Racial discrimination in Sweden with Paul Lappalainen

“It is by working with others that change comes about”

After the panel discussion on March 21st, we continued the conversation on racial discrimination issues with Paul Lappalainen, American lawyer and member of the European Network of experts in gender equality and non-discrimination. We focused our conversation on the Swedish legal framework and how civil society could claim it to drive change. You can read here about the main ideas we shared. Feel free to listen to the entire conversation below to learn more!

Sweden is usually not the first country that comes to mind when one thinks of racism or racial discrimination. Yet, as in many European countries, it has been part of its history and it is still an issue today.

“Racism is part of Swedish’s history. If you look at how we treated the Romas, if you look at how we treated Jews, how we treated Finns, how we treated the Samis. That history is part of recent history.”

Nowadays, racial discrimination in Sweden manifest itself in many areas such as education, housing or the employment policies. Paul rightly pointed out during our conversation; the question is not really where it occurs but rather where it does not.

Could education be the key to move towards the end of racial discrimination?

Even though, there is no doubt that education is part of the process, it can’t be the only mean. In reality, “equality promotion goes hand in hand with the legal side”.

Indeed, “if equality promotion is used to enlighten people about when they’re being discriminated against, and what they can do about it [..] that in turn provides better cases for the equality Ombudsman or anti-discrimination organizations and civil society to take to Court”.

How can anti-discrimination law be an effective tool for the civil society to counter racial discrimination?

The Swedish anti-discrimination legal framework does exist, and it is quite advanced compared to other European countries. The problem lies in its implementation as well as in the fact that we consider law as the solution when it is certainly more of a tool.

“The law itself, is words on paper, they don’t mean anything until you get some real life into them.”

This means that anti-discrimination laws must be used and claimed by civil society, including through cases brought in front of courts. Indeed, the case-law, appears to be necessary to allow laws to possibly drive some concrete changes. The case-law provides an interpretation of the text derived from individual cases. As such, it represents a mean for the victims to hold accountable people in power to discriminate.

Law can also be an effective tool for dispersed groups to gather and gain influence. In front of sometimes competing interests, organizations and groups of individuals can use it to move a common goal.

“If they gather around that kind of issue, they can realise that they have some influence. […] That way they empower themselves.”

Civil society as a drive for change in the legislation

Yet, if law is a tool, it does not prevent racial discrimination from happening.
In Paul’s opinion, to move towards this objective, we need to focus more on the actors with the power to discriminate and find a way to change their behavior.

“Once you get people with power to realise that they’re part of the problem, they can also be an important part of the solution. […] But you have to figure out how to move them.”

Once again, civil society has an important role to play, if not the most important one. We have to put non-discrimination and equality issue “on the agenda” to obtain changes in the legislation.

Indeed, as Paul reminded us, it is important to keep in mind that all the legal tools we have were borrowed from the United States and Canada. More than that, “they have to do with the struggles”. The reason why these laws were adopted, the spark, it “was civil society, it wasn’t well-meaning politicians”.

Also available on Spotify here.

Read Paul Lappalainen 2020 Country Report on Sweden and non-discrimination here.

This podcast is part of the second event of the Swedish Human Rights Film Festival dedicated to the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It is the second of a serie of additional materials the Institute would like to share with you in order to continue the conversation on this topic.

Learn more about the Swedish Human Rights Film Festival organized by the Institute in collaboration with Kino Lund and explore our movie and podcast suggestions on various themes on its website.

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