The events of the last few days, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and following the death of George Floyd, have prompted an amplification of the racial justice movement in the United States that is resonating everywhere in the world, including in Europe. This blogpost aims to give some insight into this movement from a systemic racism point of view, highlighting how this is far from an isolated incident, but a part of a whole system of oppression that needs dismantling.
There is much talk about systemic, structural and institutional racism. But what is this, how does it manifest, and what is its relationship with the US incidents and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19?
Systemic racism is a term to designate the whole societal structure that maintains a racially oppressive system that privileges and oppresses different racial groups in society. Manifestations of systemic racism are for instance, structural and institutional racism. Institutional racism refers to the systematic racial bias inferred into policies or laws as well as its practice (e.g. enforcement and judicial systems). Such bias can be explicit or made by systematically ignoring the needs of minorities. Meanwhile, structural racism refers to inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions.
These should be distinguished from interpersonal racism, which refers to the external representations of bigotry and biases shown between individuals; and internalised racism, which does not require an external representation, but is within every individual due to their belonging to the systemically racist society.
Just as the initiative Race Forward explains, systemic racism can manifest itself in different forms and impact a myriad of fields, such as the wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, education, banking or public health access, government surveillance, incarceration, drug arrests, immigration arrests, infant mortality…
The homicide of George Floyd in the US city of Minneapolis was the spark that has prompted protest movements across the US and the rest of the world. Few people will have missed the video of George Floyd’s arrest and death. But this is not an isolated incident and should not be confused with the starting point of a global anti-racist movement. Since 2013, #BlackLivesMatter has been documenting the racist incidents caused by white supremacy. #SayHerName is a social movement founded by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) that aims at raising awareness for black female victims of police brutality and anti-black violence in the US. Both initiatives gather data on racially motivated violence from public authorities. Decades of activism from the antiracist civil rights activists in the US have also paved the way for these movements.
The same day that George Floyd died, the recording of an incident in Central Park was made public in which a white woman called the police, with no apparent reason, claiming that an African-American man (and she repeated that he was African-American multiple times) was threatening her life. Why is this important? Because she insisted on identifying the man (who was not threatening her) as black. Antiracist activists have consistently pointed out that only someone sure that stating that fact would give her an advantage due to entrenched racial stereotypes in the police forces, would have made the point so many times.
What is necessary to understand is that the protests and the recent movements do not have one root and were not born when George Floyd was killed by a policeman last week. This has only been the most recent of thousands of deaths, and the tip of the monumental iceberg of systemic racism. The protests claim justice for all of it, not only for the death of George Floyd.
On top of the outrage that has followed the events mentioned above, studies have shown that ethnic minorities are being affected in a much more extensive way by COVID-19. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet declared a few days ago that “the data tells us of a devastating impact from COVID-19 on people of African descent, as well as ethnic minorities in some countries, including Brazil, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. In many other places, we expect similar patterns are occurring, but we are unable to say for sure given that data by race and ethnicity is simply not being collected or reported”. The lack of ethnically disaggregated data in most European countries, as pointed out by Bachelet, underlines, once again, the need for systematic disaggregated equality data collection.
In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published on 7 May a brief titled “Coronavirus-related deaths by ethnic group, England and Wales: 2 March 2020 to 10 April 2020”, showing that black men in the UK are 4.2 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts, while showing that ethnic minorities in general were more likely to die from COVID-19.
Clyde W. Yancy, MD, MSc, from the Department of Internal Medicine of Northwestern University, stated that in Chicago, more than 50% of COVID-19 cases and nearly 70% of COVID-19 deaths involve black individuals, although blacks make up only 30% of the population. In Sweden, Finland and Norway it has been reported that minorities, such as Somalis, are also being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
On top of this, several studies (for instance here) have shown that Black and minority ethnic workers make up a disproportionately large share of key worker sectors. This implies that being a majority of the key worker sector, they are more exposed to contract the virus, on top of being more likely to die because of it.
The protests in the US have served to highlight both the symptoms and the disease: racism. And much as with COVID-19, no country is safe.
Regarding law enforcement and police bias, the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) stated that racial profiling and police violence on the continent during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting ethnic minority communities. Equinet published a series of outputs regarding Ethnic and racial profiling in 2019, analysing the practice, what national equality bodies are doing, and sharing good practices while making recommendations to address the outlined challenges.
There is plenty of data about incidents in the EU during the last years regarding systemic racism against different ethnic groups. Taking into account the perceived underreporting from minority communities, it is safe to assume that the cases are larger in number than those that will be mentioned in the following lines. However, compared to the death of George Floyd, it seems that these widespread racist incidents did not spark general outrage in European societies even though there are plenty of manifestations of systemic racism on European soil, as well.
In Belgium, just a few weeks ago, Adil, a 19-year-old teen of Moroccan descent — was killed during a police chase in Brussels while allegedly fleeing from a police check. His death followed that of Mehdi, a 17 year old man that was run over by a police car. Their deaths sparked protests in their neighbourhoods but did not mobilise the wider society.
The NGO ROMEA has recently shared the video of the death of the Romani man Miroslav Demeter in Žatec, Czech Republic four years ago. The 27-year-old man died in very similar circumstances to George Floyd on 18 October 2016 in the Panamera Pizzeria after a conflict with customers led to an intervention by local police officers. Recordings of the incident show how Miroslav is forcefully immobilized by the police. Violence was used against Miroslav, and he complained until he simply stopped moving. In February 2017, the investigation was closed, and Miroslav’s death was deemed to be caused by drug use and not by anyone’s use of force. His death did not spark general outrage in his country.
In 2019, new evidence came to light in the case of Oury Jalloh an asylum seeker in Germany that was believed to have committed suicide by burning himself; suggesting that jail officials were somehow involved in the incident, given that he sustained significant injuries before his death. This death did not spark general outrage either.
In 2012, Spain was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and ordered to pay a sum to a black Nigerian woman for ineffective investigation of racially motivated ill-treatment and racial slur from police officers. In 2011, Mark Duggan, a black British citizen was shot by the police. His death was found to be lawful.
In 2005, mass protests and riots followed after the two teenagers Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna died in France by a power surge, after they fled from police.
These examples of police violence and racism are only the tip of the iceberg and can be traced back to the larger issue of systemic racism in our societies. As mentioned above, systemic racism manifests itself in very different ways. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) published a report last year that analysed discrimination faced by black persons in the EU. This study showed, for instance that “black people in the EU face unacceptable difficulties in simply finding somewhere to live or getting a decent job because of their skin colour.” Additionally, 30% of respondents said that they had been racially harassed in the last five years, while 5% had been physically attacked. FRA advised, that “Member States should therefore make greater efforts to better support victims of racism and to properly prosecute perpetrators.” Likewise, ENAR published in 2017 a report called “Justice gap: racism pervasive in criminal justice systems across Europe”, highlighting the inherent racism of justice systems.
We remain at your service. Always. National Equality Bodies are bodies mandated to protect citizens from discrimination and abuse. They do this by investigating cases of discrimination; building a culture that values equality; providing information and in some cases legal support to potential victims; monitoring and reporting on discrimination issues; conducting research and providing policy recommendations and engaging with public bodies, employers and NGOs to foster non-discriminatory practices and ensure awareness and compliance with equal treatment legislation. You can find a list of National Equality Bodies here.
There are many examples of good practice initiatives by NEBs. Earlier this year, for instance, Unia in Belgium created a supervisory committee on racism, following the example of an earlier one created around disability, together with academics, social partners and CSOs. The aim of this committee is to create a space for dialogue and listening to feed Unia’s work and expertise in the area. In this sense the committee would be able to give their insights about Unia’s work on the area.
Much like the #metoo movement did before, the recent amplification of the racial justice movement in the United States is resonating everywhere in the world, including in Europe. More people are finally hearing what black anti-racist activists have been saying all along, in the U.S. and Europe, and it will necessarily change the way we understand the world and equality. But it won’t change until everyone of us reflects and decides to fight racism every day. It also won’t change unless we question the foundations of systemic racism in our societies. This is the time to learn and understand. To listen. Only then can the very necessary changes that we need to make have real effects.
The views on this blog are always the authors’ and they do not necessarily reflect Equinet’s position.