The Swedish government announced that it plans to remove all mentions of race from Swedish legislation, saying that race is a social construct which should not be encouraged in law.
“We know that different human races actually do not exist,” Swedish Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag told Sveriges Television (SVT).
“We also know that the fundamental grounds of racism are based on the belief that there are different races, and that belonging to a race makes people behave in a certain way, and that some races are better than others.”
The concept of race is included in around 20 Swedish laws, including criminal code, student financial aid laws, and credit information laws. On Thursday the Swedish government began an investigation into how to remove the concept from all legislation, as has been done in Austria and Finland.
“Legislation should not include the word race, if we argue that there are not actually races,” Ullenhag said. “I have wanted to remove the concept of race for a long time.”
Oscar Pripp, associate professor of ethnology at Uppsala University, welcomed the idea. He said that the concept of race is necessary to understand people’s social behaviour, but that it is not necessary in law.
“It sounds rather sensible,” Pripp told The Local. “Not to scrap the word entirely, but that it should not be included as a concept in legislation, because then you’re saying that there are indeed different races.”
Pripp went on to say that race in and of itself does not exist, but is rather something that is “done” in society, such as in the labour market, housing market, and other areas.
The proposal has come under sharp criticism, however, from the National Afro-Swedish Association (Afrosvensarnas Riksförbund, ASR).
“This scientific racism that Ullenhag is focused on, when he says that racism is based on believing in different races, is not true,” Kitimbwa Sabuni, spokesperson for the ASR, told The Local.
“How many people in Sweden really think that way? Maybe 100. That’s not the problem. Racism existed before the concept of race biology. Scientific racism is just one chapter in the story of race and racism.”
Sabuni concurred that race is a social construction, but from there his views diverged.
“Just because it’s a social construction doesn’t mean it’s not a reality,” Sabuni said. “For us, this is just trying to take away the possibility to even talk about it. It’s critical.”
Sabuni said the government’s plan would be a serious roadblock in the fight against racism. He also stressed that those impacted by racism should be consulted before such a decision is taken.
“How can you apply for a grant for fighting racism if the concept of race doesn’t exist in legislation? Racism will disappear de facto from the agenda. The government is lost in a fantasy, a fantasy which counteracts effective work against racism.”
The government has assigned chief district court Judge Erica Hemtke the task of investigating the issue, as well as looking into expanding protection of transgender people in Swedish legislation. Both assignments should be completed by December 7th, 2015.
Click here to read The Local’s follow-up interview with Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag about the decision.