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George Floyd’s blood is on Europe’s hands, too

Weekly analysis and untold stories

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George Floyd’s blood is on Europe’s hands, too

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The English poet John Donne’s 1624 meditations in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions carries with it today a prophetic semblance to the transformation that needs to occur in race-relations across the Western world, should the death of George Floyd never be in vain.

Condemnation of the May 25th murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department has indeed been widespread, and protests have emerged this week across European states including the UK, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy.

Elementary readings of the tragedy have largely attributed Floyd’s death to the callousness of the Minneapolis police, and have also apportioned responsibility to US President Trump for having cultivated an environment of fear and loathing for the black community, due to his previous reticence in condemning the actions of the far-right.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

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But the ignorance and inherent prejudice against the black community in the US is not an isolated occurrence, incubating in a socio-cultural silo. Its antecedent has been informed by centuries of oppression emanating from beyond the borders of the country, principally at the hands of European colonial powers.

The issue here is not the death of one man alone, but it is the penetrating and tyrannical demise of an entire race by a civilisation predicated on the standardisation of a European cultural identity, at the subordination of an ‘other’ identity. An identity resigned to be without home or place. A race without a nation.

In Blackness in Western Europe, Dienke Hondius writes that “the whiteness of Europe’s populations is one of its least mentioned or studied aspects, though whiteness is “among Europe’s most enduring features.” Across the EU institutions in Brussels, such a Whiteness has always been so alarmingly evident.

Following the European Parliamentary elections last year, research from the European Network Against Racism demonstrated that just 4% of all seats would be attributed to people of colour. Ethnic minority populations account for approximately 10-15% of the EU population.

The ‘image’ of the European citizen representative is woefully flawed in this respect, and Europe’s propagation of this image can further be demonstrated during an event experienced by former UK MEP Magid Magid. During the opening session of Parliament in 2019, Magid was asked to vacate the premises, with a Parliament official reportedly suspecting him to be an impostor. Magid is black, and was dressed at the time in a t-shirt and baseball cap.

The official motto of the EU, In varietate Concordia – united in difference, appears wildly duplicitous in this regard, when the EU institutions suffer from such an disquieting lack of ethnic diversity and awareness. Thankfully, this has not gone unnoticed by MEPs recently.

On Friday, a cross-section of European Parliamentarians wrote to Commission President von der Leyen, calling for greater oversight on institutional racism and police violence in Europe, as well as highlighting the need for an EU Framework against Racism.

Just a day prior, Luca Jahier, President of the European Economic and Social Committee and José Antonio Moreno Díaz, President of the EESC’s Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law (FRRL), voiced their concern at the prevalence of institutional racism in Europe – highlighting how such forms of discrimination have become so intricately embedded in our collective cultural consciousness, that we perhaps we don’t even realise they exist.

“Institutional racism is viciously engrained in our societies and has so infiltrated our thoughts that simply declaring solidarity and outrage is not enough. We must detect and act decisively against discriminatory thought patterns and actions in all walks of life,” a statement from the pair read.

When John Donne told us in 1624 that ‘any man’s death diminishes me,’ the trans-Atlantic slave trade had been up and running for some time. The first Europeans to have enslaved Africans in the New World were the Spaniards in the 16th Century, who required labourers to assist of broader expeditions in the South. Following them, it was the Portuguese, who, after building sugar plantations in northern Brazil in the mid to late 16th Century, began to import African slaves to the region. By 1630, the enslaved African community were the predominant workforce across Brazilian sugar plantations.

Later on, the British established slave settlements in North America, principally overseen by the Royal Africa Company. Roger Anstey in The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810, notes that by the late 17th century, approximately one in every four vessels that left the city of Liverpool was a slave ship. Many of the cities of modern Britain, including Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, were built out of the vast profits generated from the slave trade in North America during this period.

But the remnants of Europe’s campaign of horror across the Americas during the slave trade didn’t just deposit a cultural historiography of tyranny. It substantiated a centuries-long ideal of European identity, which was only able to assert itself in making clear what it was not: black.

It’s time for that to change. For black Europeans, obtaining their own cultural coordinates is a formidable undertaking and one that is fraught with divisions and conflicts. As Paul Gilroy writes in The Black Atlantic: “Striving to be both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness.”

George Floyd’s death has exposed the Western fanaticisation of the White ideal – across culture, art, politics, law, society, and education, in all its terrorising brutality.  In its wake, this obsession with a Westernised White standard has left a void in the European cultural identity. In Europe, we need to facilitate a space for the rich and multifarious tapestry of European blackness to prevail, if we are to ever realise that ‘no man is an island.’

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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