Black Lives Matter in Europe: Making a Point of Missing the Point
In June of this year, a series of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and demonstrations took place all around Europe, in solidarity with the eponymous movement that has just been reignited in the United States following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In virtually every major European country, thousands gathered despite pandemic-related restrictions. In Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Lisbon, protestors numbered between 10 and 20,000 and reached up to 50,000 in Vienna. Often, after chanting the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, did some of the European protestors add the name of local victims of racism and police brutality, the most prominent of which was Frenchman Adama Traoré who was murdered by the police in 2016.
Several Western European countries (in particular France, Belgium or the UK) were suddenly forced to grapple with a conversation they would have rather kept ignoring. When the statue of prolific slaver Edward Colston was thrown into Bristol Harbour some kind of Rubicon was crossed. With a big splash. In the face of a seemingly international antiracist movement not shying away from direct action, reactions were tepid. There is one sentence, I would like to focus on, that of French President Emmanuel Macron, that was largely echoed by the colour-blind republic’s pundit class: “France is not the USA”.
Exceptionalism under siege
Aside from conveying broadly the same idea as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “the UK is not a racist country”, the declaration, which was echoed through French punditry, carries another nuance. It also frames the current wave of antiracism as a direct import from the USA – some sort of foreign sapling of unhinged race-obsessed academia. The assumption that the same paradigms could be applied to states like France or the United Kingdom might elicit a very defensive response from those who subscribe to their respective country’s national narrative. In the weeks following Europe’s own BLM protests, Mr. Macron doubled-down on his current crackdown efforts against separatism, framing ethnic and religious belonging as a threat to the nation, and Mr. Johnson has lately been assuring his base that they shouldn’t be embarrassed about their imperial history.
It is true, however, that antiracists, like all international movements, tend to lend each other their theoretical tools. Over the years, this kind of transfers has often been the focus of “culture wars” past and present. Gender studies and LGBT advocacy have been decried by conservatives and reactionaries throughout Eastern Europe as some sort of Western Liberal Trojan Horse, all the while being accused as a Postmodern Marxist plot by the American right. Marxism has been in turn framed as a Jewish threat coming to Europe from the East, and as a Western virus sent eastward to infect Russia. Feminism the world over is often described in the same way as an allochtonous movement, unsound in addressing the societies where it spreads. This frequent othering of social movements by centrists and conservatives misses the forest for the threes.
This transfer occurs, I argue, to fill a relative void. Europe’s national narratives leave very few spaces to people of colour, and they are often absent from history books. Often only a few lucky students who get the opportunity to learn about non-European history in University will get to expand on a somewhat narrow idea of history. Except for the notable exceptions of Dumas and Pushkin, black and brown authors are also too frequently missing from European literary curricula. Similarly, non-white political thinkers and philosophers the likes of Frantz Fanon, Edouard Glissant, Stuart Hall or Albert Memmi, often themselves Europeans or tied to Europe – are relatively unknown to most White Europeans. Even if this trend is hopefully evolving, the youth of Europe’s minority and immigrant communities often lack a substantial repertory of figures and ideas in which to draw from, all the while being softly excluded from the national projects of their host countries.
To those youths, in contrast, the Afro-Americans of the United States offer a spectacularly convenient counter-model. One could say the African-Americans as a community even have their own soft power, through their hugely disproportionate impact on both high art and pop-culture. Non-white Europeans have been able, for a long time, to indulge in media and music made by people that look like them and might talk to their experience, all thanks to Hip-Hop and Black sitcoms. The African-American experience does not stop there. It is before a centuries-long story of oppression, resistance and emancipation marked by radicality and solidarity. It features larger-than-life figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis or W.E.B Du Bois, and a vast corpus of socio-political theory and commentary, still being referenced expanded upon by African-American scholars and activists today. Convenience explains this North American influence. This familiarity with African-American cultures, their history and struggles, may, in turn, eases the access into some initial elements of postcolonial and subaltern studies.
This inspiration from Black America isn’t even essentially limited to Afro-Europeans. Roma rights activists for example, have often compared their struggle to the civil rights movement. Black and brown Europeans simply don’t have the kind of representation African-Americans can count on, and often naturally borrow to their voices when looking to articulate their own oppression. Is this overreliance on North American paradigms necessarily a liability though? What Mr Macron and Mr Johnson seemed to be expressing was some sort of doubt towards the pertinence of the tools these paradigms provide in a European context. I would probably agree with them if that meant elevating and mainstreaming the works of Aimé Césaire, Paul Panda Farnana or any of the thinkers I mentioned above. I am afraid their aim is different, however: while recognizing the existence and persistence of US racism, they cast it as something singular, unmatched in Europe. But, if the expression of structural racism in the USA is so unique, how, then, explain the adoption by European antiracists of so many paradigms coming from the Americas, and their success in organizing around them? Why does BLM echo so effortlessly in Europe?
The reality is, in many aspects, the experiences of African-Americans do not stray too far from those of minorities in Europe. It could be argued the situation of Black and Brown Europeans resembles less the one of national minorities, who can more easily rely on existing European minority rights frameworks, a national territory with an attached potential right to self-determination or the support of a neighbouring kin-state, than the situation of “racial” minorities in the Americas. Furthermore, they often are members of immigrant communities or regarded nearly as such by the majority, like in the case of Romani communities and displaced populations from overseas territories.
The experience of racial or ethnic segregation, for example, isn’t limited to the world across the Atlantic. Though European welfare states make it a less severe problem than in the USA, residential segregation is an observed and documented reality in several Western European countries. Non-EU migrants and their descendants often find themselves excluded from wealthier neighbourhoods, due to their socioeconomic situation or plain discrimination. This residential segregation, just like in the USA, may carry over to schools, like in the case of the UK. France’s banlieues have often been compared to American ghettos, though they differ in size and form, as well as in one particularly interesting metric: they are also largely more ethnically diverse. Yet the feeling is there, that those usually more deprived suburban residential areas are the face of France’s ethnic segregation, leading centrist Prime Minister Manuel Valls to publicly decry “a territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo 2015 terror attacks. In my own hometown of Brussels, the spatial fracture between EU migrants and non-EU migrants is so clear it is even reminiscent the medieval uptown-downtown division.
Over-policing, ethnic profiling and police violence are no strangers to the Old Continent either. Black and Brown communities are often over-policed, and stopped because of their ethnicity. Amongst the worst offenders, we find Irish police disproportionately stopping Sub-Saharan African migrants, Greek police over-policing Romani people or Spain and France reportedly profiling people of North African background. Recent figures have revealed that Greater London’s Metropolitan Police was “four times more likely” to use force on black people. People of African and Afro-Caribbean descent are also disproportionally represented in England and Wales’ prison population. Though they make up 12 to 13 % of the total carceral population, a far cry from the staggering 40 to 45 % in the US, Black Britons only account for around 3 % of the English and Welsh. Again, if the problem seems less severe in Europe than in North America, the experiences of Black and Brown people on both sides of the pond seem to mirror each other. Or, as Assa Traoré (sister to Adama Traoré, and one of the leaders of France’s own BLM movement) put it: “George Floyd and my little brother died in exactly the same way.”
All over the EU, people of African descent continue to face all kinds of discriminations – especially when it comes to housing and work. EU-wide, 30 % of respondents to a 2019 survey led by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights declared having experienced racial harassment in the previous five years. The number rose to 63 % in Finland, 52 % in Luxembourg and 51 % in Ireland. A particularly stark case, in Belgium, 60 % of people of African descent are educated to a degree level “but they are four times more likely to be unemployed than the national average” according to a United Nations Human Rights Working Group. A heated debate as recently unfolded in France around the concept of medical racism, sparked by social media posts of racialised women helping each other find female obstetricians of African and Caribbean descent. The practice caused an uproar not only in right-wing political circles but also in large parts of the centre and the left, instead of pushing political actors to ask themselves why women of immigrant and overseas background would adopt such a strategy in a country where many healthcare practitioners still believe in the made-up Mediterranean syndrome. This debate echoes a very long conversation that has been taking place for decades in the US, where obstetrics and gynaecology have been particularly tainted by their history rooted in slavery and racism. A recent by the US National Academy of Sciences showed that black babies were more likely to survive if cared for by black doctors. On average, black infants are three times more likely to die in the hospital than white newborns. This shocking disparity is halved when they are cared for by black doctors.
And Europe, too, has been traversed by controversies regarding its large catalogue of racist statues. In the UK, after the fall of Coulston’s statue, the legacy of Winston Churchill itself was put into question. In France, the statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Louis XIV and author of the Code Noir, Colonial France’s slave code, was vandalized in June. Belgium, where vandalizing statues of King Leopold II is somewhat of a national sport, the debate around the country’s abundance of colonial memorials glorifying the country’s sordid imperialist history has been reignited. The taking down of the statues of the controversial King Leopold (whose reign over Central Africa killed between 5 and 10 million) has finally been put openly on the table. Italy too has been forced to grapple with similar debates around its colonial legacy following calls to destroy statues to Indro Montanelli, a fascist journalist who voluntarily participated in the 1935-1936 Italian invasion of Ethiopia and enslaved and “married” a 12-year-old Eritrean girl. Up until the final year of his life, Montanelli engaged in blatant denial regarding the war crimes committed by Mussolini’s Italy in Ethiopia, despite the use of mustard gas (by then an outlawed weapon) during the campaign being vastly documented. In all of these cases, these debates parroted the arguments used in the USA regarding confederate monuments, down to the endless signalling about “history” and “heritage”. Denmark, who unveiled in 2018 a statue to “Queen Mary”, one of the leaders of the 1733 slave insurrection in the Danish West Indies, remains an outlier, however.
If American racism is particularly grotesque, they sure do not seem to have a monopoly on it. It is misguided to act as if European racism is fundamentally different.
A transatlantic exchange
Truth is, it is uncontroversial that Europe has had its own history of colonialism, imperialism and genocide, what is controversial is to what extent did the chickens of this history come home to roost. In countries like Britain or Belgium, their imperial past was one of the core tenets of their national construction or at least a main catalyst, which can explain the backlash surrounding criticizing said imperial past. No matter how inconvenient it is for their national narratives, racism and colonial imagination have profoundly impregnated European societies, and the way natives were treated in their colonies somewhat carried over to the way Europeans treat their Black and Brown minorities today. Let’s not forget that the Algerian war was fought both on Algerian and French soil. Just like slavery still resonates in Brazilian society or Indigenous genocide in Canada today, non-white minorities in Europe have to suffer the blowback of Europe’s racist legacy in their everyday lives – just like they do across the Atlantic.
If paradigms from the Americas fit so well in Europe, should we necessarily welcome them with open arms, however? Probably yes, but it shouldn’t be a one-way street. Antiracism has always been an international effort, and African-American intellectuals and activists owe an immense debt to thinkers from Europe and Africa, and Pan-Africanism has always involved figures from the continent, as well as the Caribbean and the Americas. And in return, the Americas have profoundly influenced Africa and its culture. Even the iconic Congolese Rumba started as a gift from Latin America. This moment could be, for Afro-Europeans and their allies, an occasion to revive this dialogue with their particular outlook and exchange based on their shared experience across four continents.
So, yes, Europe might not be America, but that does not mean they don’t have some things in common.
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