Black Lives Matter, Wherever They Are

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As protests against racism have gathered global momentum in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it has become clear that U.S. President Donald Trump is not the only leader in the world with a problem. There isn’t a single wealthy Western country that is racism-free. European nations, the U.S., Australia, Canada: All were founded — or fattened — on the proceeds of either slavery or colonization, or both. 

Trump’s handling of the protests has been an unmitigated disaster, but when it comes to domestic matters, Western leaders usually stay out of one another’s business, reserving their finger-wagging about human-rights abuses against ethnic minorities for developing countries. And yet, the American situation has deteriorated so significantly in the past few days that leaders in Europe and Canada haven’t been able to avoid commenting.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paused for an excruciatingly awkward 21 seconds before offering his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter protests and the police crackdown events. As his face toggled between concern and befuddlement, Trudeau shifted uncomfortably, sighed deeply and finally said: “We all watch with horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States.”  

He quickly changed the subject, but it was clear that his discomfort wasn’t simply about criticizing his neighbor. Trudeau’s  awkwardness may have been linked to his own history as an enthusiastic participant in brownface dress-up parties, but it is more likely that he was leery of pointing the finger at Trump’s America when his own Canada has serious problems with racism. Early this month, police in Edmundston shot and killed an indigenous Canadian woman named Chantel Moore in her own home. In another incident, police in Nunavut were filmed deliberately running over an indigenous Canadian man with their car before arresting him. 

In Europe, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said that he stood “in solidarity with protesters in America,” but his posture is viewed with skepticism by Africans and Latin Americans in Spain, who point to the country’s long history of racism. At protests in Madrid, activists chanted the names of Mame Mbaye, a Senegalese street vendor who died while being chased by police in 2018, and of Lucretia Perez, a woman of Dominican descent who was Spain’s first official victim of a hate crime 25 years ago.

Large protests in Australia highlighted the deaths of indigenous people in custody, and in Germany protesters marched in a context in which the government itself admits that 2019 was “a year of hatred and hostility” for minorities in the country.

Black activists outside the U.S. are drawing attention to the thousands of George Floyds in their own countries, demanding that their white compatriots sort out their own racism even as they mourn for an African American. 

Making these arguments has not been easy. Australians, Brazilians, Europeans and Canadians have a tendency to exceptionalize American racism. It is not uncommon to hear white people in these countries claim that they are doing far better than the U.S. on race relations. A poll taken after Floyd’s death indicates 80% of Australians believe that the U.S. has a problem with racism, but only 30% agree that Australia has the same problem. The country’s right-wing prime minister, Scott Morrison, accused activists of trying to “import” problems, even though Australia’s incarceration rate of indigenous people is higher than that of African Americans in the U.S. 

But even if the protests in these countries are inspired by events in the U.S., they are driven by people who have been oppressed in similar ways across place and time. For years anti-racism activists have used similar tactics in different places. What is different about this moment, what gives it such power, is the fact that the protests are taking place in such absolute synchronicity.

If this movement were only about African-American lives, it would be important, but it would not be global. But protesters in Bristol and Rio and Johannesburg feel the pain of the Floyd family because it is also their pain.  They do not need to imagine what it must be like to face injustice.   

The protesters have successfully framed racism as an existential question rather than simply a matter to be shrugged off. By insisting that Black Lives Matter wherever black people may be, this generation of activists has transformed a local tragedy into a global fight. 

It is a fight that will be difficult to win. In Australia, Morrison has spent the week embroiled in a bitter debate with indigenous people, arguing that slavery never existed in the country. (It did.) In Canada, Trudeau attended a Black Lives Matter rally and took a knee on three separate occasions during the course of the event, but he refused to answer reporters when they asked him if he believed police officers in Canada were racist. He broke his silence after his police chief said she “struggles” with the term “systemic racism.” Trudeau contradicted her and accepted that the country does in fact have a problem. 

The responses of both men illustrate the difficulty of combating racism. Morrison’s argumentativeness and Trudeau’s gestures are distracting because they center their views and feelings rather than keeping the attention on justice.    

They and other leaders must get over themselves. The protesters are tired of rhetoric. What they need from their leaders is action to dismantle systems that hamper black lives. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sisonke Msimang is a fellow at the University of the Witswatersrand Institute for Social and Economic Research and the author of "Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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