Belgians with roots in Sub-Saharan Africa still suffer the effects racism in our society

Monday 21 March is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial discrimination. Although progress has been made over the years, racism is still very much an issue that blights society. According to figures published by the Inter-Federal Equal Opportunities Centre Unia, the problem is particularly acute for Belgians with roots in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than a quarter of the reports of discrimination and racism that were made to Unia came from Belgians of Sub-Saharan African descent. 

Unia calls for the greater use of so-called “practical tests” such as mystery calls to, for example, landlords and employers to help stamp out discrimination. In its report on the discrimination suffered by people of Sub-Saharan descent in Belgium Unia tables a series of recommendations. It is above all in the field of employment, housing and education that the discrimination and inequality suffered by this group is most acute. The contrast between the sometimes high level of educational attainment and the relatively low level of employment within this group in our society is particularly striking.

Unia’s Director Els Keytsman (photo above) says that skin colour is still all too often an issue in Belgian society. "What our research shows is that the darker the colour of your skin is, the more discrimination and racism you face."

Discrimination in education

Complaints that reach Unia relating to racism cover different fields. "There is a lot of discrimination on the housing market and that is a really issue," Els Keytsman says. "But it has its root in education, where there is still too much prejudice. This is often subconscious, but it nonetheless shows the difficulty and the structural nature of the problem. It is often that children of African descent are unable to choose the courses that they wish to study at school”

Worrying situation on the labour market

Among the general population the employment rate rises according to the level of academic attainment. However, this is not the case among people of foreign descent in general and of Sub-Saharan African descent in particular, the Unia study explains.

As a whole people of Sub-Saharan descent in Belgium have the lowest employment rates of any group in society. At 59.7%, the employment rate among people of Sub-Saharan African descent with degrees (Bachelor or Masters) is far lower than among other groups with the same level of academic attainment. It is in fact far closer to the 55% employment level among all people of (white) Belgian descent.

Skin colour also has an impact on salary with employees of Sub-Saharan African descent that have a degree more likely finding themselves on lower salary scales than people of other ethnic origins that have the same level of qualifications. The difference in salary between Belgians of Sub-Saharan African descent and white Belgians with the same level of attainment in higher education is around 30%. 

Els Keytsman says that Unia receives many complaints about discrimination in the workplace.  "A striking example is the case of a supermarket where there is also a butcher's shop. Due to comments from customers who did not want to be served by a black butcher the man was fired. We took the supermarket to court, and he won the case because it was a blatant case of racism."

More practical tests

Unia advocates positive action to counter racism in our society. The organisation wants more “practical tests” to be carried to detect and discourage racist and discriminatory behaviour. 

"Thanks to what are called "mystery calls", it is possible to find out objectively whether there is racism or discrimination" Ms Keytsman explains “So we are pleased that the legislator has simplified the rules relating to such tests”.

Unia wants to go further and calls for a national plan to tackle racism. "So many years after the great world conference against racism in Durban in 2001, it is high time that our country - which was also present at this conference - puts in place a national action plan against racism. We hope that 'there will be a global plan in place as soon as possible and that also the necessary funding will be made available to fight racism", Ms Keytsman said.


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