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10 years of combating racism

Palais de l’Europe, Room 1
Strasbourg, Thursday 18 March 2004

Notion of racism in present-day Europe

Racism can be compared to a bacillus that is continually mutating according to the changing environment and, in the process, assuming more complex forms and more sophisticated means of resisting treatment. It is therefore essential that we try and take a snapshot of its current state of evolution, if we want to come up with a treatment that is as effective as possible.

In present-day Europe, racism can hardly, or only marginally, be connected to support for biological theories of superior and inferior “races”. In the last decades, we have witnessed a progressive move from a racism based on the attribution of different worth to different “races”, towards a racism based upon cultural differences and upon the allegedly natural preference of human beings for their own cultural group. According to this notion of racism, cultures are not necessarily superior to one another; they are pre-defined entities, largely seen as homogenous, unchangeable and, more importantly, incompatible with each other.

Without bringing into focus this now largely accomplished shift in racism it would be impossible to capture the extent to which Europe is still plagued by racism today. The fight against organisations or individuals that spread biological theories of superior and inferior “races” and act out their beliefs is still central to combating racism today and must be strengthened. However, Europe must realise that contemporary racism is not at all the exclusive realm of these individuals and organisations; it is a phenomenon that, especially through the new conceptual tool of cultural racism, has permeated many levels of our societies.

National and international standards against racism and racial discrimination generally protect people against adverse behaviour on grounds of "race", colour and national or ethnic origin. In an attempt to capture as much as possible contemporary manifestations of racism, however, ECRI has extended these grounds to include nationality (meaning citizenship of a country), language and religion. In this way, while recognising the role still played by physical characteristics and biological prejudice in contemporary racism, ECRI has tried to encompass the wider cultural dimension of this phenomenon.

In ECRI's opinion, were the notions of racism and racial discrimination confined only to behaviour based on “race” and national or ethnic origin, they would fail to encompass numerous and important manifestations of racism and racial discrimination taking place in European societies today. Moreover, on the basis of its in-depth analysis of the situation in all member States of the Council of Europe, ECRI considers that nowadays racist and racially discriminatory behaviour is in many cases based on a variety of grounds, which often include nationality, language and religion. Consequently, in the day-to-day reality of the situation, it is not possible to keep these grounds separate from one another.