Black and European. A Better State of Affairs than Black Americans?
"All for one, one for all," the dashing motto of The Three Musketeers, is almost as well known as the devise of the French Republic itself: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Less well known is that Alexandre Dumas, who wrote the classic tale of swordplay, camaraderie, and France’s wars of religion, was black—the grandson of a Haitian former slave, who in his day rose through the ranks to become a decorated French general with 50,000 (white) soldiers under his command.
Black men and women like Dumas have been an integral part of Europe for centuries: DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed that the first Britons had “dark to black” skin, evidence of the Black presence in Europe from the middle ages onwards is available in coats of arms for towns throughout the continent, and variations of Moorish names have been been found as far flung as Scotland, Sweden, France, Switzerland and Belgium. Joining Dumas in crafting irreplaceable contributions to modern European culture are such people of colour as German philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo (1700-1775), and English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912).
This rich history, however, has often been swept under républicain-coloured rugs (or colour-blind rugs, as it may be); Dumas is rarely viewed as a black French writer rather than just as a French writer. On the other side of the Atlantic, the struggles, triumphs, and continued strife of the African American community has coalesced together into a narrative history that has become a global story, and not merely a national one. Over the course of centuries, black American identity has become fierce, and fiercely present. But what of black European identity? Do black Europeans exist in a better social and political landscape than their American counterparts?
Caught between the tug and pull of multiculturalism and state policies of official social and political colour-blindness, is there a tangibility to black Europeanness? And perhaps more importantly, has their struggle and their context given way to a fate that is better or worse than that of black Americans, an ocean away still shouting to the world that their lives also matter?
At the beginning of the 21st century, a population report suggested that both the US and Europe were on the brink of major demographic changes: the majority white population was giving way to more mixed groups of people as a result of continued global migration patterns. The report, published the same year that Princess Angela of Liechtenstein became the first person of known African origin to marry into a reigning European royal family.
Eighteen years later, following the highly televised British royal wedding of Prince Harry to the African American actress Meghan Markle, commentators seized on the notion that Britain, and by extension Europe, had become post-racial. Simultaneously, the German company Super Dickmann chose the royal wedding day to post an image of a chocolate marshmallow bride, later apologizing for the arguably racist image known as the NegerKuss, or “Negro Kiss.”
That royal wedding succeeded in highlighting the racism and class divisions that exist in ‘polite’ British society, where people generally feel uncomfortable talking directly about ‘race’ and would rather allude to the subject than have a straightforward conversation. In its aftermath, various British media commentators noted that the marriage had made the Royal Family more symbolically relatable to a multi-ethnic Britain—but Britain today needs more than symbolism. Though perhaps to a lesser extent than the United States, the United Kingdom has for years embraced an official policy of multiculturalism; an embrace of multiple cultures and identities underneath the Union Jack. Whereas just 32% of ethnic minorities describe themselves as “English” (in contrast with 61% of whites), two-thirds of minorities in the UK proudly label themselves “British.”
High profile unions like the British royal wedding may seem to suggest a change in the climate of racial equality, but multiculturalism as a matter of European public policy has been controversial and far from conclusive. In 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that as a concept, multiculturalism had “failed,” a year later, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron launched a ‘war’ on multiculturalism, and in countries like France, the idea of identity communities within the broader nation has never held much sway at all, being viewed rather as divisive and unproductive, and where even collecting statistics based on ethnicity has been illegal since 1983.
While in Northern Europe, blackness is frequently exoticised in an almost naive sort of way, in Southern Europe, black people are regularly categorised as migrants, refugees and undesirables. When a photo of American actor Samuel L. Jackson and basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson was purposely misidentified as migrants and subsequently shared as a social experiment, it was cited by far-right populist supporters who were quick to identify them as "lazy migrants" on a shopping spree with money from the state. Opponents of Italy’s ‘open migration policy’ were quick to condemn the two men, whose blackness overrode their individuality, relegating them to the status of unwelcome and unwanted refugees.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported that 2016 was “a banner year for hate,” and cited the election of Donald Trump as one of the typical reasons for that description, because it corresponded with the increase in reports of hate crimes—the largest increase, 197 per cent, was of anti-Muslim hate groups, which increased from 34 in 2015, to 101 in 2016.
Of course, Islamophobia has not been the only rising prejudice in the United States. Even before Trump announced his candidacy, a series of videotaped, high-profile police shootings of (most often) young black men thrust race back into the national conversation. Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose treatise on race in America, in 2015 when accepting a National Book Awards prize for the best nonfiction book—his treatise of America’s race problem: Between the World and Me—stated that at “the heart of our country is the notion that we are O.K. with the presumption that black people somehow have an angle, somehow have a predisposition to criminality.”
Like Eric Garner, who could not breathe; Tamir Rice, all of 12 years old; Eric Harris, who after he was shot, was told, “Fuck your breath,”; Philando Castile, a concealed-carry permit holder about whom the NRA remained strikingly silent; Terence Crutcher, unarmed and with his hands up. The list could go on.
It is because of this perceived American systemic racism that the country continues to face renewed scrutiny under the spotlight of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the highly visible NFL protests, which began when Colin Kaepernick-led protests, where Colin Kaepernick, the now ex-professional American football player, took a knee along side his team mate Eric Reid during the national anthem (sung before every professional sports match), to protest the police killings.
Their on-the-field-speech swiftly drew the ire of Trump’s Twitter fingers, who denounced the protests as un-American—a type of unequivocal judgement he has been loathe to levy upon the alt-right. The NFL players, of course, follow in a proud tradition of silent protest the likes of which has been deployed since the era of the Civil Rights movement.
The silent “voices” of Kaepernick and the tens of thousands of others who have knelt and marched remain necessary for reasons far and beyond the systemic inequalities in the criminal justice system: the United States, the most unequal wealthy nation in the world, is even more so for black and brown people. Median wealth for white households is $171,000. For black households, it’s just $17,600. And the gap is growing.
In the face of that stark inequality, Trump’s presidency has embodied white supremacy - through his close links with Stephen Bannon, the KKK, and right wing populism. Trump has legitimised public hatred towards minorities and people of colour from the highest office in the country. And whatever its origins, the American alt-right has set its sights on making common cause with its European brethren. Once exiled from the White House, Bannon turned his sights on the far right wing parties of Europe, like those led by Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Germany’s Alice Weidel. He has advised them all to wear “to wear assertions they are ‘racist’ as a “badge of honour.”
Indeed, the common cause made between the far-right in the United States and in Europe threatens people of colour on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In Europe, extremist parties have seen their average vote share rise from 5% of the vote in 1997 to 16% in 2017. In the United States, white nationalism has a political ally in none other than the Oval Office itself.
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