South of Watford on Racism in Spain

In the latest in our guest blogging series, Graeme, who has lived and worked in Madrid for almost 10 years, and writes regularly about Spanish current affairs and politics in his excellent blog South of Watford, presents further, detailed analysis of the situation regarding racism in Spain:

I was thinking of participating in the debate on racism in Spain anyway, but with Ben’s permission I’ll turn my comments into a longer post. I have been in Madrid for a similar period to Ben, and have witnessed the same transformation of what used to be a very culturally homogeneous city. I laughed when people said to me 10 years ago that I was moving into an area with a lot of foreigners, having lived for years in London it didn’t seem that way to me. The change has been extraordinarily fast in Spain and estimates now put the number of non-Spanish residents at over 4 million; around 10% of the population. The transformation of what used to be a country of emigration into one that that has a high level of immigration is in the end due to economics; both in Spain where people have become significantly wealthier; and in the countries of origin as people seek an escape from poverty or economic crisis.

It doesn’t make sense to call Spain a racist country, but although I am reasonably optimistic that attitudes to immigrants will improve over time I do think there are some serious problems here.

We live in a different age and it is not common to see the sort of "no dogs, no blacks” signs that landlords in the UK are said to have used to advertise their properties for rental back in the 1950’s. Nor is it common in Spain to see the aggressive, violent, expression of racism that occurs still in other European countries. I do feel, however, that there is an extraordinary high level of casual, lower level racism around at the moment. It is like a surly resentment of the presence of immigrants more than anything else, and it manifests itself in attempts to suggest that foreigners are responsible for all crimes committed in the country, or that they receive privileges not available to native Spaniards. I’m not suggesting these opinions are in any way unique to Spain, but you don’t have to scratch very hard at the moment for them to come directly to the surface. When people have expressed these kinds of feelings to me, I have made a quite genuine offer to buy them a (one-way) bus ticket to Murcia so that they can happily spend their days picking fruit and vegetables and enjoy the alleged privileges of such an existence. No takers so far.

Worse than this perhaps is the institutional response in the country, and here is where I think there is a real difference between Spain and those countries that had high levels of immigration 40 or 50 years ago. The worst racist outburst that I have witnessed in Spain was undoubtedly the 21st Century pogrom that occurred in El Ejido, Almeria, a few years back. Immigrants were burnt out of their homes in an appalling couple of days as local residents set out to put them in their "place”. What made it much worse was that the police stood back and watched it all with folded arms, and I don’t think I have seen a single case of any of those responsible being taken to court for any offence; even though they came very close to killing people. This in an area where huge wealth is being generated by putting immigrants to work in the sea of plastic covered cultivation that stretches along the Mediterranean. It’s as if people want to have all the services that immigrants provide, without having to see or deal with those who do the providing. The reality of the country now is not just that much of the fruit and vegetables are picked by immigrants, virtually the only Spanish thing left on most construction sites is the national flag they like to place on the top floor of a new building, and the people who sweep the streets or clean our homes and offices are increasingly non-Spanish. The simple fact is that, just as in other countries, the immigrants are doing jobs that the natives are no longer interested in doing.

The institutional passivity seen in the case of El Ejido also extends into other worrying cases. We had the infamous outbreak of "white monkey disease” in the Bernabeu stadium a couple of years ago when England played Spain, and a large section of the crowd thought it amusing to imitate monkeys every time a black player touched the ball. Again the institutional response was depressing as the authorities either made excuses or even tried to blame the victims for provoking the incident. No wonder some Spanish soccer stadiums have now become notorious havens for racists.

Things will get better, but it will be harder for that to happen if the authorities in the country are not interested. Or especially where they act to make things worse. In Madrid the regional government is encouraging the use of state funded private schools as a refuge for middle class Spanish parents from having to let their kiddies learn alongside the offspring of immigrants. The first generation of children of immigrants born in Spain will not be as tolerant of such treatment as their parents might be, but in many cases the improvement in treatment of immigrants comes precisely from them being more assertive and showing that they also expect to share some of the benefits of the wealth they contribute to producing. I read a few months ago that Spain might need 2-3 million more immigrants in the next few years. Those here who are struggling to come to terms with that situation really need to do their thinking quite soon, because reality is fast overtaking them.

Read more by Graeme at his blog, South of Watford.

16 thoughts on “South of Watford on Racism in Spain

  1. Katie

    you’re right on about this topic, graeme. i wanted to address particularly the bit about the schools. i work in a public school in chamberí­ (a very central madrid neighborhood), where the population of the school is about 90% or more immigrant children, or children of immigrant parents. the school was not always like this, but as the spanish parents saw more and more immigrant children coming in, they turned to the colegio concertado (state-funded pvt school) just down the street. as a result, my school has been turned into a bit of a ghetto where spanish parents don’t want to send their children due to the high number of immigrants. i see it as a very unhealthy situation for spanish society. why would the government give money to a private school? aren’t they supposed to be supporting the public schools? what is a society if we don’t want to send our children to the public schools? but i can tell you that i have great fun with my kids. they’re smart and enthusiastic and they’re learning tons of english every day.

  2. Robert Duncan

    Ive lived here 18 years, and seen and felt prejudice – but at the same time I think to a certain extent that’s also a bit of life. I remember years back seeing silly polls that Spain had the lowest amount of discrimination in all of the EU — of course they did, when it was only in the late 90s that Spain became a net importer of immigration. The key will be what will happen when immigration reaches closer to 20%, which according to many estimates could happen between 2030 and 2050. I remember writing a WSJ article in 2004 noting there were no ghettos … no go into some areas of Madrid and its only immigrants you see.

    Anyways, nice post.

  3. Carl

    I have to say that the issue you bring to light about the state-funded private schools (kind of an oxymoron though) is outrageous. They actually use public money to segregate Spanish kids from immigrants? I think I see another example of how the Spanish government is creating the problem of the lack of assimilation of immigrants.

  4. Theresa

    In the town where I live the proportion of immigrants at the public school and at the semi-private school is about the same. The semi-private schools here have assistance for immigrant families so they also can choose where to send their children, and there seems to be no racial tension for the moment. My kids go to the semi-private school because they were being pushed to learn basque in the public school, and we have found the semi-private school to be more accepting of different cultures. I know that in other parts of the country there are more problems with the educational sistem than here, and I don’t know what will happen here as more immigrants arrive. In some areas it has become a serious issue and the government needs to do something; they preach a lot of “tolerance” but do very little to solve the problem.

    Carl, are you talking about the fact that the government funds private schools or about the fact that ghettos are forming in certain schools?

  5. phil walker

    I live in Manchester about 5 miles out of the city centre and there’s been a massive influx of Eastern Europeans and African blacks in the area between
    where I live and the city centre. I don’t know what proportion of the population they represent as a whole in Britain, in Manchester, or the fairly small area where they seem to have congregated, but I would say at a guess that there may now be a majority of immigrants in relation to “native” residents in the local area between the city centre and where I live.

    Now I don’t want to sound racist and I hope this doesn’t come out the wrong way, but the bit that got me about South of Watford’s comments is that he says that people are happy to have immigrants do all the poorly paid menial jobs that they don’t want to do and to make lots of money out of them in the process, but that then they don’t want to share the schools with them or live with them. Now that makes perfect sense, but where I live, the people who employ the immigrants on low wages and make a lot of money out of them live nowhere near the immigrants – they live somewhere in cheshire out in the countryside in a big house with no immigrants for miles. The people who do live near the immigrants are finding themselves not able to get ANY job because they have no real skills and qualifications – their only employment prospects are the same menial jobs which the immigrants are going for, which means that the original local residents are either priced out of jobs, or have to except lower wages due to the high demand for these jobs. (I also heard from someone, but don’t know if this is true, that a well-known British supermarket chain employs Polish workers and gets half their wages subsidised by the government, but that this doesn’t apply to english workers, so the english workers obviously don’t get the jobs – is that racist, I don’t know as I don’t know what the criteria for paying half their wages is, if the story is indeed true, but imagine for a moment how you’d feel if it was true, or you heard that it was true and didn’t get the job at the supermarket.)

    Another factor which I think affects South of Watford’s and other commenters’ reactions to this situation is that as immigrants themselves, they are naturally prediposed to seeing the immigrants’ point of view rather than the original locals’ point of view. I’m not saying that this makes racism right in anyway, but Ben, South of Watford and most of the commentators seem to be people who have moved abroad eager to immerse themselves in the culture of the country they have moved to and integrate themselves as fully as possible with the lifestyle of their new country – which is as it should be (at least that’s my opinion – I find myself constantly embarrassed to be British when I’m abroad on holidays, when all I see are the British taking over places and replacing the local food and culture with bacon butties, pie and mash, Guinness and bitter and full english breakfasts (if you want all that, stay in Britain!) Not to mention their complete lack of respect for any of the locals – no wonder prejudice exists as it does!)
    If you happen to live in your country of birth and send your child to, say, a catholic, or C of E school, (which are/were the predominant english religions), and then find that the majority of the children at the school are now immigrants and are muslim, what are you supposed to think when the curriculum changes to give priority to foreign cultures and the muslim religion, with your native culture and religion second bested to that of the immigrants’. Please don’t think that I’m in any way suggesting that the answer to these questions is to burn down the immigrants’ homes and treat the immigrants with any less respect than the natives, but the flipside to that is that there also needs to be some mutual respect for the native religions and culture of the country you’re in, and in Britain, this always seems to be second bested for fear of appearing racist.

    Just as a quick aside, the cleaner who cleans our office at work was telling me about her other cleaning job at the airport where she is on of only two ‘native’ english, the rest of the team of a dozen or so cleaners being Polish. The supervisor suggested that the Poles needed to improve their English skills, as they could barely speak a word, and they suggested that as only two members of the team spoke English, they should learn Polish instead! So, you see there are always two sides to every argument (though to be fair, when you see the english abroad, they would want the locals there to speak english for them, so you can see where the Poles got there argument from!)

    Anyway, the bottom line is that something needs to be done, but in Britain at least, all our politicians who make decisions about these things live in leafy surburbia with no real immigrant population to speak of. So they make decisions that affect both the natives and the immigrants without understanding anything about the problems and concerns of either side. So both parties are left second bested because cheap foreign labour keeps employment costs down for employers and they are the ones the government talk to. The likes of a native briton who can’t get a job because he’s been priced out of it, or the immigrant worker who’s being exploited for poor wages for long hours aren’t really important for them.

    The result of it all is that the immigrants feel like Britiain is exploiting them and the natives think that they’re being invaded and overrun by the foreigners. The next step is Hitler Mark 2 unless the people who live in these places manage to find the common sense to actually care about each other regardless of where we’re from, or why we’re here – and how hard can that be, really?

  6. ValenciaSon

    If the government will pay to marginalize immigrant children, all in the name of harmony, then what won’t the government do to further marginalize immigrants. I hope this gets nipped in the bud, otherwise Spain will repeat all the same mistakes the US and UK committed when managing immigrants.

  7. Graeme

    Well education is controlled at regional level as part of the structure of autonomous comunidades. So it is not the government that directly decides these matters. Hence the different experiences of those who live in different parts of the country. The issue of funding semi-private schools instead of investing the money in the public system is worth a debate on its own, but its a much different matter when it gets spent on creating a two tier system. I have been assured that the concertados are not permitted to cherry pick in the way they seem to be doing in Madrid – but under the benevolent gaze of Esperanza Aguirre all is possible.

  8. Carl

    Theresa, I’m talking about public money being used to fund education that is separate from immigrants. Doesn’t Spain know we went through this “separate but equal” thing about fifty years ago? It is state-sanctioned segregation, just like the South in the 50’s, and was done away with by the Supreme Court.

    As far as “ghettos”, Spain is definitely going to get a lot more of them. The Spanish are not going to like living next to immigrants anymore than they want their children going to school with them. Not saying that this is not normal and part of dealing with getting used to immigration. We (Americans) have been dealing with this since maybe the 1800’s (in New York to start with).

  9. Theresa

    As far as I know, the Spanish government is not spending public money to keep immigrants out of certain schools. These schools (concertados) were originally created by the Church to accomodate parents who wanted their children to have a Catholic education, and at that time the government was Catholic. They are remnants of a sistem that no longer exists, since the government is supposedly secular. These schools should eventually become public (althouth there’s no word on that for now), but at this time the government wouldn’t be able to cover the costs of transforming these schools. Right now they only pay the teachers’ salaries, which happen to be lower than those in public schools, and a small part of the maintenance. The rest ends up being covered by the parents, which for many families is a burden they can’t bear. I think the discrimination here is not racial, but economic. There are lots of Spanish kids that can’t go to these schools either, but it is true that immigrants tend to be poorer, so they are at a disadvantage. The influx of immigrants has become much greater in recent years, and the government needs to start looking at the changes this is causing in Spanish society. There have been some proposals for integrating immigrants in the semi-private schools, but this is still in the early stages.

    And, as far as the U.S. having solved the problem of discrimination in schools, there seem to be a lot of people who wouldn’t agree. Here’s just one article about how minority kids are at a disadvantage in the U.S. educational sistem. Here is another on how whites still have an advantage over blacks when applying for a job. I hope someday all children will have equal access to a good education, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work from everyone.

  10. Carl

    Thanks for that Theresa. I never said the U.S. solved the problem of discrimination – of course not. That is a human problem, we all have it. I am simply saying that public money has to be available to all people regardless of race. It would be against the law to have government money (i.e., the semi-private schools) available to only some Americans and not others.

  11. Carl

    Oops, one more thing! I bet most people in Spain would be very surprised to know that in California if a child shows up to school he/she must be educated by law. The schools are not allowed to ask if they are legal residents. They go to class right along with any other “American” child.

    I forgot to ask the commenters, What is the definition of “immigrant”? Are we talking about legal residents in Madrid?

  12. Theresa

    You’re right that public money has to be available to all, but these schools are open to everyone. The problem is that the government doesn’t fund them 100%, so parents have to make up the difference, which means that many families can’t afford them. I think the educational system needs a reform, and more economic assistance given to poorer families, so they can send their children to the school of their choice. This is just one of the many changes that should be made in education; like the policy about school books. Parents have to pay for those even in public schools, and they are usually not reusable, since the editions change nearly every year. I think the system we had in the U.S. when I was a kid (I don’t know if it has changed since then) is a pretty good one. The state bought the books, which were lent to the students, who returned them at the end of each year. Not only would that be more ecological (less material getting thrown away), it would also take a huge burden off the parents. I have 3 kids and we spend over 200 euros per child on books each year, and rarely can reuse any of these books, and this also happens in public schools. There are lots of things like this that need to be fixed, but the government doesn’t seem to take these kinds of things seriously (PSOE and PP alike).

  13. Katie

    the teacher’s salaries are lower in the concertados because they don’t have to pass an oposición like teachers in a public elementary school do. this is similar to public and private schools in the states: to teach in most private schools you don’t need as many qualifications as for the public schools, but the pay is lower.

    considering catholic religion is still offered at the public schools in spain, i’m just not really sure why the concertados continue to exist.

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