Parliamentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar asked for feedback on a draft anti-racism policy. I say “draft”. The document her office published had some interesting survey results dotted with unimpeachable commonplace declarations. But it did not actually propose any policy at all. Nothing which rabid racists could criticise and attack as treason.

The government has left it to others to step into that fire first. Anti-racism should not be that difficult. A policy for gender equality, or the inclusion of persons with disability, or the protection of children from abuse is not controversial. Certainly, there are people who discriminate against women, persons with disability, children and so on. But they know better than to argue their reasons openly.

Things are different when talking about treating people of other races as equals. The controversy is itself an indicator of the ingrained racial prejudice of this country. It starts from the top.

Consider the decisions taken last April when we were deep in the throes of panicked paranoia over COVID. The prime minister ordered the army to hold back on completing a rescue operation at sea which was under their responsibility. Twelve people drowned as a result. The government and the army denied any responsibility. The police ignored the case. And a magistrate absolved everyone in record time, except the victims and anyone who spoke for them.

Since then, the government has adopted policies with different shades of hate. They pushed back migrants to hellish concentration camps in Libya. They imprisoned migrants at sea. They used migrants as human shields in a dispute with European institutions.

The ‘full up’ mantra has become the succinct heading for this brutal policy. Consider how the prime minister clarifies that Malta is not too full for migrants brought in at employers’ requests to work in the economy. But it is ‘too full’ to save migrants drowning at sea. That, I’m afraid, is not realpolitik: that is racism as policy.

It is not just about the callousness of letting people drown or collaborating (even indirectly) with militiamen flagged by the UN for humanitarian atrocities to fish migrants out of the water and throw them into the fire of desert lagers. It’s also about the mentality of racial hierarchy where “we, the Maltese” sit on top of a pyramid propped up by discriminating laws.

Recall for a moment remarks made by Malta’s prime minister on TV in May 2019, not quite an eternity ago. He said he “would rather see foreigners, rather than Maltese, carry out certain non-skilled jobs, such as picking up rubbish or doing manual labour out in the sun”.  There’s a word for that: apartheid. And yes, it’s racist.

Fighting racism requires an acceptance by those who proclaim to be against it of the universality of human rights. That includes the right, fundamental to the human condition, of breaking the chains that hold them down and assert their call for freedom. But when migrants in indefinite and squalid detention raise their voices in protest, we imprison them en masse.

We also ignore the right of anyone to seek to better themselves. We speak of ‘economic migrants’ as we speak of criminals, when it is inherent to the human condition to seek a better life for oneself and one’s family. If we refuse to see that in others, when we recognise this so well in ourselves, we are being – you’ve guessed it – racist.

We speak of ‘economic migrants’ as we speak of criminals- Manuel Delia

Our country is comfortable denying economic migrants liberty indefinitely, restraining them in inhuman misery, letting them out briefly to collect our rubbish and work in the hot sun. Shedding any comfort is painful and Repubblika has responded to Rosianne Cutajar’s call with recommendations that might just show how painful it is.

Since too many rights are reserved for citizens living here, any semblance of equality requires us to make anyone who has lived here for a number of years, wherever they were born, however they first got here, citizens of this country.

Equality and liberty are intertwined. People of all races should have the right to vote. That will not solve all problems. We still discriminate between women and men, but we have come far in the last 100 years, further than we would have if women were still denied the vote. The road to racial equality starts with democracy.

It will be harder for racialist policies to survive when the government is accountable to all races. And when all races are within government: mayors, parliamentarians, senior civil servants, judges, even – can you imagine? – police officers and soldiers.

Will the Tiger King hand out flowers to black soldiers? Will One TV film the charade if he did?

Institutional change must be matched with cultural change. We still tell our children a whiggish history of this country where we have reached a stage of national nirvana thanks to past interventions by Paul the Apostle, Roger the Norman and Jean de Valette. Our history as we read it gives us an entitlement to superiority, a right to sit on top of this pyramid of apartheid. That needs to be scrapped along with the eurocentrism with which we teach all the humanities, in schools, on public TV, in political discourse.

That brings to front and centre the question of what it means to be Maltese. For the racists, unconscious or wilful, being Maltese is an immutable notion. This is what we are. If you don’t like it, go back to your country. That is why we address our ‘integration policies’ to change immigrants and mould them in our own image. And that is why a black man can never be ‘Maltese’. That is not integration. That is assimilation. That is racist.

Read Repubblika’s submissions on repubblika.org.

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