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A group of public housing residents in Copenhagen is suing the Danish government over a new law that could result in thousands of evictions and that they say is rooted in discrimination. The lawsuit comes as the country grapples with questions about its own racism in light of global protests. Sidsel Overgaard reports.
SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: Asif Mehmood moved to the Mjolnerparken neighborhood in Copenhagen back in 1994, when he says no ethnic Danes wanted to live here.
ASIF MEHMOOD: In this area, this was very empty, and a lot of bad things are happening in this area before.
OVERGAARD: Now he stands on his small balcony and points across the street to an area hidden behind a row of trees.
MEHMOOD: You can't see it now, but it's a football. And then we have - it's a park just down after the station. So it's a very, very nice area - clean and a lot of people, a lot of life.
OVERGAARD: Mehmood raised three daughters here, now all working or in school. Then two years ago, he got a call from a journalist.
MEHMOOD: Lars Lokke, prime minister, and his party - they are coming to Mjolnerparken. They have to present a new law.
OVERGAARD: That was the first Mehmood and his neighbors had heard about what the Danish government officially calls the ghetto package, a sweeping plan passed by the last government but supported by the current one to rid the country of these so-called ghettos by 2030.
MEHMOOD: And the first line in this law - it indicates that this is discrimination.
OVERGAARD: The government recognizes many vulnerable areas in Denmark where residents' income and education levels are low and unemployment and criminal activity is high. But the plan for forced redevelopment and relocation only applies to those the authorities call ghettos. And what distinguishes them, says the government, is that at least half of the residents are so-called immigrants or descendants from non-Western countries. It's because Mehmood's building is in a ghetto that it's slated to be emptied and sold in an effort to desegregate the area. Mehmood admits there are problems here. But he says if integration is the goal, there are better ways to go about it.
MEHMOOD: If 50 people are not obeying the law, so how is it sensible to throw 500 people out?
OVERGAARD: Like Mehmood, urban ethnographer Amani Hassani believes that what's really going on here is gentrification at the expense of Denmark's most marginalized.
AMANI HASSANI: We're not looking at public housing in mainly white, working-class communities. We're looking at Mjolnerparken. That's a bike ride away from central Copenhagen. Why are these immigrants and refugees allowed to hold such valuable real estate?
OVERGAARD: She says even the label non-Western immigrant is part of a systemic othering of Black, brown and Muslim people in Denmark that continues for generations.
HASSANI: A refugee who's been here for 10 years and me who's been here for - like, my family's been here for 50 - we are in the category of non-Western immigrants and descendants. You see how it's just, like, a very easy caveat. You don't have to use ugly, racialized terms.
OVERGAARD: And that, she says, is important for Danes who prefer to see themselves as colorblind.
HASSANI: The ideal here is still that we are - you know, we're post-racial. Denmark is a post-racial country. We're progressive. We're liberal. We don't see race. We don't see your color.
OVERGAARD: And yet there are plenty of examples of racism and discrimination in Denmark. One recent study found that people with Middle Eastern-sounding names had to send 52% more applications to land an interview than similarly qualified candidates with Danish-sounding names. Pia Kjaersgaard, co-founder of the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, told parliament that isn't surprising.
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PIA KJAERSGAARD: (Through interpreter) If you're called Aisha, then you might imagine an employer thinking, does she wear a headscarf? Will she pray five times a day? What will I do if she becomes radicalized? Is that racism? No, I really don't think it is.
OVERGAARD: Thinking like this may help to explain the results of another survey in which 51% of Danes said racism is not a widespread problem in their country.
METTE TOFT NIELSEN: I mean, really?
OVERGAARD: Mette Toft Nielsen is a teacher and anti-racism campaigner.
NIELSEN: I think it could be interesting to ask white people if they believe the ghetto package is racist because honestly, I don't think a lot of them would. And that's why we can have a poll showing that - because their understanding of racism is something totally different.
OVERGAARD: Nielsen wants to change that, and she's hoping the current global focus on this issue will push more Danes to understand that racism is both individual and systemic, even in their country.
For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Denmark.
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