Knees on necks and blood on hands

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

epa08469119 People demonstrate during a Black Lives Matter vigil at Alexanderplatz square in Berlin, Germany 06 June 2020. A large crowd gathered in a silent protest in commemoration of the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who died while in Minneapolis police custody on 25 May after the arresting officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes. EPA-EFE/OMER MESSINGER

There is widespread anger in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers. Anger that we need to channel into social reform. This is a priceless deposit and we must not let it go to waste, writes Helena Dalli.

Helena Dalli is the European Commissioner for Equality. This Op-Ed is published exclusively on EURACTIV.com.

What started as a protest against police violence on African-Americans in the US, has become a worldwide examination of racism in all its forms.

As Europeans, we woke up to the racist reality on our doorstep and inside our homes too. As Chancellor Merkel recently stated: “Racism has always been present, but sadly we also have this problem. We should first sweep in front of our own door.”

The European Commission under the leadership of President von der Leyen is determined to do all possible so that the scourge of racism is addressed head-on.

There is strong EU legislation at our disposal. Good tools to address racism are the Race Equality Directive which prohibits discrimination in all areas of life based on racial or ethnic origin; and the Framework Decision on combatting racism and xenophobia, which criminalises racist hatred.

Overt racism, however, is merely the tip of the iceberg – it is what lies underneath the surface of the water which can be worse. It is what follows when people declare: ‘I am not a racist, but …’

That is why in spite of the legislation in place,  there is much more to be done.

We can resume our work in this area of policy by acting along the lines of writer and political activist Angela Davis who points out that “in a racist society, it not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

What is happening around the world today is because we – albeit inadvertently for some – perpetuate racism and let it permeate our families and societies.

We are all guilty as charged. Rather than waste energy to absolve ourselves of racism though, we need to examine what needs to change to eradicate it.

Some of us in our white-centric, privileged world believe that we do not perpetrate racism because we do not support its more extreme manifestations and stop there. But how does that help black people who have been enslaved and discriminated against for centuries, simply on the basis of the colour of their skin?

Structural racism can be found in every area of life: family, education, health, wealth, stop and search rates, incarceration rates and political under-representation, to name a few examples.

The biggest challenge with structural racism is that there is no single person or entity responsible for it; we all are. This makes it very hard to solve.

We must work towards becoming more aware of our implicit biases. What are the prejudices we hold that we are not even aware of?

We must acknowledge that the consequences of slavery are still affecting access to opportunity today, and we must work for systemic changes that create equal opportunities for everyone.

Structural problems require structural solutions. We are all part of the system which means we all have a role to play in making it better. We need to change attitudes, minds and culture, and these changes take much longer than laws to materialise.

The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency has carried out a lot of good research in this area. Apart from the Europe-wide surveys, so critical for our work on policy, the handbook on fair and effective policing, for instance, comes to mind.

There is also the EU’s Agency for Law Enforcement Training, which offers learning opportunities on these issues, which law enforcement authorities can benefit from.

It is an understatement to say that black lives matter. But we have to say it because we do not yet live in societies where black lives have the same value as white lives.

Paraphrasing Minister Al Sharpton in his eulogy to George Floyd, we white people need to get our knees off the necks of black people.

Nobody should question the fact that:

black Europeans, in all their diversity, are European citizens;

black Europeans must have equal opportunities, be free to pursue their chosen path in life, and be able to participate, lead and thrive in our European society in line with the Race Equality Directive;

black Europeans must be safe from all manifestations of racism, xenophobia and intolerance in line with the Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia.

I support the Black Lives Matter movement’s struggle for race and ethnic origin justice and I promise to do all within my competence to make the fight in Europe as short as I can.

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