BlackLivesMatter - What can the current US anti-racist movement teach Europe?

The "Black Lives Matter" movement in the United States has led to a series of solidarity rallies in Germany and throughout Europe. At the same time, new forms of anti-racism and anti-authoritarianism have developed in a kind of domino effect. In their essay "Black Lives Matter - What can the current US anti-racist movement teach Europe?" Katalin Parti and Gunda Wössner analyse the anti-racist movement in the USA and its potential impact on Germany and Europe.


BlackLivesMatter - What can the current US anti-racist movement teach Europe?

"Feast your eyes on France and what is prepared for you" – said Hungarian poet János Batsányi, back in 1789, in his poem ‘On the Changes in France’ (English translation by George Szirtes). Though the recent events in the US are separated from the French revolution in time, both revolts are rooted in outrage against systemic oppression and the intricate power abuse of the upper ruling classes.

This recent revolutionary movement began in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in late May, after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a white police officer. Following the killing, protests erupted in 200 US cities against racism-driven police violence with slogans like 'Black Lives Matter' and 'Defund the Police.' Although the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement existed before, these protests have flared up with it by advocating for non-violent civil disobedience against police brutality mostly affecting African-American people. Protesters first demanded that the officers present at George Floyd's murder be held accountable, which led to the firing of all four officers. The public outrage was not the result of just this particular case, but a long history of violence upon African Americans, with George Floyd being the last straw.  In February of just this year, Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was shot by civilian white men in Brunswick, Glynn County, Georgia. The two men, father and son, allegedly misidentified the jogger as a neighborhood burglar while he was jogging past them. In March, Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, was shot dead by a white officer at a police raid in Louisville, Kentucky. Taylor, like the other victims, was unarmed and was a casualty of an unwarranted police raid in her home.      

As the May protests spread, a state of emergency was declared in Minneapolis, and the National Guard was deployed to the city. Days later, the Pentagon put active-duty members of the army on standby for deployment. Protesters in Washington D.C. were aggressively controlled by military helicopters flying low over the crowd. Anti-racism solidarity protests broke out in the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. American football players sent a video message to the NFL claiming institutional racial discrimination. Meanwhile, protesters in various sites began to topple or petition to remove Confederate statues and monuments. UK protesters removed a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader in Bristol, United Kingdom. Another protest in Brussels urged the removal of the monument of King Leopold II, who was responsible for the genocide of 10 million people in the Belgian Congo in the 19th century.

The anti-racist movement set off a domino effect of like-minded, corporate decisions across many industries as products labeled with 'traditional', but also prejudicial depictions of Black people, announced their intention to change logos and packaging. This happened, among other famous brands, to Uncle Ben’s and Negro Kiss. Although these brands had already removed their racist labels from products shipped to affluent, first world countries years earlier, products shipped elsewhere still bore racist imagery. Next, HBO Max pulled the classic 1939 blockbuster ‘Gone with the Wind’ from its library as being discriminatory and stigmatizing. The movie is accused by not only whitewashing Southern slavery, but also perpetuating toxic masculine values. The latter is reflected particularly in scenes where protagonist Rhett Butler carries Scarlett O’Hara to have sex with her, despite her saying no and fighting back physically. Nonetheless, a few days later after its removal, the movie reappeared with an intro explaining the subtle and direct racism of the picture, taking an educational narrative. Further, Camden High School and Monmouth University decided to remove former US president Woodrow Wilson’s name from a university building, in order to "foster diversity."  On July 1st, Boston University Metropolitan College announced the 'retirement' of their university mascot 'Rhett,' as the mascot paid tribute to the fictional character Rhett Butler of ‘Gone with The Wind’, who was associated with the Confederacy, slavery, and sexual assault. Boston University chose to no longer be silent towards racist and sexual oppression and rejected the misrepresentation of heinous crimes. 

Besides these institutional decisions, the anti-discriminatory movement is continuing on the micro-level as well. As an example, a barista got an astounding $95,000 tip from customers after refusing to serve a white woman unless she adhered to the company's and country's public health mandate of wearing a mask. After the indignant customer posted a photo of the barista on social media with her accusations, social media activists put up a fund for the barista.

These historical monuments, movies, and personalities have many layers, indeed. Although they have undeniable value in preserving the past, our history, and in teaching us the significance of their times, they are also mementos of an era whose symbols and heroes are no longer accepted. Keeping them undisturbed in their places allows us to remember historical happenings. Why is it harmful then to screen movies and leave memorials with controversial messages left untested by time and era?   

The said monuments, movies, and heroes are cultural artifacts incorporating the Zeitgeist of an era. Being mementos of important times and events – such as the foundation of a country, a war of significant carnage, or a tribute to the technology that made color cinema possible – they have worthwhile messages for everyone. But part of that message is how war and racial and gender subjugation as social constructs are depicted. The whitewashing of slavery, as well as the romanticized depiction of toxic masculinity and rape (i.e., protagonist Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett O'Hara to rape her, ignoring her saying no and even physically fighting) are utterly wrong and no longer tolerated. The slogan of the demonstrations, "Black Lives Matter" instead of "All Lives Matter", affirms that a long-oppressed and discriminated societal group is in need of recognition and support. Mainstream culture has long been contributing to the subjugation and discrimination of subcultures, ethnic and racial minorities, and women. Discrimination is done by direct means, e.g., redlining dilapidated residential areas in cities and segregating schools by race, as well as by indirect means, e.g., being silent and not opposing obvious discrimination against them.

Why is now the right time for Europe to examine these issues? The George Floyd demonstrations should be the new #MeToo movement of Europe. These demonstrations, the rush to eliminate mementos pertaining to racial discrimination, and the subsequent sympathy protests all over the world have an important root in common emancipation. This is the time to increase acceptance of 'otherness,' be it that of racial, ethnic, class, or gender. This is extremely timely as Europe has been in the midst of its greatest modern migration and refugee crisis and with it, growing racist resentments for at least a decade now and has been facing increasing xenophobia, antisemitism, and hate crimes. Some European Member States still reject the idea of giving in to the European Union's decision on the migrant "quota." Others even use and abuse the crisis to elevate fearmongering of the 'unknown,' the possible cultural discrepancies between the incoming and resident populations, in order to strengthen their populist political agendas. Refugees and migrants are subject to racial and ethnic discrimination on many levels in Europe. Contrastingly, and in a timely manner, Germany is actively initiating investigations against global injustices. More than half of known Syrian war criminals, both state and non-state actors, have been processed so far in German international jurisdictions. War criminals who engage in genocide and civil abuse are part of the systemic oppression that inflicts Syrian population since the inception of the war there. Germany's international war criminal justice trials can provide official justice and are aligned with the civil protests seeking social and criminal justice against systemic oppression and power abuse.

Symbols of systemic oppression appear in various shapes and sizes, such as sculptures of bygone eras and war memorials. The debate over removing war memorials – especially WWII memorials – looks back to a long history, especially in Germany. These cultural artifacts are educational tools for teaching younger and future generations. Our history cannot be erased, nor can the heroic acts that helped our countries take steps towards a more just society. Removing statues without people understanding the reasons for their removal can lead to distressed communities. Likewise, the renaming of street names, as currently done in many German cities, also leads to controversy and partly incomprehension. Unprocessed distress can cause transgenerational trauma and can inflict violence against those who urged to remove these monuments. Because of these considerations, we should be attentive to the risk of erasing shameful memories without processing them. When removing monuments, we must make sure that we provide historically updated interpretations to them as well as clearly expressed reasoning for their rejections, physically displayed. Emancipation memorials should be erected replacing Confederate memorials in order to provide contrast and re-interpretations.  At the University of Oklahoma, officials placed signs outside campus buildings that taught the history of their original names, why it made sense at the time and why its renaming made sense. In addition, there are plenty of university halls and other public buildings that can be named after enslaved people and their descendants, and freedom fighters. We do not intend to forget the wrongdoings of an era, but to teach future generations to face the past and learn about their ancestors' different views, reminding them that they shall never again fall for dictators, violence, and hatred.

Current protests in the US are not exclusively pro-Black lives, but for the inclusivity of all lower-class white people whose human rights have been abused for centuries. The slogan, Black Lives Matter is not only anti-racist but anti-authoritarian as well. German sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer interprets authoritarian regimes as indicative of a loss of control upon their economic, political, societal and individual value systems. As this happens, the demand for political authoritarianism increases. Authoritarian regimes offer the restoration of control, but it often happens through the exercise of power and domination, and through exclusion and discrimination. Heitmeyer explains why neo-nationalism gains popularity precisely on the ground of demanding control on an economic, political, and social level: being part of a nation functions as status-anchor that provides stability for people in turbulent times. The BLM movement challenges the “angry apathy” of people who by not doing anything against oppression, and sometimes even shoving indignance towards those mobilized, are becoming bystanders to the authoritarian state and thus feeds their status panic on the control that an oppressive authority can provide.   

The BLM movement in the US was exasperated by the pandemic which left most of the oppressed people unemployed, poor, and even homeless. As such, it does not only support Black lives, but all lives, just like at the time of the French Revolution, where protests were catalyzed by the famine. The BLM movement has multiple layers. By rejecting racial discrimination, the BLM movement urges anti-authoritarian, anti-masculine, and anti-populist ideas of oppression. By removing stereotyping product labels, they advocate for a better, more emancipated world. By mass-tipping a bartender who was intended to be publicly shamed solely for his enforcing social justice, we recognize that Black Lives Matter means all lives matter. By adding an updated commentary to a historic blockbuster, we are fighting rape myths and gender inequalities. By organizing solidarity demonstrations, we acknowledge that we live in democracies, although these are democracies in continuous progress and must be constantly reevaluated so as to reflect modern values.   

The American protests served as catalysts for societal problems in Europe and helped them come to surface, as many BLM-supporting demonstrations overseas show. Likewise, the riots in Stuttgart and Frankfurt beginning in late June and July this year, which started as peaceful gatherings that later erupted into violent riots may also have had a catalyst function. The authorities clashed with hundreds of youth, several people got injured, police cars and local businesses were damaged. Although the motive of the unrest is still under investigation at the time of writing, the police tactic of investigating suspects’ national background in an attempt to find possible immigrant roots, sparked societal outrage in Germany. The hashtag #Stammbuchforschung (family tree research) movement is against this practice of investigation which is blatant discrimination inflicted ethnic minority groups and immigrants. The #Stammbuchforschung movement in Germany is shining light on a hidden and systemic practice that is probably present in other European countries has serious consequences in attempting to consolidate class discrimination between ‘native born’ and immigrant populations. 

The BML inspired scrutiny of policing in Europe. We have to acknowledge that racist discrimination happens everywhere, as we all carry stereotypes as ways our brains categorize information. We are influenced by schemas in everyday life, a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. Although these schemas make routine activities easier, they can also lead to prejudice, microaggression, discrimination and hatred. It is the responsibility of every one of us to recognize this, to break these patterns, and to actively work for the rights of those affected because of their race, ethnicity, class, or migrant status. The BLM movement started off in the US, but did not stay there; it was a sobering wave, revealing that these are problems everywhere and we are all complicit – either through the mistraining of our police forces, by simply not addressing anti-racism in training, or by believing in the ‘superiority’ of one nation, race, ethnicity, class, religion or origin above the other.

Batsányi in his aforementioned poem talks about the legacy of the 1789 French revolution, and how its slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” swept through Europe. The BLM movement and its follow-up protests in Europe, are - as US Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis addresses them - “good troubles” as they lead to a greater equality compared to the past. It also reminds us that the legacy of the Age of Enlightenment is still with us and we must not rest until we see any transgression harming people in the bosom of their origin. 


Katalin Parti is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (US) and guest scientist at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law (Germany).

Gunda Wössner is Senior Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law (Germany).