone I encountered on that visit said how powerful this treaty was for them. They introduced me to a concept I had never realised; how a norm can be more than just a set of rules. It can have a symbolic significance and through that a vast empowering role.

Other UN laws to recall are, of course, the two covenants and their strong non-discrimination protections. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, has a requirement to prohibit certain extreme forms of speech including racist speech.

In 2001, the UN also produced the output document of something called the Durban World Conference against Racism. Those of us of a certain age will remember that this was a UN conference full of controversy, incredibly difficult, very hard to bring across the line, but ultimately, it suffered the fate that the conference closed two days before 9/11, and as a result, for most of the world, it completely disappeared. However, the UN last year issued a report on the impact of Durban and claimed that it had an important effect on the combat of racism worldwide.

I will name just one output from Durban; that was the success of the UN in adopting a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. I mention that Declaration in particular today because it is playing an incredibly useful role right now in the advocacy of indigenous groups, in the context of the climate crisis, the loss of their territory and access to their lands.

Allow me to turn to Europe. Of course, the primary place in which to look for standards and institutions combating racism is the Council of Europe. Here we have similar non-discrimination protections as those of the UN and we have a very interesting body called the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). ECRI does an important job, a respected one, of supporting Council of Europe Member States, including the UK, to tackle racism, in their law, policy and practice.

I will mention the EU briefly. It has a relatively strong legal toolbox. It has strong protections and non-discrimination elements in its Charter of Fundamental Rights. It has important secondary legislation, the Racial Equality Directive, the Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia. It has established institutions to push back against racism, including my own agency, which began as an anti-racism dimension of the work of the EU. It has a much broader mandate today, but its origins are in the combat against racism. The EU took the initiative for the establishment of what are in all EU member states, as well as in the UK, equality bodies. National equality bodies are meant to act as the engines to combat inequalities in our societies.

The last thing I will say about the EU is that, in 2020, it adopted an action plan against racism, for 2020-2025. To those of you who are really interested in racism, I encourage you to read it because it is a good document. It is imaginative, it is breathtaking, it draws on the latest science, the latest understandings. It is not afraid to face the tough issues like the legacy of colonialism. However, and this is my last word on it – it has not delivered on the expectations and the aspirations. And why? The reason is very simple; the EU does not have the power. It simply does not have the competency to insist on the changes to comprehensively tackle racism. That means we have got to then come right back, and that is where I am going now, to the national level. The state, and the national level is the heart of where we have to combat racism.

I will now outline my observations of what must be done at national level. These are my own personal observations, but are informed by the work, the research and the findings of the Fundamental Rights Agency, the relevant bodies of the Council of Europe, the UN and of course civil society. I have ten points in a non-exhaustive list; none of these are automatic so each must be said.

The first one is that we have to acknowledge the levels of racism in our societies. We are not doing that. We previewed the new Being Black in the EU survey last week and quickly got quite a bit of media attention. The same day, media reports came out and an politician said that our findings were nonsense, that the Fundamental Rights Agency was exaggerated and should be closed down. That is an example of the pushbacks we encounter repeatedly from influential people. A senior official in the EU once said to me that they were unsure about the scale of the problem in our societies, since so much money was being pumped into it.

Another way in which you can measure the level of denial of racism in our societies relates to the different perceptions of racism in the general population on the one hand, and in the impacted community on the other. When we asked Jews in our survey four years ago, “What is the biggest problem in your life?”, 98 percent said antisemitism is the biggest problem in our lives. When we asked the general population whether antisemitism was a problem in their community, their society, 50 percent said it was a problem. The perception of a racist problem in the general population was half that of the reality of the affected community.

­­­­Secondly, we have to acknowledge the extent to which we ourselves may be racist. This is a difficult thing to do, but we have to do it. Everybody has to undertake a personal examination, to ask “Am I racist?” I have to do that, in order to identify where I need to work on myself, to assess whether I have somehow absorbed the prejudices of my community or my society, without my even knowing it. To examine whether such prejudices manifest themselves in my actions.

The third of the ten dimensions may sound obvious but is not happening in practice. We have to work with the affected and impacted groups, and not for the impacted and affected groups. It has got to be a partnership, for two reasons at least. The first is that it is a basic issue of respect; I would argue it derives from human rights that you have a duty to act with the rights holder. Secondly, it is so much more effective; study after study has shown that the impact group being an equal or even leading participant in the struggle leads to better outcomes. I will give you one example from my own country. Ireland achieved marriage equality in 2015, through a campaign which has been studied by all manner of sciences, from anthropology to law, looking to understand how it was so successful. One of the repeated findings shows that the leadership of the LGBTIQ community themselves, and their visibility in the campaign, was key to its success.

The fourth of the ten, which relates back to the points I made earlier on colonialism, is the need for us to confront our history. This is essential; it will take many different forms, it will be very site- specific, but we must confront our past to fix our present. This goes beyond colonial histories, to include the history of the Holocaust; not just that of the Jews, but also of the Roma people.

Very importantly, it has to trigger all manner of appropriate, contemporary responses, such as putting in place projects of memorialisation. But it must also include forms of transitional justice. We must see where it can help and offer tools as we find a way forward.  

Moving to the fifth of the ten, we have to apply the law. I gave you some examples of law earlier, but we know that this is not at all being applied as systematically, comprehensively, or appropriately as is necessary. We have to respect international findings; too often, we receive them and do nothing with them.

We have to implement judgments. The scale of the non-implementation of judgments, including racism-related judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, is very high. In the EU setting, we have to transpose the relevant laws. The directives I mentioned earlier are still not fully transposed into domestic law, and where there are transposed, they may not be done adequately or appropriately or correctly.

We have to deliver criminal accountability for criminal acts. I gave you the example of the man in the station at the beginning of this lecture. I do not know if it was a criminal act, but it was a disgusting one, and he got away with it. He was not held to account.

However, the acts often do pass the line into domestic criminal law. They are rarely prosecuted, particularly when they are expressed by an important person, a person of power, a politician. We have to apply our hate crime legislation correctly; you would be surprised by the extent to which my agency has to invest time and effort in helping our Member States to understand their hate crime legislation, to figure out how to apply it, to record and investigate violations of it, and to ultimately hold people to account. It is often not about a lack of will; it is more about a lack of understanding.

Finally, in terms of applying the law, we have to invest in making people aware of their rights and remedies. I spoke earlier about the extent to which people do not report. Non-reporting is a phenomenon for multiple reasons, but at least one of them is a lack of awareness of where you are meant to go with your concern.

My sixth observation relates to policing. We have to invest enormous resources if we are to combat racism in working with police forces. We will only get fair policing, and an end to racial profiling, if our police forces look like our streets. That involves huge investment in diversity, and also the necessary training.

We have to hold police officers accountable when they cross the line in terms of their professional practice, and we have to take initiatives to put human rights at the heart of the corporate culture of our police forces. I came to appreciate this when I worked in Northern Ireland, where I was Chief Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission. The Northern Ireland police force, which was radically reformed as part of the peace agreement, has a really impressive corporate commitment to human rights.

Seven: beyond the police, we have to engage racism right across government. We have to engage it in the context of access to jobs, housing, healthcare, the immigration strategies, you name it. We have got to go to every sector of governance at the national and the local levels, and do an audit, do a map, to see where we have these systemic or structural elements that compound, or contribute to racist outcomes. The German government began a map of this kind last year. It is hugely ambitious, with 23 different components to be implemented over the next few years. It hopes to design a comprehensive global map of the extent to which the systems of governance in Germany support racism. I think it is an ambitious and brave action, but also a very useful one.

Of course, once we have populated our map, we have to act on what we find. Here again, we are looking around Europe to see interesting and innovative actions that can really make a difference. In Ireland, there is now a statutory duty called the Public Sector Equality and Human Rights Duty. People working on human rights in my country have told me that it is actually delivering value because it requires the state to fix the inequality problem, which is often of a racialised nature.

And of course, we have to go beyond all of these things and invest massively in awareness-raising and education, right across our public service, to ensure diversity.

I mentioned as my eighth point, schools. I will not say a lot about it, because it is quite obvious. Why do I mention it at all? Because, while it is obvious to say we have to have anti-racism education in our schools, the fact is that what was called in my day, civics education is dying out. I have no idea of the situation in the UK, but in many countries across Europe, this concept of education for how you play your role in society has disappeared. We desperately to reinstate it.

The other dimension of the schools, and another reason I need to mention it, is that one of the curious ways in which racism presents itself in our societies, in many places, is through de facto racial segregation, racialised segregation in schools. It is quite commonplace in many places in Europe, not as an explicit policy but as an outcome of an idea that there is the Roma classroom, and then the ‘everybody else’. You find the same with other groups as well. This form of segregation itself contributes to racial behaviour.

For my ninth point, allow me to come back to a point I made earlier, about migration online of hate and how we tackle it. I would like to make two points here because it is a huge area, and a very difficult area.

The first is we have to take certain extreme forms of hate offline, but we have to do it in a manner that is compatible with freedom of expression. Getting that balance right is what everybody is struggling with right now. We have used models in many places of voluntary takedown by the platforms. We have seen many cases where they may have gone too far.

The other dimension I will flag in terms of policing the online space has to do with the increasingly important role today of automated online content moderation. My agency has invested a lot in the last few years in seeing how this stuff works, how the tech works in practice and the results are extremely concerning. It is highly imperfect. We have all heard of the relationship between bad data and bad outcomes. We have all heard about the extent to which monitoring what goes on online works better in English than in other languages, that's well recognised.

What is less well recognised from a human thinking point of view, is the unreliability of artificial intelligence. I will give you an example. We searched online for terms that are commonly used, and then we gained to access to proprietary content moderation technology, and we fed these lines into the technology to see what it would do with them. We put in the line ‘I hate Jews’, and the technology correctly flagged this as problematic speech. Now, I am not saying that this was inherently antisemitic or crossed the criminal law line, but rather it was seen as something that should be flagged for attention, which I think is exactly how the machinery should work.

Then we fed in another sentence, which we again found online, which was ‘I hate Jews love’. We fed it in again and again and it was never flagged for attention, due to the positive connotations the tech associated with the word ‘love’. The word ‘love’ had such a positive significance, that this completely overrode everything else in the sentence.

Make that of that what you will, but it has certainly helped us form a view that the technology is still not to be trusted in the area of managing the hate speech space.

Another dimension of the online aspect of tackling racism is that we really must continue to invest in digital literacy. We have huge digital deserts, huge levels of digital incomprehension in our societies and hate will prosper in a context where it cannot be spotted for what it is. That is not just about technology, but about people being better equipped to recognise the nonsense for what it is.

We are in a very interesting phase in the EU right now, of legislating to manage this vast space. We have just adopted a Digital Services Act, which have come into force in recent weeks and already its muscles are being tested in the context of the horrors of the Middle East and other great issues of the moment.

We are in the final phases of the negotiation of an Artificial Intelligence Act, which is intended to have a global leading role in showing how to police the AI space.

The tenth and the final of my points about how we tackle racism at the national level is that we need to gather the data. Again, so obvious, but it is not happening, at least in many places. EU Member States are doing a very poor job, or at least a very mixed job of gathering the data they need, the evidence base they need to do their job. And if you cannot measure it, you cannot fix it.

Certainly, I have found repeatedly in my life that if I do not come with the evidence, then the policy maker or the politician will pay me absolutely no attention. So, we need to generate the hard evidence, this type of stuff that my agency does through the surveys.

What are the problems? Well, the first thing is the huge disparity in groups that are surveyed. Some countries will survey with regard to the experience of some groups but not other groups. There is huge disparity in the quality.

Some measuring in this area depends on reports. But as I mentioned earlier in respect of our Being Black in the EU report, just nine percent of racist attacks were reported. Drawing your national figures on racism from the nine percent is ineffective because you are losing 90% of the actual experience.

A final concern, which could be a very serious one but is not so anymore, has to do with respecting the privacy and protecting the individuals themselves. But that is no longer a valid concern. The General Data Protection Regulation, the GDPR, creates methods by which such data can be gathered in a completely anonymised form and prohibits its gathering where the anonymity cannot be protected. We will not survey certain groups in certain countries where we cannot guarantee anonymity where the group is too small, for example.

And so, there we have ten suggestions of what could be done at the national level.

You might reasonably ask me the question, “Well, if we do these ten things, is that the magic bullet? Will that overcome racism in our societies?”. I would be very naïve to give you an affirmative answer. Even with the application of these ten suggestions, things will not improve overnight. Yet we have seen, through narrow sectoral contexts, for each of those ten that I have mentioned, where they have been applied, there has been an improvement. What we need is all of them everywhere, all at the same time; that has to be the goal.

We can also gain hope from looking at analogous contexts. It is difficult to find good examples of where we have overcome racism, but we have overcome and have succeeded in analogous battles in the field of human rights.

Take, for example, the situation in at least some countries on this continent of some categories of the LGBTIQ communities. There is no doubt still a significant problem for intersex and trans people, but for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, there has been an astonishing improvement in many European countries in recent years. And I can say that with authority because of a survey that we will publish next year. The data is already in, it is being analysed currently, and for the first time, it is going to show a notable improvement in the lived experience of people who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual in some EU Member States.

So that has been, to some extent, a success story, albeit with challenges that remain. We can draw hope from it. We can also get hope from the extent to which we have achieved some degree of parity between women and men in our societies. I am a man, and I am well aware that there is still a long way to go and that there is backsliding in so many ways and in so many places. However, the situation is unimaginably different to a hundred years ago. That can be a basis for hope.

What is sure though is that the struggle against racism, tackling this scourge is going to be one we must fight for a very long time. It is an intergenerational struggle. It is going to require tenacity, skill and effort, and a huge degree of cooperation across all the sectors. But I really think we can deliver it.

I was looking for a way to end this lecture, which would convey a sense of the scale of the challenge, and the need for tenacity and endurance, but the ultimate possibility of achievement.

I considered using the well-known Martin Luther King quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

But I find another quote more compelling tonight, this one coming from an African American poet, Benjamin Zephaniah. If you would allow me, I would like to read you two verses of a poem of his, called ‘White Comedy’, in which the poet captures the sheer scale of what has to be achieved, but also the optimism and possibility of achieving it, eventually and over time.

“I waz whitemailed
By a white witch,
Wid white magic
An white lies,
Branded by a white sheep
I slaved as a whitesmith
Near a white spot
Where I suffered whitewater fever.
Whitelisted as a whiteleg
I waz in de white book
As a master of white art,
It waz like white death.

People called me white jack
Some hailed me as a white wog,
So I joined de white watch
Trained as a white guard
Lived off the white economy.
Caught and beaten by de whiteshirts
I waz condemned to a white mass,
Don't worry,
I shall be writing to de Black House.”

Thank you very much.

See also