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Is Europe Ready for a Black or Immigrant Leader of Their Own?

New America Media, Commentary, Tunde Adefioye Posted: Jan 14, 2009

Editors Note: President-elect Barack Obama has been heralded in most European countries, but when it comes to issues of racial and ethnic discrimination, the EU has a long way to go. New America Media contributor Tunde Adefioye is based in Belgium.

Europeans love President-elect Barack Obama. From Sweden to Belgium to the UK, European citizens vocally voice their approval for Barack Obama. That notwithstanding, one must ask, are Europeans ready for a person like Obama -- a black, immigrant or even mixed race person -- to be head of state in one of their countries?

European countries like Sweden have a history of open door policies to many seeking political asylum. England has the largest population of South Asians. Belgium has one of the largest Moroccan and Congolese populations in Europe. With the EU and NATO headquartered here, this country plays a very prominent role in Europe, and is an interesting case. In Belgium, a land of revered diplomacy, it is currently extremely difficult for blacks or immigrants to participate at high levels within the government. If they are present, it is in small numbers.

Europeans are very keen on believing that racism does not exist within their society. Thankfully, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), formed in 2007, is improving understanding about racism within EU.

As an African American living in Europe, I have endured various forms of intolerance, which include being attacked by a group of skinheads to more institutionalized forms. While I studied in Barcelona for six months last year, I was stopped three times for walking while black. When I moved to Belgium, my research groups Flemish systems administrator exclaimed: Seeing a dark person coming out of the elevator scared me.

Discrimination aside, most European countries have a strong social welfare system - especially in comparison to the dismal job the U.S. does in providing healthcare for its citizenry. People are able to get along relatively well when they have no resources for food, good health or good education. What lies below that blanket of comfort is the ignorance of racism. Rewind to 2004, when the Paris suburbs burned. Marginalized groups took to the streets decrying the unfair hold up of their humanity in high-rise estates that dot French suburbia. In England, many in 2006, did not believe that the government should intervene in trying to increase the low number of under-represented groups in universities, especially as it relates to the prestigious Russell Group -- 20 UK universities which receive the bulk of the countrys universities' research grant and contract funding.

Europe has a lot to improve on in the area of race relations to aide its 7-8 million blacks out of a total of 730 million Europeans - in the U.S. there are 36 million blacks out of a total of 300 million. The big difference is that the U.S. spends more time - notably since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - working on how to find a solution, than Europeans have.

In the U.S., statistics on ethnicities have been available since slavery, and the US Census reformulated questions in 1870 to enumerate free slaves; but many European countries still view the focus on ethnicity as unjust and unnecessary for a free and equal state. Until 2007, France considered it illegal to classify people by their ethnicity. Similarly, only some Federal states in Germany collect data on their ethnic populations. This is where the job of the FRA becomes so paramount in addressing these deficiencies.

The FRA highlights extreme variations between EU states in both the size of sanctions available regarding ethnic discrimination cases, and the number of times they have been applied in 2006-2007. The UK has issued more sanctions (95) than all other EU states together. Sweden also implements relatively effective legislation fighting ethnic discrimination. By the end of 2007 there was a complete absence of non-discrimination equality bodies in Spain. In Germany and Malta, equality bodies only started operating in 2007. Some member states have had little public debate on these issues, and no evidence of any public campaigns to raise awareness of the national measures. This can be closely correlated to EU States believing that preserving their national identity is more important than divisive pursuits of ethnic documentation. FRA concludes that most discrimination is invisible, but in some countries one can find job ads stating that foreigners need not apply. In recent years, anti-immigrant sentiments have grown, along with willingness to elect more conservative leaders.

In a recent speech Noam Chomsky states, Europe was much more racist than the United States and you wouldnt expect anything like [Obamas Election] to happen. Europeans need to be increasingly vigilant and active in being more inclusive in the restricted parts of their societies, such as in hiring professors, and in electing more diverse ministers. More grassroots organizations must be formed in the name of racial/ethnic justice. More progressive initiatives need to be taken to make sure that Europe is not unnecessarily behind the US when it comes to better integrating marginalized citizenry into politics and academia.

Doing this would mean that in the near future, change will not only be a campaign rallying point for Obama, but it can become a reality leading to an Obama-like individual playing a role at the top of European public institutions.

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