Europe Needs to Talk About Race Too
As black Americans’ protests start a national reckoning, European minorities go unheard.
Widespread protests in Europe in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have trained an unprecedented spotlight on the relationship between European states and their black populations. Crowds in countries as varied as Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have turned out to condemn racism not only in the United States, but also at home. But while the European protesters feel solidarity with their counterparts across the Atlantic, they will have to develop their own solutions, because the problems they face are distinct.
Every country in Europe has a much smaller black citizenry than the United States, ranging from 3.3 percent of the population in more diverse places such as England and Wales to less than 0.1 percent in virtually homogenous Poland. The racial power dynamics are thus unambiguous: While European countries all have differing histories and demographics, their minority black populations are all heavily reliant on white majorities for fair treatment in their everyday lives, with often limited avenues for recourse if that power is abused. The unfortunate result is that when black people in Europe suffer injustices committed by law enforcement, that suffering often occurs in silence with respect to public discourse. It is no accident that the world is honoring the memory of George Floyd and not Adama Traoré, a black man who died in circumstances similar to George Floyd’s while in French police custody in 2016.
As a black person with the experience of living both in homogenous Poland and diverse U.K., I have witnessed firsthand how power is exercised toward black populations in these two European states. The similarities are instructive—as are the differences.
In 2010, Maxwell Itoya, a 36-year-old Nigerian who sold shoes in an open-air market in Warsaw, Poland, was shot dead by a Polish police officer in controversial circumstances. Despite the fact that Itoya was unarmed and had no criminal record, the officer claimed the Nigerian lunged for his service weapon following a heated verbal exchange, prompting him to shoot in self-defense. But Nigerian witnesses present told a different story, saying the policeman had shot without any warning following his exchange with Itoya.
Despite calls by Nigeria’s foreign ministry for an inquiry into the “wanton killing,” Polish prosecutors decided witness narratives were too “divergent” to establish what had really happened, and they let the police officer off scot-free. This outcome was so odd that even Fakt, a right-wing Polish tabloid not known for its pro-foreigner stance, questioned whether the case would have been similarly dismissed had the victim been white and Polish. The incident was emblematic of the brutal reality that Poland’s black population is so small as to be ignorable by Polish authorities irrespective of any evidence of race-based discrimination.
The current situation is not helped by the fact that since 2015, Poland has been governed by an overtly nationalist party, Law and Justice, that is openly dismissive of any suggestions that racism is a problem in the country, despite numerous reports of incidents evidencing the contrary. Well aware of the weakness of their position, as well as the dismissive attitude of authorities toward them, most black victims of racial discrimination in Poland never report their experiences to the police, as they don’t believe anything will be done about them. This mirrors a general trend in European Union member states, where 2 in 3 victims of racist violence, including physical attacks by police officers, do not report the incident to anybody, either because they feel it won’t change anything or due to fear and mistrust of the police.
The racial dynamics in Britain differ significantly from those in Poland. Though proportionally a small minority, there are close to 1.9 million black inhabitants of England and Wales. The figure rises to 2.5 million if you add citizens of mixed black and white heritage, many of whom identify significantly with their black roots. Unlike in Poland, Britain’s black population is too large to be ignored by the white power establishment. The left wing of the British Labour Party, and its influential media affiliates, have especially strong traditions of treating racial discrimination as an important social justice issue. These are the vehicles through which an otherwise marginal issue tends to enter the British mainstream.
The process dampens some of the urgency felt by victims of discrimination—but it also offers insightful nuances. In 2017, David Lammy, a black Labour member of Parliament and the opposition party’s now-shadow justice secretary, produced a report on how black Britons and other minorities are treated in Britain’s justice system. Though Lammy is generally a vocal critic of racial abuses, his report suggested a complex reality on the ground that defies easy sweeping narratives about racism in Britain.
For instance, while black people are clearly overrepresented in Britain’s prisons, the report suggested the roots of this are varied and include the fact that black people are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than white Britons, as well as the reality that black children are more than twice as likely to grow up in a single-parent family. Encouragingly, the report noted that “on average, juries—including all-white juries—do not deliver different results” for black and other ethnic minority defendants in comparison to white defendants. A black defendant is no more likely to be convicted by an all-white jury in Britain than a white defendant. The report also found British prosecutors to be “broadly proportionate” in their prosecution numbers in terms of race. For every 100 white men charged with a crime, there were 98 black men charged.
On the downside, the report exposed significant flaws in Britain’s policing system. The fact that black people were “over six times more likely to be stopped” and searched and “three times more likely to be arrested than White men” had a strongly negative effect on how black Britons viewed their justice system. “The police, [prosecutors], the courts, prisons and probation may all be separate institutions, but they form part of a single ‘system’ in many people’s minds,” the report noted.
These negative perceptions of the “system” are the main reason black defendants are more likely to plead “not guilty” in court than white defendants, even though pleading guilty could see their sentences reduced by up to a third. Many black prisoners who now regret their initial decisions not to enter a guilty plea said they had avoided doing so because they did “not trust the promises made to them by their own solicitors, let alone the officers in a police station warning them to admit guilt.” Their view of the justice system as a whole was that of a white “them” out to get a black “us,” the report noted. That lack of trust toward law enforcement, and the underlying reasons for it, are at the core of the tensions between black and white Britons.
A lower percentage of black Britons profess trust in their local police than white Britons: 70 percent compared to 75 percent. The figure professing trust drops to 61 percent among black youths aged 16 to 24. This means 4 in 10 young black Britons do not trust their local police. For race relations to improve, this trust deficit must be bridged. While an encouraging 80 percent of black and mixed Britons feel “they belong” in Britain compared to 85 percent of whites and Asians, the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement seems to resonate with significant numbers of black Britons suggests the country is still far from racial harmony. Alarming disparities in the number of black Britons who have died from COVID-19 compared to white Britons raises further suspicions among some that black lives matter less in British society.
The lack of trust in the white establishment among significant numbers of black people in Britain, Poland, and across Europe can sometimes be too instinctual, a response conditioned by knowledge of past humiliations and abuse at the hands of white people. But it is also often rooted in the realities of the current relationship between black and white people in Europe. It is a relationship with a heavily one-sided power dynamic, which breeds a heightened sense of vulnerability.
The greatest onus of responsibility for bridging Europe’s racial trust deficit lies with the dominant white establishment. But the British example shows that the black community in Europe will be best served by patiently and constructively engaging with those parts of the establishment willing to address its concerns. The United States, where the black population is sufficiently large to power its own nationwide movement, is not a viable model to emulate, yet neither is Poland, where injustices, and anger, fester in silence.