The suspicious absence of local anti-discrimination enforcement

by Reinhard Schweitzer


Wide-spread racial discrimination: a prevailing barrier amidst ineffective countermeasures

As part of the Whole-COMM project, more than 500 interviews have been conducted with local actors working in 49 smaller towns and villages across ten different countries. Among other things, they focussed on the barriers that migrants and refugees face when trying to find an adequate job and decent place to live. One thing that was mentioned in all these very diverse localities, and by all kinds of actors, was racial discrimination. Many interviewees saw it as one of the most significant barriers in relation to employment and particularly independent housing, but also to ‘integration’ understood in many other ways. 

That discrimination against racialised newcomers was perceived as such a widespread and serious problem is not surprising. Maybe more surprising, is that when asked about any concrete policies or initiatives taken in their respective localities to facilitate equal access to these fundamental aspects of life, relatively few local actors could point to effective measures that explicitly combat the various forms of discrimination that so many of them recognised as a significant barrier. Only one – Belgian – municipality had implemented correspondence tests to systematically measure the level of racial discrimination within the local housing market, and in none of them did we come across systematic attempts to effectively enforce existing anti-discrimination legislation. 

Enforcement generally means the process of making people obey a law or rule and in many if not most cases this is no straightforward business. In this case, the rule is non-discrimination; and the apparent lack of enforcement not only reflects the difficulty of proving discriminatory practices and attributing them to specific individuals or institutions. It arguably also exposes a general unwillingness to support or even just accept (or make more effective) any rule that would strengthen the position of marginalised and racialised groups in different spheres of social life (and especially when it comes to the distribution of scarce resources, like affordable housing). The same unwillingness underlies the recent US supreme court decision against affirmative action in the university system, for example, but it is even more problematic in relation to public or private efforts that do not aim at preferential, but simply more equal, treatment of these groups. 

All this is not to say that local efforts in this direction are completely absent. They do exist in many localities, but they hardly ever go beyond ‘sensibilisation’ and ‘awareness raising’ or aim at more than increasing various gatekeepers’ ‘intercultural abilities’ or preventing ‘intercultural conflicts’. They usually avoid any explicit mention of the underlying racism and rely much more on soft power – printing brochures, handing out leaflets, invitations to information events or intercultural trainings – than concrete sanctions. And if they imply any concrete obligations at all, these often primarily fall on the victims of discrimination, who are expected to first of all gain adequate knowledge of the local language and ‘way of life’ and leave behind certain ‘cultural traits’ or habits that are seen as incompatible with this way of life. 

Challenges and unwillingness in implementing measures against discrimination

Many migrant(-led) and civil society organisations are actively denouncing not only the problem itself but also the lack or inadequacy of corresponding policies. And quite a few local authorities seem to take this criticism seriously and try to find more effective ways to address the problem locally. While such efforts tend to involve a diverse range of local actors in often quite ambitious multi-stakeholder fora, they never seem to lead to anything that would go beyond the ‘soft’ kind of local anti-discrimination measures mentioned above. When the local politicians and officials I interviewed in several Spanish towns explained these efforts to me, I often found myself thinking that: Instead of ultimately helping to justify sometimes shockingly open discriminatory practices as a matter of ‘misinformation’, ‘lack of awareness’, or someone ‘trying to avoid’ potential conflicts or financial risks… shouldn’t municipalities first of all consider imposing actual sanctions on racist landlords, employers, and intermediary agencies? Is it really so difficult to fine those found to systematically discriminate against racialised newcomers – for example, by not returning their calls or telling them that the flat or job they are interested in is no longer available when in fact they are?

According to Spanish Housing Law, local administrations have the competence to impose fines of between 90.000 and 900.000 euros on public and private entities that engage in discriminatory practices; money that could be used to fund anti-discrimination or any other local policy or service. 

This brings us back to the unwillingness. One problem, it might be argued, is that sanctioning (or even just exposing) racist practices might not – at least not in the short run – contribute to social peace and ‘cohesion’. Another source of unwillingness might be the simple fact that the immediate negative effects of such measure would fall primarily on (racist) citizens, at a time when racist parties are gaining ground and racism seems to become more accepted also beyond the Far Right. The immediate beneficiaries, on the other hand, would be the migrant/refugee ‘others’ (and their descendants), since only they are systematically subjected to racist discrimination. A third problem is that it would probably only lead to a relatively small number of cases were intention and guilt can be proven and actual sanctions imposed. But even then, it would at least make explicit that the choice of a local property owner to only rent their flat to ‘someone from here’ – whatever reason they might provide for this choice – is discrimination, and as such, illegal. 

Unconventional approaches to address racist practices

A fine is certainly not the only (and maybe not even the best) way of helping to make this point unambiguously clear. If local authorities really want to make it, they could also take inspiration from less ambitious (but more radical) civil society initiatives, which might even prove more effective than yet another intercultural training offer or ‘how to live in [this country]’ guide.

About a year ago, members of an initiative formed by local NGOs including a Tenants’ Union and a Housing Union of two adjunct cities in Catalonia approached 44 local real estate agencies. They pretended to be private homeowners looking for tenants and explicitly not wanting to rent their homes “to immigrants or people of color”. More than 90% of the 38 agencies visited in one city accepted this condition without hesitation. 28% of the agents acknowledged that this was common practice, and often done without any request from the owners. In this city, none of the visited real estate agents said that such condition could not be accepted because it is illegal.

And the initiative did not stop here. The organizers then went from agency to agency and sticked highly visible Racist Rental labels on the agencies’ windows, accompanied by banners displaying some of the phrases that a representative of the business had used during the study. The initiative also plans to compile the cases and file a collective complaint. 

From stickers to systematic change

Maybe something like this could and should become part of the ‘toolbox’ that local governments use (or are advised to use by researchers) in order to facilitate what is often summarised as ‘integration’. They might not place stickers in private agency windows; but they could publish equivalent information on some public portal, or official register, or contract a local organisation to do this kind of work in a more systematic and sustainable fashion. In combination with a realistic threat of sanctions and a more explicit language about the pervasiveness, harmfulness, and illegality of racist practices, this would at the very least contribute to ‘sensibilisation’ – which must certainly also remain in that toolbox. Just as it remains necessary to explain and reassert – but also to occasionally question – the common rules and societal expectations that people in any given locality tend to have towards their neighbours. All this helps to prevent, and might contribute to resolving, all kinds of conflicts, including those that are perceived as intercultural. But all this cannot replace – nor must any of it come before – systematic anti-discrimination enforcement. 

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