Updated: Jul 8
On Tuesday, millions of Europeans blacked out their social media in solidarity with protesters across the Atlantic. Millions more watched in shock and horror at the police brutality that led to the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the violent demonstrations and protests that have spread across America. These past few weeks have again exposed the hideousness of racism and the deep societal divides in the one of -if not the- world’s most powerful country.
Thousands have also taken to the streets in European cities, like London, Paris and Berlin, not just in a show of support for black Americans but also to express their anger about racism where we live - racism in Europe.
Moreover, in April violent protests erupted in Brussels after a 19-year-old man of Moroccan origin, Adil, died while attempting to escape a police patrol. His scooter hit a police vehicle; the young man died immediately. It came less than a year after the death of the 17-year-old Mehdi Bouda, who was killed in August 2019 by the police in Brussels. The young boy, also of Moroccan heritage, was hit by a police patrol car and died.
Two deaths in one city in the past year. And these stories are not rare across Europe. Nor are examples of police brutality and, frankly, racial victimisation. Now, of course, each instance is different, and the majority of police officers are brave heroes, who run toward danger to keep us safe. But many forces still struggle with institutional racism.
This sense of injustice and widespread discrimination has been heightened during the coronavirus pandemic. This week a report from Public Health England found that people from ethnic minorities are at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. It shows age remains the biggest risk factor while being male is another, but the impact of the virus is also "disproportionate" for people from Asian, Caribbean and black ethnic groups.
Why? Well, to many people the answer is obvious. People of colour are more likely to work in low-paid, front-facing jobs, to be bus drivers or shop workers and thus more likely to be exposed to the virus. Poverty also means that the health of many in ethnic minority communities tends to suffer. Underlying conditions, for example, diabetes, are a major factor in COVID-19 deaths.
The coronavirus discrimination doesn’t end there though. A survey for the Financial Times in the US showed that 74% of black voters reported a financial hit compared to 58% of white voters. It also found that more African Americans had lost their jobs since the pandemic outbreak began, highlighting the growing economic inequalities this crisis has created. There is little doubt the same is true here.
How is this possible that on both sides of the Atlantic, we face the same insidious problem? But are black Americans at least better represented in their political system, do they have a voice that is lacking here in Europe?
According to the European Network Against Racism analysis, there were 36 members of racial/ethnic minorities in the new European Parliament last year – 30 of whom are people of colour. The 36 seats amount to just 5% of the hemicycle. This number has since a drop to 4% after the UK officially left Europe in December/January. Contrarily, ethnic minorities make up at least 10% of the EU population, proving there is still a long way to go for the EU to argue it truly represents the full diversity of its population.
Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission contains no non-whites. When similar questions were put in front of the Commission President last year, she seemed rather taken aback, replying “I hope one day that changes, that would be good”. When some media reporters pushed her on whether she had done anything to change it, she said: “It is the right of the member states to present candidates, so I had to fight hard to get the commission composed. So, we’ll see.”
It appears to me that racism is almost a taboo in many European countries, unfortunately, or maybe something that people believe it’s in the past, or perhaps they just avoid talking about it. Unlike in the US, it is not talked about, let alone addressed. We face many of the same problems that shocked millions and brought thousands onto the streets this past week but seem far less willing to engage with the issue confronting millions of our fellow citizens.
Hence, I am wondering: can we, as Europeans, look at the US to really argue that we are getting this right?