The concept of “race” has been hotly debated at least as far back as World War II, when the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) began examining the concept. In general, race is used to refer to largely biological and genetic indicators, while ethnicity is used to refer to distinctive cultural patterns. However, both designations are socially constructed – the genetic and biological markers used to identify race are still selected based on social and cultural ideas about what differentiates one group from another. This is related to another social construct – xenophobia. Xenophobia, the irrational fear of strangers or foreigners, explicitly engages with ideas of socially constructed insiders and outsiders.
The fact that race and ethnicity are socially constructed categories does not mean that those differences aren’t real in their consequences. In countries around the world, racism and xenophobia affects millions of people. For example, in 2013, 45% of indigenous people in India (Adivasi) lived in poverty and the jobless rate for young black, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi in the UK was 45%.
Negative attitudes towards racial and ethnic minorities that result in bias-motivated crimes are a reflection of larger social dynamics. In the US, for example, immediately after the election of Donald Trump, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a sudden spike in hate incidents, with 867 incidents reported during the week after Trump’s election.
In 2015, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organized a meeting to discuss bias-motivated crimes in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) region, encompassing 57 states from Europe, Central Asia, and North America. During the meeting, twelve civil society organizations reported on the status of migration and impact of the refugee crisis in their countries. One representative discussed the very high rate of racist attacks in Hungary, although those attacks do not seem to be exacerbated by the refugee crisis.
The 2008 European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS) found that the Roma reported the highest rates of victimization, even higher than Sub-Saharan Africans or North Africans, averaging 4.6 incidents of discrimination based on ethnicity per person over the previous twelve months. Within countries, the groups that experienced the most discrimination were: Roma in the Czech Republic (64%), Africans in Malta (63%), Roma in Hungary (62%), Roma in Poland (59%), Roma in Greece (55%), SubSaharan Africans in Ireland (54%), North Africans in Italy (52%), Somalis in Finland (47%), Somalis in Denmark (46%), and Brazilians in Portugal (44%).