Blackademics TV is a TED type talk for Black Academics – this is my talk taped on February 20, in Austin, TX:


Can Democracy Survive Racism?

This is a provocative title, based on my experience studying the politics of race in the U.S. and Europe, and it is clear that racism continues to be an issue on both sides of the Atlantic. Today I’m going to focus mainly on Europe.

I. Immigration and Racism in Europe

My focus on Europe began with learning French from 7th grad through college. My first trip to France was in 1986, my junior year of college. I had read about the authors, like James Baldwin, and entertainers, like Josephine Baker, who had been welcomed and celebrated in Paris, but I was still nervous about how I would be received as a black person in France. I was somewhat relieved when I got to Paris and saw the diversity there, but I also had an experience where a family that was supposed to host me for dinner declined once they found out I was black. Fortunately, another family welcomed me and I learned a great deal about the issues for Muslim (particularly Algerian) and other African citizens and migrants in France, enough that I decided to study these issues once I went back to graduate school.

I’m often asked why I study Europe. It was clear to me from my first visit to Europe that the issue of race was just as compelling there as it was in the U.S. In fact, many of the ideas that have developed around race were first developed and institutionalized in Europe. One can’t escape the history of racism that led to slavery, genocide, and the Holocaust. These attitudes have continued in new forms, focusing on immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, Muslims in particular, and a willingness to vote for anti-democratic parties who focus on economic and cultural threats.

As I conducted research on immigration politics in Europe in the mid-1990s, it was clear that anti-immigrant political parties were gaining influence. Radical right party leaders like Jean Marie Le Pen were calling for stopping immigration and deporting immigrants. Attacks on refugees and migrants occurred on a regular basis not only in the 1990s, but have also occurred more recently, particularly after the massive influx of refugees from Syria into Europe, with most going to Germany.

Radical right parties in Europe tend to use a populist appeal, arguing that they are for the “common man” and against the elite. They often lean authoritarian in their call for security to protect against outsiders and blind loyalty to the party or leaders. Another component is the racism and fear of minorities and immigrants that is being used by politicians both here in the U.S. and in Europe to mobilize voters who fear the loss of privilege and ultimately political dominance.

These politicians are working across borders and across the Atlantic in order to pursue their agendas. For example, Congressman Steve King of Iowa has been working with radical right politicians like Geert Wilders of the Netherlands for many years, including inviting him to the 2016 Republican National Convention. King was recently stripped of his committee assignments for blatantly racist statements in the media.

Far right politicians create divides in order to marginalize communities that are growing, and in some cases gaining in political power. As I wrote in my book from 2012 on Immigrant Politics, there is growing support for politicians of immigrant background, and I have worked with organizations like the German Marshall Fund to support young people from ethnic and religious minorities in Europe. For example, a Turkish politician became a co-chair of the German Green party in 2008.

II. Immigration and Race in Europe

Immigration has been an issue in Europe for many years. Europe needed rebuilding after WWII and many countries turned to migrant labor. In France, immigrants came from former colonies, particularly Algeria, while Germany brought in workers from southern Europe and Turkey. Generally, men came as temporary workers, but stayed when the importation of labor ended in the late 60s and early 1970s. Those who stayed gained the right to bring their families to join them.

In general, the EU experiences a flow of 1-2 million legal immigrants per year, which is similar to flows of legal migrants into the U.S.  Immigration flows were relatively constant into the 1990s, but the war in the Balkans in the mid-1990s led to a significant flow of refugees, particularly into Germany.

More recently, war and unrest in Africa and the Middle East has led to a very significant increase of refugee flows, again. For example, from 2014 to 2015 over a million refugees entered Germany alone. However, the overall number of foreign-born residents in Germany has been consistent around 11 million people since 2005, France has 7 million and the UK has gone from around 6 million in 2006 to nearly 9 million in 2015, many of these are also refugees.

These protesters in Berlin are making the case that they should be considered human. In Germany, the media has reported that 3,500 far-right attacks on refugees and refugee homes were carried out in 2016, leaving hundreds injured. The party, Alternative for Germany, won 13 percent of the vote in the 2017 German parliament elections. The party went from being Euroskeptic calling for a return to Germany’s national currency, the Deutschmark, to an anti-immigrant party, calling for the detention and deportation of immigrants. Some of their leaders have broached taboo subjects such as decrying Germany’s Holocaust Memorial in the center of Berlin and called on the country to stop atoning for Nazi crimes. They have also capitalized on growing anxiety that immigrants — especially Muslim immigrants — could fundamentally change German society.

For immigrants, violence and discrimination have been an ongoing problem that was at least partially addressed in the late 1990s by the EU with the passage of the Racial Equality Directive which was the subject of my book Legislating Equality.

III. Discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities

As in the U.S., housing segregation and unemployment have been ongoing issues for ethnic and racial minorities. France has a large Muslim population of around 5 million, with many living in the banlieus or suburbs on the outskirts of cities like Paris and Lyon. These areas have had problems with poverty, high unemployment, and violence from the police, which is often followed by riots. For example, in 2005 riots erupted in the suburbs of several major cities in France. Two teenage boys, one black, one Arab, who had been hiding from police in an electricity substation, were electrocuted. Their deaths set off the largest riots in France in 40 years – leading to a state of emergency.

Youths took to the streets in February of 2017 when a young black man was reported to have been beaten and assaulted by the police. These incidents compound the regular harassment that these young people experience on a regular basis. The police have the right to ask for their identity papers at any time, often targeting young men when they are taking the train to their homes in the suburbs.

There is strong support for the radical right in France, as Marine Le Pen has taken over the party started by her father. The party won 8 seats in the 2017 parliament election, it’s best showing ever, and they, along with other radical right parties are expected to do well in the upcoming European Parliament elections.

IV. Conclusion

I started this talk by asking the question if democracy can survive racism and for now I believe it can. However, the anti-immigrant, racist and authoritarian radical right parties have been gaining in support, despite the ongoing discrimination towards people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds who are striving for a voice in their countries. The success of far-right politicians in Poland and Hungary has clearly led to an undermining of the free press and judicial oversight. Countries like France and Germany are not currently in danger, as the support for radical right parties there has remained around 15-20% of the electorate but it will be important for oppressed minorities in these countries to feel that they have a voice if democracy is to survive.

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