A growing number of inhabitants of European cities have an immigrant background (Schaeffer 2013
) states that “Today, foreign–born nationals constitute between 10 and 15 per cent of the population in Western European Countries
” (Schaeffer 2013, p. 1
). As a consequence, contemporary urban school contexts in these superdiverse cities are characterized by high degrees of ethnic diversity. Most of these new citizens do not see themselves automatically as full-fledged citizens of these societies. Using the European Social Survey (ESS), André and Dronkers
) found that in the 27 EU member states, the mean percentage of perceived discrimination is higher for immigrants (11.2%) than for natives (1.7%). This feeling of “being discriminated against” might affect the degree of social cohesion in these societies. We might also expect political consequences of perceived discrimination.
Research on perceived discrimination conceptualizes this phenomenon as a potential factor related to the perceived illegitimacy of authorities and violent radicalization (Doosje et al. 2013
). In the political domain, research has documented the impact of perceived discrimination on the level of satisfaction with democracy (Ekman and Linde 2003
; Ruiz-Rufino 2013
) or on levels of political trust (Abrajano and Alvarez 2010
). However, research on the impact of perceived discrimination, specifically in the context of school and daily life, is scarce.
We consider violence and a rejection of representative democracy as politically relevant attitudes that provide insight into the willingness to support (or reject) the prevailing democratic political system. Consequently, in the case of rejection, an anti-system attitude might affect the foundation of representative democracies. Therefore, measuring these two attitudes jointly might help us to better understand anti-system attitudes.
Super-diverse cities in which the majority of the population has an immigrant background form natural laboratories to investigate discrimination and its consequences. To the best of our knowledge, this paper is the first to analyze superdiverse contexts related to perceived discrimination and attitudes towards the rejection of democracy and the willingness to use violence among disadvantaged youth. Since the rate of perceived discrimination is higher among immigrants than among natives (André and Dronkers 2017
) and perceived discrimination can impact political attitudes (Takyar 2019
; Oskooii 2018
; Sanders et al. 2014
), we might expect that, within these specific superdiverse contexts, perceived discrimination will have detrimental effects on the attitudes towards and expectations of democracy and society, especially for young people from a ‘non-native’ background
With 62% of its inhabitants having their origins outside of Belgium, the Brussels Capital Region is, according to the World Migration Report, the second most diverse city in the world (Lee 2015
). In 2017, 71.9% of the inhabitants of the Brussels Capital Region did not initially possess a Belgian nationality on the day they were born, or had at least one parent for whom the Belgian nationality was not their first nationality (Statistiek Vlaanderen 2019, p. 7
). In addition, the Brussels Capital Region has two official languages (French and Dutch), but is in fact a multilingual context where English has become the second most common language in use (Janssens 2018
). Furthermore, after three decades of urban flight, the Capital Region is the fastest growing and ‘youngest’ region of Belgium. Brussels has seen a ‘youth bulge’ with almost one-third of its population being younger than 25 (Sacco et al. 2016
). This makes the city an interesting research site to investigate superdiverse societies (Neudt and Maly 2010
Sacco et al.
) show, in one of the few summarizing articles regarding Brussels adolescents, that different scholars point out that ethnical, social and school mechanisms disadvantage this ‘youth bulge’. Pupils with an immigrant background are represented disproportionally highly in non-academic (i.e., technical and vocational) pathways (Jacobs and Rea 2007
). The French and Flemish school systems also disadvantage pupils from lower social strata since there is a strict segregation between “good” and “bad” schools. The former are schools with mostly pupils from elite and white backgrounds, the latter are schools with a high rate of pupils with a low socio-economic and immigrant background (Janssens et al. 2009
). The current societal situation of Brussels adolescents is alarming since they “have a high percentage of school drop, low grades at school and high rates of unemployment” (Sacco et al. 2016, p. 6
; Pitts and Porteous 2005
; Pitts and Porteous 2006
) In addition, the presence of perceived discrimination could prove to be deleterious to schools’ efforts to promote social cohesion (Putnam 2007
; Laurence 2011
; Portes and Vickstrom 2011
). To be able to support and empower disadvantaged youth in this specific context, it is necessary to investigate their attitudes—specifically, how perceived discrimination (in the context of school and daily life) influences attitudes towards the willingness to use violence and the rejection of representative democracy. These two attitudes form the fundamental basis to measure anti-system attitudes. Initially this concept was coined by Sartori in the 1960s and 1970s to analyze party systems (Capoccia 2002
). Nevertheless, we want to use this concept in an empirical manner and operationalize it to measure antisystem attitudes among adolescents and to what extent they are willing to use violence and reject representative democracy.
Using data from a survey1
of grade 10 students (N = 1789—average age 16 years) from the Brussels Capital Region, we aim to contribute to our understanding of the impact of perceived discrimination on broader attitudes. How does perceived discrimination impact the attitudes of adolescents vis-à-vis the rejection of representative democracy and the willingness to use violence?
In the following paragraphs, we review the literature regarding perceived discrimination, attitudes towards the rejection of representative democracy and the willingness to use violence, and how the latter two are related or influenced by the former. Secondly, we analyze the impact of perceived discrimination on attitudes towards democracy and the willingness to use violence, using recent cross-sectional survey data on adolescents. We conclude with suggestions for further research and a few key limitations.
5. Discussion and Conclusions
An important cornerstone of any democratic political regime is the expression of people’s interests through institutional channels. However, our study shows that when people do not feel represented by these institutions/authorities or when they are seen as inherently biased towards the benefit of certain groups due to feelings of personal discrimination, their legitimacy (Doosje et al. 2013
) and effectiveness to channel people’s interests can be called into question. In this scenario, alternative channels of expression may be justified, including non-conventional forms of political participation and the use of violence. In this sense, it is not surprising that other studies have found that, for people who perceive discrimination against them, non-civic activities tend to be significantly related to other types of conventional civic participation (Gavray et al. 2012
). Therefore, people with experiences of perceived discrimination are not necessarily deprived of collective action. As the previous literature has concluded, perceived discrimination can trigger collective mobilization. However, people that feel discriminated against would need a strong ethnic identity to be mobilized (Stronge et al. 2016
). Moreover, given that our results show that people with perceptions of being discriminated against were found to score higher on the willingness to use violence, we would expect that this collective action would not only be expressed through conventional and legal channels but could also be expressed through a violent outlet.
In this paper, we attempted to achieve an empirical grasp on the relationship between perceived discrimination, the willingness to use violence and the rejection of representative democracy (“anti-democracy”) among adolescents. In general, the higher that adolescents score for perceived discrimination, the more they reject democracy and are willing to use violence.
Seemingly, these attitudes exteriorize and can be considered as proxies for an anti-system attitude. Perceived discrimination alienates young people from representative democracy, pushing them into the margins of society where their anti-system attitude only festers.
It is worth noting that female pupils score significantly higher on anti-democratic attitudes compared to boys. Further research should clarify this difference. Furthermore, the willingness to use violence among the following pupils was remarkably significant: those from a country other than the six categories, those from a country in Europe other than the 15 core-countries, those identifying as atheists and those with another philosophy or religion (than Christian or Muslim). Further research should clarify these differences.
The implications of our findings are particularly revealing for the (dys)functioning of consolidated democracies. Our findings warn against the negative side effects of civic attitudes that perceived personal and perceived institutional discrimination may trigger in established democracies. These side effects are related to the endorsement of violent attitudes that are detrimental to the optimal functioning of a democratic regime. It is important to conduct further research to counter this perceived discrimination and its negative impact on democracy, regarding the determinants or predictors of perceived discrimination in the context of schools. Seemingly, there is a possible mismatch between the aspirations of, on the one hand, teachers, curricula, principals and school policies and, on the other hand, pupils regarding the idea of how to function as a pupil at school and which political system is acceptable. Although we cannot realistically expect civic education courses to ‘fix’ this mismatch, one could consider setting up a form of democratic dialogue between these pupils and their schools to bridge the disparities. This, however, necessitates more in-depth research to understand, for example, what exactly happens at a school regarding items of perceived discrimination. How do pupils and teachers interact precisely in daily life when pupils find that they are “accused of something they did not do at school”, “got grades they didn’t deserve”, or were “treated badly/unfairly by a teacher”? Why exactly do pupils reject representative democracy and why are they willing to use violence? In addition, we need more insights into the values of pupils and teachers concerning violence, democracy and the school system. This could clarify the complex dynamic between perceived discrimination, an antisystem attitude and the role of the educational system.
The core of our study is that perceived discrimination has an important impact on the willingness to use violence and the rejection of representative democracy. These two variables manifest in parallel regarding perceived discrimination. Therefore, we conclude that perceived discrimination—specifically at school—is an important predictor.
Although we feel confident that our results offer a good starting point for further research, we are ready to acknowledge the limitations of our study. One limitation of our study is that we are not able to discern whether the attitudes towards violence are related to a political or religious motivation. We are only certain of a general willingness to use violence to reach perceived important goals in life. In contrast, we are able to bring more nuance to the different forms of discrimination by assessing different settings in which these experiences took place, namely that perceived discrimination scores highest in the educational context. Furthermore, our analysis points to a possible problematic relation between the current democratic and education context and the younger generations with superdiverse backgrounds. Our cross-sectional analysis is, however, not able to sketch out the precise dynamics of how this tension evolves. Another more technical limitation is that we used a weighting factor because of the low number of pupils in French-speaking schools with parents who had a low level of education, resulting in that cohort being underrepresented. We were also limited in our measurement of perceived discrimination as we only gauged personal perceived discrimination. The used measurement scales did not enable us to compare the difference between personal discrimination and group discrimination (Oskooii 2018
; Sanders et al. 2014
; Taylor et al. 1990
). A last limitation is that we did not enquire as to the political “left” or “right” position of pupils. Since there is no research regarding perceived discrimination and political positioning, this should be investigated in other research. Although we did not explicitly approach other political variables, like, for example, authoritarianism, a lack of political efficacy or political cynicism, we want to highlight some preliminary findings. There are weak correlations between perceived discrimination and political knowledge and between perceived discrimination and authoritarianism. In contrast, there is a strong correlation between perceived discrimination and a lack of political efficacy.