Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Dr. Allison Blakely
- Boston University


The history of Blacks in modern Europe is converging with the present situation that finds an unprecedented level of Blacks in Europe proper. The size and significance of this Black presence (see map) are not yet widely recognized by scholars or the general public. In fact, it has recently been overshadowed by manifestations there of the new clash between the West and Islam. While Blacks in Europe themselves are only beginning to sense a degree of group identity – and this largely forced upon them by the shared experience of discrimination and racism - the black population in Europe has finally achieved a size and visibility that invites comparison with the involuntary definition of community that shaped the concept of Afro-America among the descendants of enslaved Africans in North America.

For centuries millions of peoples of Black African descent were subjected to domination by the leading European societies in their colonies and former colonies abroad. In those settings there was a clearly understood hierarchy of wealth, power, and skin color; any Black presence in Europe was severely restricted; and European societies could pretend that those peoples were not part of their world. History is now converging with the present in that largely economic motivations are compelling the Europeans to allow into their midst populations earlier defined and treated as inferiors, and challenging what were supposed to be democratic societies offering equal opportunity to all for advancement.

As a result, in all of the societies that are most affected issues surrounding poverty and social exclusion are becoming apparent. The past few years have witnessed manifestations of the potential this fosters for social turmoil. One example from the eastern edge of Europe is the documentation of hundreds of incidents of violence against Blacks in Russia over the past decade, including several hundred murders. Especially troubling is that the only constructive governmental response there has been to silence the press through intimidation so that such incidents are no longer reported to the public at home or abroad.

Meanwhile, on Europe’s western edge, the ethnically charged protests that spread to 300 cities in France in late October and early November, 2005 featuring deadly violence and thousands of burning automobiles, easily evoked scenes from the major urban riots in the United States in the 1960s, or in Europe, the disturbances in 1981 in London’s Brixton district. These were followed a few months later by much larger disturbances in Liverpool’s Toxteth district. The British government inquiry into the causes of the Brixton disturbance conducted by Lord Leslie Scarman in November of 1981 addressed underlying causes that were reminiscent of the 1968 Kerner Commisssion Report on conditions in the United States. The Kerner Commission Report attributed the American riots to the failures of American society to integrate African-American rural-to-urban migrants and their descendants, which were reflected by high unemployment, abusive police practices, substandard housing, inadequate education, poor recreation facilities and programs, and inadequate response from established institutions. Now, a few decades later, a survey of reports emerging from several European countries read like excerpts from the Kerner and Scarman inquiries. In the same vein, attorneys for the families of the two teenagers killed in the 2005 violence in France filed a complaint with the courts charging what amounted to racial profiling and police negligence strikingly reminiscent of perennial complaints of police misconduct all-too-familiar in the United States’ inner-cities. While much of the world was more surprised to learn of France’s clusters of suburban (banlieue) poor than it was of those abandoned in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina earlier in 2005, such ghetto-like settlements of ethnic and religious immigrants in Europe are not unique to France.

Racial thought and racist stereotypes are playing an especially prominent role in this scenario. For example, it is estimated that about 30% of the African ethnic and religious minorities involved in the disorders in France were black. Thus one major development to watch in the near future concerns the question of a Black identity in Europe. For example, is there taking shape a blanket “Black” identity that is applied to all people of predominantly Black African descent, regardless of their place of origin, and regardless of their own self-identification? For centuries peoples of Black African descent have struggled to escape the designation of “Black” originally imposed upon them in the course of European imperialism and colonialism.

They wanted instead to retain the identities of their respective native cultures, or to simply be accepted as full human beings with equal respect in whatever culture they found themselves. However, it is not clear whether even now in the twenty-first century this has become a reality. Despite the fact that a Black woman, Baroness Valerie Amos, originally from Guyana, has served as leader of the House of Lords in England, and Christiane Taubira from French Guiana drew some 2.3% of the vote in the 2002 Presidential election in France, star black soccer players in Europe still endure having bananas and racial epithets hurled at them on the field; and a study in England in late 2007 found that Blacks are 7 times more likely to be stopped by the police than whites.

The main reasons the image and status of Blacks continue to suffer seem to be economic. Just as the lure of profit from the slave trade, slavery, and maintaining a cheap labor force made it advantageous to define Black Africans into an artificial racial category, the profits from popular racial stereotypes in such areas as the advertising industry, entertainment, and sports have served to perpetuate color bias. The following questions merit much further research and discussion:

• Are old stereotypes of Blacks still relevant today?

• Are people of Black African descent in Europe considered Europeans, Africans, or simply Black?

• How do people of Black African descent in Europe self-identify?

• What is the most likely outcome of the identity of Blacks in Europe?

One encouraging sign that responsible elements in European societies are aware of the seriousness of this problem is that both national and European Union human rights organizations are forming as are civil rights and black consciousness groups. It is also worth noting here that some leaders in Europe are looking to the civil rights history of the United States for guidance. For instance, the largest black consciousness organization in France, the Conseil représentatif des associations Noires de France [Representative Council of Black Associations in France - CRAN] is consciously modeled after the NAACP, and a Black History Month is celebrated in more than a dozen European countries. These efforts deserve as much support as possible, in order to promote peaceful integration of the new, multicultural Europe.