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Is there racism in Latvia? 2

Racism and xenophobia are phenomena that are convincingly represented in Latvia’s society. Research shows that 11% of Latvians are prepared to deny the right of black people to enter Latvia, while 70% of citizens would be suspicious of people with non-traditional sexual orientations.

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Two opposing trends have recently been seen in many European countries, as well as in the European Union as such. On the one hand, societies in these countries are becoming increasingly intolerant toward immigrants and various kinds of minorities. There is increasing hatred toward Asians, Africans, Roma or simply immigrants. On the other hand, countries and international institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union are trying to find new legal and public mechanisms to fight against these trends, which can be described in a single word - racism. In order to determine the extent to which this is a serious problem in Latvia, I will first provide a brief look at definitions. Then I will try to look at the situation in Latvia and determine the short-term steps which our country should take in this area.

Racism can be defined as a biased evaluation of one’s fellow human being on the basis of that human being’s collective belonging. Racism is closely linked to the social phenomenon of xenophobia - a hostile attitude toward concrete individuals which emanates from racist thinking. The widespread presence of racism and xenophobia in society can lead to the institutionalization of these prejudices in government, and that often causes discrimination against whole groups of people. Discrimination is usually defined as consciously unequal evaluation of people on the basis of their collective belonging, race, ethnic origin, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

People in Latvia have usually claimed that there is no racism in Latvia. There are at least two reasons for these views. First of all, there are very few residents in Latvia who are not white. Secondly, the existence of these views is influenced by the Soviet past of Latvia’s society. Racism officially “did not exist” in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. The same was true of sex and other forms of “immorality” that were attributed to capitalist societies. Partly for this reason, many people in Latvia still feel that racism is a problem only in Western countries, where there have traditionally been many blacks or Asians.

Sadly, research over the last few years demonstrates that this is an erroneous view. Racism and xenophobia are convincingly represented phenomena in Latvia.

In 1998, for example, Baltic Data House conducted a survey that found that approximately 11% of Latvians would be prepared to deny the right of black people to enter Latvia, while 70% of citizens would be ready to mistrust or be suspicious about a person with a non-traditional sexual orientation. A study in 1996, meanwhile, showed that under conditions of serious unemployment, 52% of Latvia’s residents would be prepared to offer a job only to people from their own ethnic group. In this context, the infamous book “We Will not Give Latvia to Anyone”, which was published by the Vieda publishing house, must also be seen as racist, because it promotes bias against specific groups of individuals.

What are we to conclude from this? First of all, these examples illustrate the fact that collective and thus prejudiced thinking is still very common in our society. Secondly, it means that under specific circumstances (increased immigration, a worsening in the economic situation), these racist biases may lead to violence or discrimination against specific ethnic groups.

What should be done here? We do not have to reinvent the bicycle. In order to reduce the level of racism, xenophobia and related discrimination which exists or is possible in the future, the European Union in June 2000 approved a directive which obliges member states to take specific steps in eliminating racial discrimination in the social and economic sphere. The directive’s demands must be included into national law, and public understanding must be promoted. Candidate countries must harmonize their laws with those of the European Union by 2003.

If we look at the situation in Latvia, then we must conclude that in order to bring the directive’s principles to life, we must engage in an in-depth study of public values, laws and the way in which laws are implemented. I believe that the greatest problems will be caused not by the harmonization of laws, but rather by the interpretation of these laws at the administrative level, as well as by the need for changes in the system of values which people hold.

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