On 15 April this year, I had the opportunity to follow the Online conference on Roma equality, inclusion and participation in the EU organised by Portugal’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union and by the General Secretariat of the Council. During the first panel, the speakers emphasized the importance of political will and education to advance Roma equality. More concretely, Maria Casa Nova highlighted the fundamental value of education and referred to it as a ‘portable wealth’, not only because it is intangible but also because knowledge is power (Michael Young). According to Michael Young, knowledge is powerful ‘if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables you to envisage alternatives’, but also if it gives us knowledge that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to, if it is systematic and specialized. In our current knowledge-based societies, data lies at the heart of knowledge. Therefore, equality data must be the basso ostinato of a Union of Equality.
At national level, some collective initiatives have been launched to counter the lack of political measures to collect race equality data. For instance, in Germany, where more than one million people of African descent live, Each One Teach One, a community-based education and empowerment project, initiated a project called Afrozensus. The project aims, through data collection and analysis, at obtaining a comprehensive picture of the experiences of people of African descent in Germany. However, the lack of resources makes this crucial work difficult and exceptional. This type of situation, very common in Europe, leads to the equality data paradigm. In some countries there is little recognition that discrimination and racism is a problem because this assumption is based on data such as the number of complaints and findings of violation at judicial proceedings, which relies on victims having come forward and ignores underreporting. Therefore, national authorities conclude that there are not many cases of discrimination to support additional policy measures including the improvement of race equality data collection. Can you picture the snake biting its own tail?
In this matter, I recognise a European and personal interest in absurdism. I often revisit the writings of Eugène Ionesco and the screenplays written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The bizarre situations they depict, so apparently far from reality, remind me that I am not the only one who notices inconsistencies. But there is nothing as absurd as fixing a problem that we cannot see. It would be absurd to dismantle the myth that everyone’s lives are the same, without disaggregated data to prove otherwise. Likewise, it would be absurd to challenge the burden of proof in legal proceedings, without providing reliable statistical data presented by the competent public bodies. It is absurd to denounce racism when there are apparently no racialised people in Europe.
In a European Union built on equality as a founding value, race inequalities and discrimination cast a long shadow of injustice which demands our attention. This is also emphasized by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, whose State of the Union address in 2020, placed the fight against racism and discrimination at the center of Europe’s commitment to equality. Following her statement, the European Commission adopted the EU anti-racism action plan 2020-2025 on 18 September 2020. To a certain extent, the Action Plan reaffirms the Joint Declaration against Racism and Xenophobia of 1986, in which combatting racism was set as a priority goal on the agenda of the EU policy framework more than 35 years ago. In other words, the fight against racism in Europe is like an old protest song with an enduring relevance: inspiring to many, controversial to a few but still largely prevailing.
Within the European Union several legal instruments aim to address race discrimination. The Race Equality Directive (RED), adopted in 2000, lays down a framework for combating discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin across Europe. Yet in 2021, the report of the European Commission on the application of the equality directives paints a dire picture of the reality on the ground. At the same time, various European and national stakeholders agreed on the urgent call for improvement and point at a common barrier, which you have probably heard of at almost every race equality related event: the lack of (race) equality data.
Indeed, the urgent need for racial/ethnic equality data collection in a coherent and comprehensive manner has been highlighted by many. Some national equality bodies and NGOs, such as the European Network Against Racism or the European Roma Rights Center have been advocating for a long time to collect equality data on the ground of racial or ethnic origin in order to reveal inequalities and design effective equality policies. At the European and the international level, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance have regularly expressed their concern about the lack of updated disaggregated data and recommended collecting statistical data on the socio-economic situation of ethnic groups, but the success of these calls remains elusive.
The demand is getting louder, and equality data seems to be finally gaining our attention. But what are we talking about when we refer to equality data collection?
Equality data can be collected by means of surveys, censuses, administrative processes (e.g., employment data), complaints data or research, among other sources. Within these sources, any piece of information or set of values, whether qualitative or quantitative, that is useful for describing and analysing the state of equality can be referred to as equality data. Moreover, personal information connected to certain characteristics such as race or ethnic origin are considered sensitive data, and therefore it is more severely protected requiring the data subject’s informed consent. This is one of the reasons why, in general, inequalities based on racial and ethnic origin can only be assessed with reference to proxies, mainly citizenship and migration, categories that do not require consent, but do not represent ethnicity per se given the modern European multicultural societies.
The controversial nature of race equality data is manifest. I read and discuss the subject with colleagues, and I must acknowledge the lack of consensus. The visibility that we advocate for also raises doubts. Some argue that this data collection essentializes ethnic groups or even contributes to race discrimination. Others are concerned that measuring the difference is widening the social divide based on race or ethnic origin. Lastly, there are a few who defend that the concept of race is out of date and Europe already represents a plural society. So, I have to ask myself again whether it matters that in Europe one belongs or is associated with a race or an ethnic group, and I would like to think that it does not. But reality tells us a very different story.
As I am writing this blogpost, according to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, racism remains a persistent and widespread problem in Europe. Being a child of Roma origin implies 85% risk to be in poverty and 61% of facing housing deprivation. Being a black woman gives you a 25% chance to feel racially discriminated against when looking for work, and you are 84% more likely than white women to be targeted in abusive or problematic tweets. FRA reports point out to 39% of Jewish persons or Muslim women, who wear headscarves in public, having experienced some form of harassment in the last 12 months. Unsurprisingly, I myself have suffered racial profiling on several occasions. I have asked my mother, who is white, to accompany me when visiting rental apartments, to ensure I had the same options as other interested candidates; and have been stopped systematically by police in traffic controls. But I am much more shocked to see still today how being racialized can result in much further harm, such as police brutality, homelessness or even worse, life deprivation. However, these are experiences and information that are either anecdotal or based on surveys asking about perceptions and personal experiences. The sheer number of such experiences suffices to paint an overview picture, but this is not yet comprehensive and comprable statistical information.
Because history taught us that discrimination can result in much further harm, there is a certain reluctance from both data subjects and institutions to provide and collect sensitive data in European countries.
Moreover, this challenge is reinforced by the lack of political will illustrated by the lukewarm support shown by national authorities for new measures pertaining to race equality data collection. While some countries misinterpret the EU General Data Protection Regulation requirements as an obstacle to the collection of racial or ethnic data, others remain over-reliant on the use of proxies such as country of origin, for measuring discrimination based on the racial and ethnic origin which does not disclose an in-depth view of discrimination affecting descendants of immigrants, Afro-Europeans, Asian descendants, Muslims and Roma. In addition, the use of proxies leads to methodological inconsistencies. For instance, because different data sources often rely on diverging proxies and categorisations, race equality data are often not comparable.
Equality bodies are key to make equality a reality in Europe. In collaboration with civil society, equality bodies carry out extensive work at the national level, including data collection reform initiatives, complaints data collection and performing ad hoc surveys. At the European level, Equinet disseminates the data collected by equality bodies through reports and events, ensuring that knowledge on discrimination is shared with leaders and decision-makers. Some equality bodies have also played central roles in race equality data initiatives. In Germany, the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency (FADA) commissioned a study in 2018 on the status of equality data. The study included the perspectives of groups affected and produced a systematic overview of how equality data is collected as well as insights on how to increase the range of equality data obtained. However, due to the lack of sufficient human and financial resources, most equality bodies can only conduct such ad hoc surveys rather than systematically collecting data that would be comparable over time.
Looking forward, race equality data has the potential to make the Union of Equality a reality. Its wide range of purposes can be summed up in one word: REVEAL. Equality data provides essential information to evaluate and monitor the Realization of fundamental rights across equality grounds, including race or ethnic origin. Equality statistics are useful in Establishing whether discrimination takes place, in particular, indirect discrimination (e.g., D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic), at judicial proceedings. Equality data can also provide Visibility to the nature and extent of discrimination, by directly feeding information into -awareness-raising and communication activities. In a similar vein, equality data constitutes the Evidence that researchers need to further increase our understanding of discrimination. Additionally, equality data must be the underpinning of any policy measure, because it provides decision-makers with the information they need to take the best course of Action in addressing inequalities and fighting systemic racism. Lastly, the compilation of equality statistics shed Light on the current situation of equal access to different areas across life, including employment, education, health, justice and provision of goods and services.
However, there is room for further improvement. The set-up of the Subgroup on Equality Data by the European Commission and its Guidelines on improving the collection and use of equality data was a promising step forward. Likewise, the proposal in the EU Roma strategic framework for the use of a portfolio of indicators to ensure more effective data collection, reporting and monitoring of progress was a long-awaited tool. This must be followed by additional measures. For instance, a general requirement under the EU equality Directives to collect, analyse and use equality data in particular as regards data disaggregated by racial or ethnic origin would be a major step to strengthen the fight against racism. This should be reinforced by an infringement procedure when a State continues to misinterpret the EU General Data Protection Regulation as not permitting data collection on the basis of racial and ethnic origin. Moreover, competent EU-level and national stakeholders, such as equality bodies and NGOs, should be supported with the resources to collect comparable equality data. Lastly, cooperation and coordination between relevant stakeholders, including target groups, is essential for methodological harmonization to ensure data comparability.
Yet, I wonder if knowing what we need to do will be enough. Could it be that the real reason why States across Europe do not collect systematic disaggregated equality data is the same reason why individuals are afraid to recognise our contradictions? Because once recognised, we have to confront them. This is the time to put forward measures that can tackle this essential issue, and the Equinet working group on research and data collection is ready to play a central role in their successful implementation.
 The theory builds on the European Commission (2016), European Handbook on Equality Data – 2016 Revision. The systematization of the information through REVEAL belongs to the author of the blog.
The views on this blog are always the authors’ and they do not necessarily reflect Equinet’s position.