A typically luke-warm appraisal of the situation from Rutte, though other parties suggested concrete action
Translated by Thomas Ansell
A large number of Dutch political parties want the Netherlands to make an official apology for the countries’ centuries long participation in the slave trade, however PM Mark Rutte (VVD), thinks that this is “not wise”, and will only serve to polarise the ‘racism debate’ in the Netherlands.
Wednesday evening’s debate around racism in the Tweede Kamer was hectic, reports Trouw, and shows that politicians have few answers for addressing institutional racism in society. Rutte himself suggested that an apology was possible; it would follow previous Dutch apologies to those who suffered through brutal Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia, and to Dutch Jews following the complicit actions of the occupied government in the Second World War. According to Rutte though, due to many years having passed there are no direct victims of the Dutch slave trade any more, adding that the slave trade happened in ‘different times’, and that any apology would make society more polarised.
Realities for thousands of people such as racist chants at football matches, discrimination in job-seeking, POC renters being denied housing; the whiteness of historical teaching: these are all concrete examples of systemic racism in the Netherlands today. But the Dutch parliament has never debated racism; and never considered the idea of ‘systemic racism’ in the Dutch context.
‘Systemic racism’ refers to the shutting-out and discriminating against of people through both formal rules and informal social norms; in government agencies and other areas, due to their skin tone or ethnicity.
Since the scope of this definition is wide, it makes it difficult for a parliament to get a grip on the matter. The debate flew hither and thither, with lots of different examples of racism on multiple levels put forward. This also meant that some well-known politicians were able to shoehorn their own personal causes into the debate, with well-known political impresario Geert Wilders repeating his usual lines on ‘mass immigration’, and Esther Ouwehand (Partij voor de Dieren) still managing to mention animal rights in a debate on human rights.
Naturally, some parties are incapable of grasping the issue, anyway. Witness, for example, Wilders saying that “I just don’t see racism”, and his alt-right equivalent Theo Hiddema calling it “group-bravery-psychosis”.
Luckily there were some adults in the room to provide constructive approaches. Some were eminently practicable, for example more powers to the Arbeidsinspectie (who check to see that non-discriminatory hiring practices are kept to), no longer giving government contracts to companies that flout those rules, and stronger punishment for hate-crimes. Both ChristenUnie and GroenLinks will be presenting these ideas in a proposal this week.
Other parties suggested more symbolic gestures; with an apology for Dutch-administered slavery being supported by D66, ChristenUnie, GroenLinks; and Denk.
According to Rutte, lots of companies have expressed their regret over their awful pasts of slave-trading and colonialism, but no country has made an official apology. “It’s a really emotional discussion”, he said. Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) admonished the PM for that comment: “it might be painful, but racism isn’t a debate or an opinion”. Gert-Jan Segers (ChristenUnie) said that he hopes that Rutte will hold the door open for an apology in the future.
Other ideas put forward in the debate include a national museum of slavery (GroenLinks), or a year of remembrance in 2023 (D66). The PvdA suggested opening a national commission to research into racism in the Netherlands; whilst the Partij voor de Dieren suggested shelving the horribly racist Gouden Koets carriage that the Dutch royal family still ride in.
Rutte suggested that he thought that the year of remembrance idea was good: 2023 is exactly 150 years after the Dutch actually did away slavery. Though the official abolition of the law was passed ten years earlier, as in many countries ex-slaves were bound to their former ‘owners’ for a further ten years of work.
A complicating factor is that the debate was held in an overwhelmingly white parliament. There isn’t a single representative with Surinamese or African heritage.
Image: the Tweede Kamer. Via Wikimedia user Sisyfus. Public domain.