The murder of George Floyd has thrown the United States into a state of unrest. President Trump is throwing fuel on the fire in an attempt to increase his re-election chances. The main problem, however, is historical, structural racism – and not just in the U.S. An interview with Bastian Hermisson, Head of the Foundation’s office in Washington, and Mekonnen Mesghena, Head of Migration and Diversity at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.
George Floyd, who was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis, is one of many Black victims of police violence in the U.S. Why have the protests spread like wildfire throughout the whole country this time?
Bastian Hermisson: George Floyd is indeed one of the countless Black victims of police violence in the U.S. In the last few weeks alone there have been several other high-profile but that cases. However, his murder stands out because it was so comprehensively documented on a mobile phone camera in all its clear-cut brutality. This meant that unlike most publicised cases in recent years, several police departments also immediately and unambiguously spoke out and condemned the actions of the police officers involved.
At the same time, this is an unprecedented moment in U.S. history, because it is the culmination of several crises, particularly from the point of view of the Black community and other people of colour. For months, Black people have been statistically more affected by COVID-19 than any other demographic group in the country: the coronavirus death rate for the Black community is almost 3 times higher than for white people and up to 7 times higher in certain states. Black people have also been hit much harder by the economic crisis, the worst since the 1930s. 40% of low-income earners in the U.S. have already lost their jobs. This crisis is so existential that in the richest country on earth, millions of children are going hungry, and this is affecting people of colour disproportionately.
These developments are exacerbated by the political dimension: amid this crisis, a president who is conducting a racist election campaign and doing everything in his power to make racism socially acceptable again by dressing it up as a fight against “political correctness” Meanwhile, there is growing disillusionment because of the fact that neither Barack Obama’s presidency, nor the nice but ultimately empty words of the Democratic Party have actually improved the situation for the Black community. The “Black Lives Matter” movement came into being during Obama’s time in office. Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, is the regional stronghold of the Democrats and left-leaning liberals in the Midwest. Nevertheless, the Black community suffers massively from systematic discrimination there every single day.
All of this taken together has resulted in a flashpoint of sorrow and confusion, despair and anger, which have spread throughout the whole country. Almost entirely peacefully, it should be stressed.
Young people have been especially visible in the protests. Many of the protesters are white. What is the support like among the population?
According to surveys, a majority of American citizens now finally recognise that Black people are considerably more affected by police violence than white people. There is also an increasing general awareness that racism is a major problem in the U.S. Many publicised cases and debates in recent years have contributed to this. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and many others have helped to raise awareness on issues of racism and subliminal, systematic white privilege, particularly among young people. Black intellectuals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates also played a major part, along with awareness-raising initiatives such as the New York Times’s “1619” project. There have also been important efforts to create intersectional social movements, encouraging people to see climate policy, social justice and the fight against racism as inter-related challenges to be addressed jointly.
Given the inherent social, economic and cultural discrimination against Black people in the U.S., these are just first small steps on a very long road to true justice and equality. Ultimately, it will need the white majority not just to recognise their inherent privileges, but to seriously question them. I hope that this moment will prompt more people to see that it’s worth it. Not just for moral reasons, but also because a more just and equitable society should be in everybody’s interests.
What do George Floyd’s murder and the protests it sparked mean to an American society already divided by Donald Trump’s politics?
The extreme political polarisation of recent years has badly affected society and the very functioning of politics. Donald Trump did not cause this division, but he has exploited and exacerbated it for his populist purposes. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, is the best example of this. By definition, it is aimed only at white people, since Black people and other minorities don’t have a mythical, wonderful past they could long to return to.
Apart from the political divide, however, we are also dealing with a toxic combination of mutually reinforcing crises. Firstly, there is a crisis of American democracy and its institutions that have come under attack from the president and the Republican Party. Then there is the crisis of a raging pandemic and its incalculable effects on society. On top of that comes a deep economic crisis, that will make the social inequality that has been growing in the country for years even worse and plunge many millions of people into bitter poverty. I see all of this as a literal trauma that is also going to emotionally overwhelm large sections of society. Even if Donald Trump should lose the election in November, that will leave a legacy that will not only require in-depth political reforms, but will probably take multiple generations to come to terms with.
How much hidden discrimination is there in the system? The National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, claims that there is “no systemic racism” in the U.S. How can the murder of George Floyd by police officers and countless other cases of uncontrolled police violence, principally against Black men, be explained away?
Of course, there is systematic racism in the U.S., from housing policy to the education and healthcare system to the employment market. Anyone who cannot accept that should go and visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, or the new memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, commemorating the victims of lynching. We Europeans of all people should, however, understand that the history of slavery and racism did not start in the U.S., but in Europe. It was Europeans who enslaved people, crammed them into ships and built up their thriving European economy with the colonial proceeds of their slave labour. We are still benefiting from this exploitation today. And, racism is still equally deep-rooted in Europe today.
But in America, there is also a unique police brutality dimension, together with a long-established culture of racism in many police departments. Both of these have a long, complex history that crosses party boundaries. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both positioned themselves as “law and order” presidents, something that always has racist connotations in the U.S. However, Bill Clinton, a Democrat from the South, followed suit and is responsible for laws that have put millions of Black people behind bars for minor offences. The U.S., which has 4% of the world’s population, now has 25% of the world’s prison population, of which Black people are affected disproportionately. When George W. Bush came into power and September 11 happened, police departments across the whole country were militarised as part of the “War on Terror”, in terms of tactics and equipment. At the same time, they are often under-trained in conflict prevention and also lack a functioning internal accountability system , which results in the fact that assaults by police officers are punished extremely rarely. And on top of all this, there are approximately 400 million privately-owned firearms in the U.S., helping to shape a culture in which the use of firearms is considerably more common than in other liberal democracies.
The overwhelming majority of people are protesting peacefully and have only one agenda: the death of George Floyd and other victims of police violence. Yet their protests have been accompanied by riots in several U.S. cities and a number of attacks on police officers. Who is taking part in the protests?
We do not have very much reliable information yet. There are initial reports that in many cities, it is young white men who triggered and escalated the riots. There are reportedly also other cases of right-wing extremists perpetrating acts of violence to discredit the protests and use them for their own agenda. The police themselves have caused the situation to escalate in many places, due to their tactics. But the backgrounds and motives of looters are ultimately complex and we will have to wait to see what we will learn about this over time.
So far, the President has, if anything, stirred up the debate, by calling the protesters thugs, condemning left-wingers and Antifa with his blatant threats of violence. He has now gone so far as to send out heavily-armed units of the U.S. Armed Forces to break up the protests. How do ordinary citizens and politicians in the US see the role of the President?
Trump’s racist comments and bellicose posturing certainly go down well with his hard-core supporters. That is pure right-wing identity politics and ties in perfectly with his election campaign plans. And with his approval rating falling by the day over the last few weeks, he also sees it as his opportunity to deflect media attention away from his disastrous management of the pandemic and of the economic crisis. Also, the depth of underlying racist attitudes, up to and including left-wing liberal circles, must not be underestimated. The images of Black men looting shops shore up racist stereotypes that are hundreds of years old.
Whether this political calculation will play in Trump’s favour is another question. Most people in this country are increasingly critical of Trump. They have very real problems to which the President has no solutions to offer. It is unlikely that most people will be able to answer “yes” to the classic election campaign question “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” I also get the impression that a growing number of citizens have had enough of the political chaos and hysteria of recent years. Mayors and governors who governed during the crisis calmly and effectively have the fastest-growing approval ratings, not the populists who only shouted the loudest.
However, we should not forget that structural racism in the U.S. did not start with Donald Trump and it’s not going to disappear, even if he is voted out of office. The public debate about these issues is an urgently needed and lengthy process, in the US as well as in Germany.
The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer has also triggered protests in Germany and led to a movement of solidarity between those affected by racially motivated police violence in the U.S. However, most of the reactions on social media were along the lines of ‘thank goodness that sort of thing doesn’t happen here’. What is the situation like in Germany?
Mekonnen Mesghena: The sheer brutality of police officers which led to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has obviously shocked people equally in the U.S., Europe and beyond. This is not the first time that we have seen images of this kind. The reality is that we only get to see what happens to have been captured on camera – mostly by civilians. Most of the violence in which innocent, unarmed civilians lose their lives remains invisible to the public. That fact cannot be overstated. That’s the situation in the U.S., but also in Germany and elsewhere. Remember Oury Jalloh, who burnt to death in a police cell in Dessau in 2005 with his hands and feet shackled. Invisible, behind bars. The deaths of non-white people as a result of police violence are certainly not a daily occurrence in Germany. Black people, Turkish-Germans, Asian-Germans and other People of Colour in Germany do, however, experience police violence and various acts of repression that white people do not. A clear example of institutional racism in Germany is racial profiling. Criminalisation or checks on individuals regardless of suspicion (on the streets, in traffic, on public transport or at airports) due to their skin colour or origin are a daily reality in Germany. For society or politicians to deny this makes the fight against institutional and structural racism in Germany even harder. The first and most important step must be to recognise these problems.
Repeated cases have come to light in which far-right structures have been discovered within police authorities in Germany, such as officers taking part in right-wing chat groups – in February, for instance, a police officer in Hamm was arrested as a supporter of a right-wing extremist terror cell. Do the German police and security authorities also have a racism problem?
Of course, these problems exist. To deny it or play them down only makes the problem worse. Not only the current publicised cases of far-right networks in digital spaces, but also the role of the security authorities and the destruction of evidence in the National Socialist Underground murders and other far-right cases remain unsolved. Other security institutions, such as the Army (Bundeswehr), the Domestic Intelligence Service (Verfassungsschutz), the KSK (Special Forces Command) and the Federal Border Guard (Grenzschutz) all face similar issues. The police and the army have made efforts in recent years actively to recruit from migrant communities as well, for demographic as well as political reasons. As a result of these efforts, the visibility of non-white police officers and soldiers has increased. Police authorities and other security authorities are, however, not parallel systems, but a cog in the state machine. This begs the question: what is being done to tackle institutional and structural racism in these authorities? Does the esprit de corps transcend all other considerations, or is there sufficient transparency and accountability in the event of racist and far-right incidents on the part of security authorities and individual civil servants?
What will it take to change the situation?
Transparency and accountability are absolutely vital in the fight against structural racism and far-right ideology – be it in society, politics or state institutions. Often, institutions and politicians are more worried about their image than about consistently dealing with racism and extreme right-wing ideas. This is true of the police, the army and the Federal Border Guard. It is predominantly the mission and responsibility of these institutions to make sure that there is transparency and accountability. Government has its own share of the responsibility, however. Many politicians wish predominantly to position themselves as proponents of “law and order”. The political will to take a critical look at policing is, consequently, very low. However, denying that racism and right-wing extremism exist will only worsen the problem in the long run and divide society. The recruitment of civil servants from all sections of society should, of course, continue. But recruitment alone is not sufficient. People need to have clear prospects within the institutions, allowing them to rise to positions of responsibility. All of this requires political decisions and support, but also critical accompaniment.
One year ago, CDU member Walter Lübcke was murdered by a far-right extremist and nine people were killed in February in a right-wing terrorist attack in Hanau (the 10th person was his mother). There was outrage at the time. Tthen the pandemic came along and has been the focus of media reports ever since. Is coronavirus masking similar issues in Germany and preventing a more in-depth examination of racist violence in the country?
In recent months, which had been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, many other issues have naturally taken a back seat. Right before the pandemic broke out, we tackled the issue of racism in society, and, following the murder of 10 people in Hanau, the issue of right-wing terrorism in particular. Then it all disappeared from the front pages. This was also the case with the climate issue, which had been dominating the headlines and public debate for months previously. Obviously, both of these issues – climate change and racism – did not go away when the pandemic broke out. Many people experienced not only “conventional” racism, but also pandemic-related insults and threats. Asian- Germans were verbally and physically abused in public and non-public spaces. Other people of colour also experienced discrimination and racism, for instance by being denied entry to drugstores. During a pandemic, discrimination of this kind is tantamount to physical injury. The response of the drugstore chain in question began and ended with denial and justification. This is just one example, but as long as reactions of this kind are the norm, nothing is going to change. The other problem is the hierarchy of issues. If the political climate is overshadowed by current affairs (such as climate, the financial crisis, migration), the issues of racism and discrimination will be pushed to the back burner, because there are “more important” topics. This shows how much importance society and politicians attach to the subject of racism.
Racism is frequently described as a problem on the right-wing margins of society. Yet racism is also rooted in structures in Germany. What will it take to eradicate racism for good?
In the last decades, the German society has experienced both a demographic and a political change. In many respects, it is more diverse, more modern and more liberal. Attitudes towards diversity, migration, racism and receiving and welcoming refugees have changed. These are no longer subjects for just a small niche within society. Many people in society are in favour of openness and equality. Many private and public institutions have a diversity policy. Nevertheless, there continues to be the widespread view that racism is only a marginal phenomenon. Specifically, far-right extremism and neo-Nazis. That is precisely wrong. Despite all the efforts, which deserve recognition, racism continues to be a central issue for the majority of the population. White privilege should not be denied, but talked about. Fighting racism is the responsibility of society, not of the people affected by racism. The visibility and representation of People of Colour in all areas of social, economic and political life must be increased enormously. We need many more Turkish-German teachers, Asian-German politicians, Black police officers and so on – as has been the case in the UK and France for years. Casual racism in the context of ordinary life – school, vocational training, work place, housing – must be tackled head-on and eliminated. There are numerous ideas, recommendations and good practices of this. They just have to be implemented. We need politicians with the political will and conviction to do this. At the end of the day, racism affects not only the people on the receiving end of it, but the whole of society. Defeating racism and ushering in social harmony are inextricably linked.
The article was first published on www.boell.de. Translation by Alison Frankland.