The European Union has little ground for finger-pointing when it comes to racism. EU countries are by no means free of discrimination and violence — and calls for change are growing louder.
Margaritis Schinas is the EU commissioner for "promoting the European way of life." He feels that the struggle against racism falls under this purview.
"There is no doubt that Europe as a whole has been doing better than the United States in issues of race, also because we have better systems for social inclusion, protection, universal health care," he said in a video chat arranged by the Greek nonprofit the Delphi Economic Forum. But he also acknowledged that the European Union has "some way still to go" toward equality and inclusion, with a number of issues yet to be addressed.
One unaddressed issue is discrimination on the job market. This is everyday reality for the law student Kesiah Etame Yescot. She was rejected umpteen times while looking for a work placement in an attorney's office, generally told that there were no vacancies.
"They want to make us believe that they accept us," Yescot said. "But I find that there is a lot of hypocrisy here. It isn't like with George Floyd in the US, where you see the racism a thousand kilometers off: It's more hidden. In France, you notice it in lots of small ways: when looking for jobs or when you are stopped in the street for no reason."
Yescot was one of the thousands of people in France who took to the streets last weekend to protest racism and discrimination. Those protests were also fueled by terrible cases of police brutality in France, including the death of Adama Traore in police custody in 2016.
Police violence is not the only manifestations of racism in the France: Profiling is also par for the course in the suburbs of Paris. A survey of 5,000 young men with African or Arab ancestry carried out by the Council of Europe found that they are 20 times as likely to be stopped by police as other French people.
The mass protests in France have brought about change: Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has banned police from using chokeholds when detaining suspects. "Some police are racists," Castaner said, though he does not believe that all officers are.
Belgium's colonial legacy
There were also protests in Belgium's capital, Brussels. "We have come because this is the capital of Europe," said Branda Auchimba, one of the organizers. She is angry at the "everyday discrimination and attacks by police, who stop young African and Arab men at every corner."
Auchimba also wants statues of Belgian King Leopold II to be taken down. Up to 15 million people are estimated to have died during the monarch's colonial rule over the Congo (now part of the Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1885 to 1909 — a part of Belgian history that has long been swept under the rug. Even now, schoolbooks make little mention of this chapter in Belgium's history. "I hope people understand how we feel when we see these statues," Auchimba said.
It wasn't until recent decades that Belgians began to seriously examine their country's historical atrocities. The 1998 book King Leopold's Ghost by the US historian Adam Hochschild has played a major role in increasing public awareness. In Antwerp, a district mayor has already transferred Belgium's oldest Leopold statue to a museum.
Britain's cultural battle
In London, even the mayor is on the side of those who want to take down the statues of historical figures known to have been imperialists and racists. Sadiq Khan, a member of the Labour Party whose parents are from Pakistan, had the statue of the slave trader Robert Milligan removed from West India Quay in East London. "It is a sad truth that much of our wealth was derived from the slave trade — but this does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces," Khan tweeted.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel, a Conservative whose Pakistani parents migrated to Britain from Uganda, opposes this kind of protest. She said demonstrators in Bristol who had thrown the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston into the harbor should be prosecuted for their "utterly disgraceful" actions.
In Britain, people have turned out en masse to protest in solidarity with Americans who are demonstrating after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer. The Black Lives Matter movement has also led to increased discussion of casual racism, deprivation of social rights and police violence against communities of color. The recent official review of the 2018 Windrush scandal — in which authorities deported people from the Caribbean who had lived in Britain for decades because of apparent mistakes in their papers — has furthered the discussion of such discrimination.
“You have individual people, referred to as the bad apples, individual racist police officers who are acting out their personal prejudices," said Ben Bowling, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at King's College London. He said communities of color were overpoliced in Britain.
"That is something you certainly see in the United Kingdom in the way the black and Asian communities are policed," Bowling said. "You clearly see it in Germany and France and everywhere across Europe where there are minority communities, who are identified by the police as a problem that needs to be controlled." Bowling said the fundamental issue was accountability: "Police forces that are accountable to the communities they serve are better police forces."
The professor called for looking at the situation in context. "It's unreasonable to expect equal and fair policing in a world that is characterized by unfairness, inequality and marginalization," Bowling said. Real political change would have to go "beyond policing and look at the economy, education and family." Bowling said "European nations should be willing to accept that the future of Europe is one which is multicultural, which is diverse and in which everyone gets to play a full part in the life of a society."
'I am ashamed'
To address racism at the institutional level, it might help for the European Union to increase the representation of people of color across EU institutions. Only 24 of the 705 delegates — or just over 3% — to the European Parliament are black or Asian, even though people of color are about 10% of the EU population.
One of those 24 MEPs is Alice Kuhnke, of the Swedish Greens. "I am ashamed because we don't really represent the people in Europe," Kuhnke said. "So we have to make sure that in future there are more parliamentarians that look different and have different backgrounds."
Kuhnke is a rapporteur for the parliament's anti-discrimination directive, which has been on ice since 2008 because it has so far failed to secure the full support of the European Council. The draft bill, which stipulates equal treatment for all EU citizens in social matters, is being blocked by many member states. Half of the EU member states do not even have a plan of action laying out how they intend to combat racism, Kuhnke said.
Kuhnke remains optimistic that demonstrations across the European Union will set something in motion. "I am convinced that we can use the fact that so many people are upset and taking notice," she said. "But it mustn't end in nice words about equality: It has to be reflected in EU legislation at last."