We Need a Systemic Understanding of How Race Impacts Life
The global Black Lives Matter movement, the persistence of racism in Britain – and why racial awareness training won't cut it.
Long Read | In conversation with Gary Younge
Percy Zvomuya spoke to Gary Younge, former journalist for The Guardian newspaper, author of five books, including Another Day in the Death of America, A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives and The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream, and now professor of sociology at the University of Manchester. This is an edited transcript of the interview. Percy Zvomuya: Europe has responded to the murder of George Floyd with outrage. In your New York Review of Books piece, you wrote, “Europe’s identification with Black America, particularly during times of crisis, resistance and trauma has a long and complex history. It is fuelled in no small part by traditions of internationalism and anti-racism on the European Left, where the likes of Paul Robeson, Richard Wright and Audre Lorde would find an ideological – and, at times, literal – home.” Gary Younge: The responses have been interesting. There have been demonstrations in every major city, including Krakow, Poland, and Helsinki. In each place, the slogan, the urgency and the demands – when there are demands – have been different. In Holland, a lot of attention has been on Zwarte Piet, a character that comes together with St Nicholas, Father Christmas’ evil sidekick. It’s so obviously black face. People in Holland have been saying, “Let’s stop doing this,” but others would say, “No, no, it’s part of our tradition. It’s culture.” In Belgium, the focus has been on the legacy of King Leopold. In Britain, we have looked at our statues – that of Cecil John Rhodes at Oxford University, Edward Colston in Bristol and Winston Churchill in London – the curricula and death in police custody. In France, there has been focus on Adama Traoré, a black Frenchman who died in police custody in 2016. In each place, the protests have focused on different things. The protests have rattled institutions and the result has been a lot of declarations in a ham-fisted way. When it comes to issues of racism, white European culture is quite remedial. Europe exported its most egregious forms of racism to South Africa, Rhodesia and America, so the mainstream culture, by which I mean white culture, hasn’t been educated about its historical role in the New World because it happened abroad. They never had to internalise it. In Europe, the logic is, “We are above this. America has this problem. Africa has this problem.”The French don’t even recognise race as a category because they say, “All we see are French people.” If you don’t recognise race, then how are you going to recognise racism? At the same time as this, there is a racist party, National Rally (formerly National Front).
Beyond France, you have the paradox of a continent that does not acknowledge the problem of racism, but in most countries in Europe, fascism has become a mainstream ideology. For black Europeans, we see this explosion of Black Lives Matter (BLM) in America as an opportunity, a boomerang. You throw it, it hits America and mainstream culture will look at American culture the way it doesn’t look at us. Then you are going to hope the message will come back – and it has come back in lots of different ways. What happened in America sparked protests and a culture of resistance that did exist here in Europe but was in need of regeneration. Zvomuya: In the same essay you write that in 1998, while a public inquiry into the racist murder of British teenager Stephen Lawrence was taking place, news reached Britain of the gruesome murder of James Byrd, an African-American man who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged until his head came off. During an editorial meeting at Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, one of your colleagues remarked of Byrd’s killing: “Well, at least we don’t do that here.” It seems Europe hasn’t quite learnt to come to terms with its racist past and present.Younge: There is a false sense of superiority in Europe, and not all of it has to do with race. Some of it has to do with Europe’s peculiar sense of inferiority with America. The US is superior – materially, militarily and politically – effectively occupying the positions once held by Britain, France, Belgium and Germany. I think it was the Danish finance minister Kristian Jensen who said, “There are two kinds of European nations. There are small nations, and there are countries that have not yet realised they are small nations.”