Approaching hate crimes in Finland: problem solver or angry boss?

by , under Mark

boss-yellingEnrique mentions an interesting comment from a policeman in Mikkeli talking about racism, who compares racism to being hassled when he returns to his home town because he is now a policeman. The comparison is very poor, but it’s also very telling. It is from our mistakes that we really can learn the most.

In the absence of real knowledge about the effects of being racially abused, harassed or assaulted, the policeman can be seen filling in the gap by trying to draw on his own experience. That’s perfectly normal, but it’s also horribly inadequate and dangerous, particularly when it’s a public official. He assumes that because his comparison is to him a minor thing, then racial abuse must also be a minor thing for other people too.

This illustrates all too well that public officials lack the appropriate training. And without it, they just fill in the blanks with their own made up theories and ‘common sense’, which can have the effect of downplaying the significance for the victim of the abuse they suffer as well as completely failing to see or ask what can be done about it and by whom.

Another key thing strikes me. The policeman sees this as a specifically individual problem: It’s caused by individuals and must be dealt with by the individuals involved. The person being abused must make allowances and ‘adapt’ to the abuse. The policeman doesn’t even begin to ask the question of what factors in society, the community, the life of the people involved are making this possible, more likely, or even tolerated. It’s easier to tell someone they must change their behaviour than to try to change the complex and extensive social world in which we live.

We belong to society in the same way that workers belong to an organisation. When an organisation has poor practices and a culture of incompetence that seeks to explain away mistakes by blaming individuals (the angry boss response!), the opportunities for correcting poor management, planning, education, training, and communication disappear. The same can be said for the phenomenon of racism, which is the culmination not only of individual attitudes, but also a set of conditions and practices within society that makes racism more likely.

A similar attempt to individualise problems happens in other immigrant-related issues. Joblessness, poor acquisition of language skills, poverty, and benefit dependency are all seen as exclusively the fault of the immigrants themselves, who are described variously as incompetent, lazy, uncivilised, exploiters, predators, etc. The faults or inefficiencies in the system are ignored.

Going back to our example, when an employer sets out to blame employees for all the mistakes or inefficiencies in the workplace, the employer has effectively put up a barrier to fixing the problem. Many problems can be solved by simply making it impossible for the error to occur, by changing or modifying equipment, by changing practices, by putting in safeguards and checklists, by educating, by increasing the number of personnel etc. While the education of employees is important,  it is good to remember that it is also the least effective method for diminishing errors or inefficiencies. We need more than just media campaigns to stamp out racism.

We need to look at the conditions in society that make racism acceptable, possible and likely. For some people, the answer is that immigrants are the problem, simply because of their mere presence. Such a hate-filled response is a bit like blaming the patient for a failure in medical care. It’s clearly insane.

If you want to ensure that an immigrant isn’t discriminated against in the market place, then employers need to understand what constitutes discrimination. If the ‘labelling’ is poor, then the patient can easily get the wrong medicine. Employers who tell themselves that an immigrant ‘won’t fit into the existing workplace’ think they are giving the right medicine to their organisation, but actually, they are poisoning their organisation, poisoning the immigrant, and poisoning the wider society, because higher unemployment becomes a bigger problem for society and can feed racism and hate-filled grievance.

Another example is how to implement appropriate ‘alarm’ systems so that we are doing all we can to prevent discrimination. One such alarm would be an indicator of how many immigrants an organisation employs, which can be compared to local or relevant demographic data. This is not an idea about quotas, but a way to draw attention to possible poor employment practices that are disadvantaging immigrants. In some sectors, immigrants are overrepresented in the workforce, and this too can be an alarm bell that they are being exploited, either as cheap labour, or in poor working conditions. How we choose to act on this information as a society is a question on its own, but without alarm bells many situations that threaten social cohesion, justice and normal living for immigrants can all too easily be ignored or go unnoticed.

Any minority in society needs special protection and safeguards. This requires a society wide approach!

Yes, the individual is important. An immigrant needs to be equipped and willing to do the jobs that are available. But it’s all too easy to blame an immigrant if they don’t have exactly the right skills. Yet an employer who ignores the capacities of employees or fails to provide up-to-date training and career advancement opportunities will very quickly find any workforce inadequate.

In just the same way an employer has a responsibility to ensure the staff are properly equipped for the jobs they need to do, so too does society need to equip immigrants to take advantage of their citizenship. Employees have responsibilities too, but the more conscientious the ’employer’, the more they avoid a ‘blame culture’ approach to problems, then the more the ‘staff’ are willing and able to realise their own individual potential.

So, the key message for me is that we need to take a less individual approach to immigration issues, especially racism, and to look at the wider conditions of society that perpetuate racist behaviour and attitudes. We need to build in more safeguards to make discrimination in various ways impossible, or at the very least to build in comprehensive and adequate monitoring and alarm systems that can alert us to the problem and give some clue as to a solution.

We need to get out of this ridiculous blame game and this pointing the finger at individuals – or ethnic groups as if they were individuals. It should be clear to all of us that an individual functions in a society. Ignoring or dismissing ‘the society’ part of the bargain is like an organisation claiming that its own management and workplace practices have no role whatsoever in the behaviour and effectiveness of its staff.