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Analysis: Is Europe any better than the US when it comes to racism?

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A protester holds up a skateboard with the Black Lives Matter initials in London, Wednesday, June 3, 2020 during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd.
A protester holds up a skateboard with the Black Lives Matter initials in London, Wednesday, June 3, 2020 during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd.   -   Copyright  AP Photo
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On Tuesday, millions of Europeans blacked out their social media in solidarity with protesters across the Atlantic. Millions more watched in shock and horror at the police brutality that led to the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the violent demonstrations that have spread across America. These past few weeks have again exposed the hideousness of racism and the deep societal divides in the world’s most powerful country.

Thousands have also taken to the streets in European cities, like London, Paris and Berlin, not just in a show of support for black Americans but also to express their anger about racism where we live - racism in Europe.

In April, violent protests erupted here in Brussels after a 19-year-old man of Moroccan heritage, Adil, died while attempting to escape a police patrol. His scooter hit a police vehicle, the young man died immediately. It came less than a year after the death of 17-year-old Mehdi Bouda, who was killed in August 2019 by the police in Brussels. The young boy, also of Moroccan heritage, was hit by a police patrol car and died.

Two deaths in one city in the past year. And these stories are not rare across Europe. Nor are examples of police brutality and, frankly, racial victimisation. Now, of course, each instance is different and most police officers are brave heroes, who run toward danger to keep us safe. But many forces struggle with institutional racism.

Coronavirus risk

This sense of injustice and widespread discrimination has been heightened during the coronavirus crisis. This week a report from Public Health England found that people from ethnic minorities are at a higher risk of dying from coronavirus. It shows age remains the biggest risk factor, while being male is another, but the impact of COVID-19 is also "disproportionate" for people from Asian, Caribbean and black ethnic groups.

Why? Well, to many the answer is obvious. People of colour are more likely to work in low-paid, front-facing jobs, to be bus drivers or shop workers and thus more likely to be exposed to the virus. Poverty also means that the health of many in ethnic minority communities tends to suffer. Underlying conditions, like diabetes, are a major factor in coronavirus deaths.

The coronavirus discrimination doesn’t end there. A survey for the Financial Times in the US showed 74 per cent of black voters reported a financial hit compared to 58 per cent of white voters. It also found that more African-Americans had lost their jobs since the outbreak began, highlighting the growing economic inequalities this crisis has wrought. There is little doubt the same is true here.

On both sides of the Atlantic, we face the same insidious problem. But are black Americans at least better represented in their political system, do they have a voice that is lacking here in Europe?

According to the European Network Against Racism analysis, there were 36 members of racial/ethnic minorities in the new European Parliament last year – 30 of whom are people of colour. The 36 seats amounts to just 5 per cent of the hemicycle. This number has since dropped to 4 per cent after the UK left in January. In contrast, ethnic minorities make up at least 10 per cent of the EU population, proving there is still a long way to go for the EU to argue it truly represents the full diversity of its population.

Uphill battle

Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission contains no non-whites. When I put this question to the Commission President last year, she seemed rather taken aback, replying “I hope one day that changes, that would be good”. When I pushed her on whether she had done anything to change it, she said: “It is the right of the member states to present candidates, so I had to fight hard to get the commission composed. So we’ll see.”

It appears to me that racism is almost a taboo here in Brussels. Unlike in the US, it is not really talked about, let alone addressed. We face many of the same problems that shocked millions and brought thousands onto the streets this past week but seem far less willing to engage with the issue confronting millions of our fellow citizens.

Can we, as Europeans looking at the US, really argue that we are getting this right?

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.