Europe has barely started its battle to end systemic inequalities
The killing of George Floyd last May — which triggered the rapid growth of the Black Lives Matter movement — may have taken place in the US, but its impact reverberates all over the world today, including in Europe. It triggered passionate debates, not least over how European state institutions handle an issue that threatens to rip apart the social fabric of the continent.
In Britain, culture wars erupted over statues of slave traders and then, following the Oprah Winfrey interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, whether the royal family was institutionally racist. Furious debates have ensued, largely on whether state institutions are institutionally racist. Part of the challenge is to define and agree on the term and the evidence base for determining this. At what point does widespread racism develop into institutional racism? Who decides this? Which state institution is willing to instigate an inquiry into institutional racism?
Age-old political wisdom has it that one should never instigate an inquiry without knowing what the outcome will be in advance. Hence, a UK government-appointed panel last week reported that it did not find any evidence of institutional racism in the civil service. The much-delayed report by 10 Downing Street’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities was published to the sound of fury from the race relations establishment. They argue that one can never rely on racist structures for confirmation of their own racism. They point out that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s adviser appointed the panel’s chair, who had previously stated that racism was not institutional in Britain. The prime minister’s race adviser resigned just after the report was published. The worrying element is that populist politicians including Johnson enjoy cranking up the culture wars and see them as electorally beneficial, just as Donald Trump did in the US.
If one avoids the battle over definitions, one thing is clear: Britain has not arrived as a post-racial society. Even if significant strides have been made, massive inequalities remain. Black people in England and Wales are nine times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts. The lived experiences of so many members of Britain’s ethnic minority communities, as well as British Jews and Muslims, paint a far bleaker picture than the report suggests.
But if Britain has issues with race, what about the EU? European institutions look like a bastion of whiteness. The statistics in this case are telling. The number of people from ethnic minorities working in EU institutions is extremely low. One survey found that fewer than 2 percent of those employed in high-level positions were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Of the 776 MEPs elected in 2014, only about 20 were believed to be from a minority ethnic background.
Racist attitudes are entrenched in much of Europe and not just on the football terraces, where fans frequently engage in monkey chants. In 2019, 10 percent of Italians polled stated that racist acts were always justifiable, with an additional 45 percent believing they were sometimes justifiable. The far right in Europe has gained significant support in key countries, although they perhaps peaked, for now, after the 2015-2016 “refugee crisis.”
European countries have nearly all rolled up their welcome mats, with many opting for barriers and tough anti-immigration systems. A stain on the EU’s record is undoubtedly the number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. It peaked at 5,143 recorded deaths in 2016, but was still 1,417 last year. Also bear in mind that, between 2014 and 2018, about 12,000 people who drowned were never found.
History is ever-present in this debate. Many countries still have a loaded colonial or imperial past. British institutions are only just starting to coming to terms with the country’s historical legacy, including its involvement in the slave trade. Anti-racism campaigners highlight that, while Germany has exerted huge efforts to deal with its Nazi past, it has done little to acknowledge its own role as an imperial power, including the first genocide of the last century in Namibia. France is starting to own up to some of its history. President Emmanuel Macron established a historical commission that concluded the country bore “overwhelming responsibilities” in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. But on a visit to Algeria, Macron denied the country had suffered as a result of colonization, telling a startled local who questioned him on this: “Why are you bothering me with that? Your generation has to look toward the future.”
Social media has become a vicious battlefield. It magnifies and accelerates the most divisive elements of the debate. It rarely enlightens, educates or elicits significant positive behavioral change. It exacerbates a trend where sensible debate on these major issues becomes nigh on impossible, instead generating a siloed debate of polarized groups that refuse to engage constructively.
But the volcanic core of the issue, where racism can explode onto the streets, is police violence and brutality, as has been witnessed in the US on so many occasions. Across Europe, police services have lost the trust of many ethnic minority communities. In 2017, a panel of UN experts accused Germany of discriminating against people of African descent, including in the police. Delve into as many surveys as you like, the reality is that many believe the police target them based on the color of their skin. This is why the killing of Floyd resonated so much outside of the US and prompted major demonstrations in London, Brussels and Paris.
Racist attitudes are entrenched in much of Europe and not just on the football terraces.
So much still needs to be done in Europe. It was only last month that the EU held its first ever anti-racism summit, following on from last September’s EU Anti-Racism Action Plan. But this will mean nothing if it is all talk and European leaders remain in denial about the scale of the problem and the lack of trust in the system. It will take years and will require serious investment in terms of resources and effort, including finding ways to address systemic inequalities. The public sphere must be truly opened up to all European citizens, regardless of their origin, so that it can become more reflective of the continent Europe is in the 21st century, not the 11th.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech