The BSA is making available online some of the features from our Network magazine (published three times a year and available to members). This excerpt is an address by Professor Gary Younge, of the University of Manchester, at our annual conference earlier this year, about racism in the UK and US.
Europe’s belief that racism on the continent is less bad than it is in the United States is a “charade”, Gary Younge told the annual conference.
Professor Younge said that while the prevalence of guns meant racism was more lethal in the US, “levels of incarceration, unemployment, deprivation and poverty are all higher for Black Europeans.
“Racial disparities in Covid-19 in Britain, for example, are comparable to those in America. The precarity of Black life in late- stage capitalism is not unique to America.
“The charade of moral superiority is maintained only with the proviso that America’s racism was somehow worse, Black America’s suffering more authentic and its resistance more justifiable.
“That charade continues today, even as fascism is once again a mainstream ideology on the continent, with openly racist parties a central feature of the landscape framing policy and debate even when they are not in power.”
In his plenary Professor Younge, a columnist, author and academic at the University of Manchester, said that “Europe has every bit as vile a history of racism as in the Americas – indeed the histories are entwined. One of the central differences between Europe and the US in this regard is that Europe practised its most egregious forms of anti-Black racism outside of Europe.
“For all that, it is not to deny or diminish why so many African Americans have preferred Europe over the years. Europe itself had less hardened attitudes and codified norms to deal with racial difference which made space for a range of life choices – particularly interracial relationships.
“But the continent has three other talents which challenge its credibility in claiming any sense of superiority: the ability to practice racism abroad, to affect to know nothing about it, and then to forget what it was supposed to be ignorant about.
“One in two of the Dutch, one in three of Britons, one in four of the French and Belgians and one in five Italians believe their country’s former empire is something to be proud of, according to a YouGov poll from March last year. Conversely only one in 20 Dutch, one in seven French, one in five Brits and one in four Belgians and Italians think it is something to be ashamed of.
“In the post-colonial era this has left significant room for denial, distortion, ignorance and sophistry.”
As an example of Europeans’ complacency, he cited a remark made by a former colleague at the Guardian at one of its morning editorial meetings.
“It was 1998 and we had just finished a discussion about the public inquiry into the murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence when we moved on to news of a gruesome racist murder in Jasper, Texas, where a 49-year-old African American, James Byrd, had been tied to the back of a pick-up truck by three white men and driven three miles along an asphalt road while he was still alive. By the time they were finished his head and right arm had been severed from his body, which was dumped in front of a black church.
“On hearing the details one colleague turned to me and said: ‘Well, at least we don’t do that here’. ‘I’m not sure that will be of much comfort to Stephen Lawrence’s parents,’ I told him.
“Herein lies one of the central elements of European attitudes when it comes to the status of Black Americans – a sense of moral superiority that is informed, or rather ill-informed, by a confluence of amnesia about Europe’s own colonial past and ambivalence about its racial present, which sits alongside a genuine tradition of anti-racism and international solidarity all enveloped in an often fraught geo-political relationship with the United States itself.”
In his address he looked at the history of race relations in Europe and its colonies. “On May 8th 1945, the day the war in Europe officially ended, celebrations in French Algeria were interrupted when some Algerians waved independence flags and shouted anti-colonial slogans at the victory parade in the town of Setif.
“When the police confronted them a riot ensued. Over the next few days Algerian nationalists went on a rampage killing between 80 and 100 European settlers. The settlers responded with a massacre that left between 15,000 and 45,000 Algerians dead. And so it was that the continent entered peace time with decades of resistance and repression to come.
“In France, Josephine Baker, the singer and dancer who renounced her American citizenship, became a French resistance agent and received the esteemed Legion d’honneur in 1961. Two months after Baker received the Legion d’honneur the Parisian police massacred between 300 and 400 Algerian protesters and arrested more than 10,000 following an independence march.
“In Britain, a Ministry of Information survey conducted between January 1942 and March 1943 revealed that to the question ‘what do you least like about the USA?’ only two per cent answered ‘treatment of negroes’ or ‘attitude to race problems’, and only one per cent wanted to know more about racial matters.
“American racism and European racism generally found each other in their revulsion towards and rejection of miscegenation. The dynamics of gender and class oppression conspired to brand any white woman who became involved with Black GIs as a sex worker from the working class – the implication being that no respectable woman would engage in such a relationship and no woman at all would do so without being paid.
“This was summed up quite neatly by Maurice Colbourne, an official representative of the UK Information Service, who wrote in 1943: ‘Britons with no colour problem, and imagining themselves free from colour prejudice, easily slip into violent denunciations of the American colour bar as a disgrace to and denial of democracy. Whenever I encounter a Briton waxing eloquent along that line I ask him, preferably in front of others: ‘Would you like your sister to marry a negro?’”
Professor Younge said that “this selective amnesia around the past leads ineluctably to a deeply flawed understanding of the present. European views on Black America are in no small part ill-informed because of the incomplete and toxically nostalgic misunderstanding of their own history.”
Professor Younge talked about his own experiences in continental Europe. “My first degree was in French and Russian. As part of the course I spent five months in Paris and five months in what was then Leningrad and now St Petersburg during the academic year of 1990-91.
“My time in Paris was one of the most racially intense periods I have ever encountered. Among other things I was denied entry to night clubs, cabs refused to take me even when I had queued for them at a rank, I was stopped and asked for my papers on an almost daily basis and was beaten up by the police in the metro.
“My time in St Petersburg could not have been more different. The Eastern bloc had imploded and the Soviet Union was in a state of severe economic distress. In this context African students became emblems of a failed past and subject to frequent physical assault.
“But somehow, with my locks, Adidas trainers and huge loop earring, I was assumed to be American and therefore wealthy. Cars would stop and turn into cabs at the sight of me in the hope that I would pay them in dollars, doormen at elite hotels would wave me through. It was the only time in my life when anyone looked at me and thought I must be rich.”
He called upon sociologists to continue their work highlighting racial injustice in the face of efforts to downplay racism, as seen in the recent report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.
“We are not the only ones trying to remake the future. There are bad faith actors who have a vision of tomorrow in which our work does not appear, is not read, has no impact and will not be referenced. As much as we should be inspired that a better future is possible and work towards it, we mustn’t lose sight that a worse one is also possible and others are working towards that too.
“That makes the work that goes on here and in your departments especially vital. For these ideas are in play. Our notions of how the world works, has worked and might work did not fall from a clear blue sky. Ideas matter. The report could only be discredited because the work had been done, the arguments made, honed, fought for and refined. The future is contested and will be forged, first and foremost, through ideas.”
He called upon researchers to make ethnic minorities central to their work. “Shift your gaze and you will see them, adapt your analysis and you will account for them, wipe your lens and they will appear clear as day. You will not be able to remake the future without them. And wherever they are, there will be a representative of the state trying to shove them from view and a liberal apologist insisting – ‘at least we don’t do that here’.”