The worldwide outrage towards the current display of racial injustice within the US has led many to ask themselves if this moment might actually mark a turning point. As for the States this may be a valid question. Yet in regards to Western Europe and Germany in specific this question becomes obscured. By comparable cases European human rights organisations mobilise protests that rarely come into the mainstream sphere of attention nor do they gather significant support from outside of the respective countries. Larger demonstrations are often only possible if organisations respond to the outrage towards incidences within the States and additionally discuss comparable deaths within the country.
There is a number of reasons why this is the case. Starting with the massive influence of the US post-WWII. Anything and everything that happens in the States is discussed in Europe. The political struggles of MLK and Malcolm X are well known and the link between them and George Floyd is obvious, while many Europeans would struggle to name one single European activist. The influence of the States also has an effect on the international reception of US culture — which is ubiquitous. While partly taking a counter-cultural stance Black Americans have noticeably formed and shaped North American culture. People all around the world grow up listening to Jazz, Disco, Techno, Hip Hop etc. they grow up admiring their stars and relating to them. Therefore African Americans possess a soft power that humanises them in a way that other victims of racist attacks aren’t.
The response of Europeans to ASAP Rocky and his entourage beating a Syrian migrant into hospital in Sweden speaks for itself. In conjunction Black American celebrities have a wide range. It takes a lot to formulate a powerful gesture like “taking a knee” but as an NFL star such a gesture can explode into the western public eye. An international hit like “Formation” from Beyoncé, NIKE ads and the combined efforts of other Afroamerican celebrities contribute to this manifestation. In addition to this black Americans are seen as US citizens in Europe therefore they are more likely to be treated as expats. Vice versa Europeans struggle to view their own non-white population as citizens of their countries. Non-white Europeans are easily viewed as temporary visitors or refugees which creates a distance between the western population and their non-white communities. This inevitably impacts white Europeans ability to feel compassionate.
There is another argument to be made in regards to how these racist incidences are linked to each other. The US are a huge nation and several events can easily be brought together under an umbrella terminology of racial injustice specific to the US. Trayvon Martin (2012), Charlottesville (2017), George Floyd (2020) etc. are clearly all part of the same issue. Yet if we look at western Europe as a whole, with a population that is roughly 2/3 of that of the States, the public tends to isolate these issues. The Malmö shootings (2009-2010) are a Swedish problem. The assault on Théo (2017) is a French problem. The Macerata shooting (2018) is an Italian problem. Grenfell Tower (2017) is a British problem. Amad A. (2018), William Tonou-Mbobda (2019) and Hanau (2020) are German issues.
In regards to the reluctance to seriously reinvestigate Oury Jallohs case (2005) and the revelations within the trial of the NSU (1998-2011), we can even see that these attacks are partly the result of a combined effort between high ranking officials and racist organisations. There have been an abundance of protests coming from those who are the targets. After Zyed Bennas and Bouna Traorés deaths in Paris (2005) the banlieus were screaming out of pain and humiliation. We’ve seen similar protests after Mark Duggan’s murder in London (2011), in Sweden 2016 and from the Gilets Noir in France (2019). These are cries for help and recognition of the dehumanising events continually taking place. Yet the western media doesn’t necessarily connect all the dots. There is a cohesive structure throughout Europe that has its differences with that of the States yet in their essence these are two shapings of the same Phenomenon.
Germany is a country that took up until 2015 to admit that the murder of up to 100 000 Hereros and Namas (1904-1908) was in fact a genocide. Simultaneously german colonialism is barely thematised in the school curriculum, not to mention the many killings. After a right wing terrorist murdered ten people earlier this year in Hanau, the city of Hanau refused to pause the carnival festivities for a day, a festival that’s roughly a week long, in order to mourn the dead. Instead thecity opted for a festival combined with minutes of silence 1. Keep in mind the people participating were dressed in costumes while doing so. In the mean time a Prussian Palace is being rebuilt in Berlin (with a cross on the top of its dome), which will exhibit a large collection full of looted colonial goods.
The perception of cases in the States combined with colliding issues specific to the States (the wide distribution of fire arms etc.) create a complete image that compared to Europes self-image — only exists in pieces. The fragments are thinly spread across the refugee crisis, la Francophonie, Gastarbeiter-Generation, Yugoslav Wars, Commonwealth of Nations etc. and are rarely brought together under the focal point of being one and the same racist system killing people.
This gives Europe the ability to point at a complete referential system in the US while isolating and downplaying structures and incidences of its own making. Therefore Europeans are inclined to view racism in the States as a systemic issue and racism within Europe as a few bad eggs. Any conversation can easily be diverted into a conversation about the specific traits of racism within the US and with this becomes an instrument to overshadow the characteristics and persistence of racism within Europe.
Europes cultural institutions function along the same lines. Künstlerhaus Bethanien uses “Afrofuturism” as a buzzword to promote an exhibition that excludes black artists whatsoever. Tate Modern prefers to go All-In with Afro American artists rather than Afro British artists and simultaneously fails to thematise the dubious conditions under which Henry Tate accumulated his wealth. In European TV and cinema non-white actors are rarely given main roles (far less than in the States), but US American films and series staring Samuel L. Jackson, RuPaul, Michael B. Jordan, Amanda Stenberg, Rami Malek etc. are amongst Europes favourites. Black American contemporary artists make it in the US and then go on victory laps in Europe, while non-white artists in Europe are left with two choices. Either A. they abstract their experiences to align with the narrative of racism in the US or B. engage into the details of their experience and disappear in niches.Black American artists are not the ones to be held accountable for this. It’s the European cultural industry that is heavily invested in displaying the US black struggle as the favourable emblem of racial injustice, while refusing to expose the characteristics of non-white communities within Europe itself 2. It’s a cultural deflection that echoes the diversion of the mainstream politics, media and public.
Now this complete image of systematic racism provides an infrastructure of attention that can lead up to a potential turning point just like the murder of George Floyd has. The stories of Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, Breonna Taylor etc. are immediately unified under one banner. And the horrendous footage of George Floyds murder ignites the flame. Wide spread protests erupt that then strike a tipping point and create a feedback loop. Footage of police resorting to extremely transgressive measurements spark more fury. Donald Trump (high on hydroxychloroquin) throws additional oil into the fire. The protests become increasingly furious and uncontrollable and even Europes public gets involved, while European institutions pat themselves on the shoulder for displaying their “awareness”.
The irony is that it was western imperialism that gave birth to the racist ideology. The Formulation of racial theories and enlightenment went hand in hand and are now echoing into eternity. Meanwhile contemporary Europe has found a way to twist, diverge and outsource this crime against humanity. Racism is a global hierarchical and fragmented system constructed to oppress different groups of people under the same premise. It creates various disadvantages for non-white people on a complex scale and with this prevents those collectively suffering from racism to formulate a unified resistance and solidarity.
The unbalanced distribution of attention signifies a deflection that contributes to this dynamic. A deflection that functions within the very functionality of racism. In short: Europe is eager to discuss racism before the backdrop of racism in the US because it seemingly minimises racism within Europe. The US outrage echoing within Europe is inherently good, yet the unwillingness to practice the same in Europe is highly questionable. In many ways the non-white body rests in pieces. While some deaths have better chances of being recognised others that have met a similar fate are ignored. While some communities seem closer to an actual turning point — to profound systemic change — others are endlessly told a fairy tale of isolated incidences.
1 Wojcik, Nadine: Terroranschlag von Hanau: Kann man danach Karneval feiern?. Deutsche Welle. 2020.
2 Martins, Martin: On Arthur Jafa and the US-centrism of Black representation in Europe. Contemporary &. 2018.