No one should be smug about racism in Europe. Here too there is a toxic interaction between ethnicity, equality and the environment.
Although police brutality has claimed too many black lives in America, the death of George Floyd (46), father of five and grandfather of two, in Minneapolis in May, proved the last straw for many.
That a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, should kneel on a black man’s neck sparked painful folk memories of centuries of slavery and subjugation, of segregation and public lynchings. It was also a symbolic mockery of the ‘taking the knee’ protests, against police brutality and racism, initiated by the San Franciso 49ers’ quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, declining to stand for the national anthem before preseason American football games in 2016.
As we Europeans gaze in dismay across the Atlantic at the generations of racism and discrimination that brought the United States to this sorry impasse, we must not, tempting as it seems, believe we are somehow superior when it comes to tolerance and multiculturalism.
The European Commission member for equality, Helena Dalli, made just this point in an interview. ‘It’s ironic that we are celebrating the 20 years of the racial equality directive, and we still have structural problems. Racism has not been eradicated. There is a wide gap between legislation and how effective that legislation is on people’s lives,’ she said.
‘We will focus on what is underneath the tip of the iceberg, the structural racism which is more difficult to address,’ she added, referring to an action plan on combating racism which the commission will put forward later this year.
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Race to the bottom
Racism is a major and growing challenge in Europe, although the scale and nature of the problem varies widely. It is reflected in the rise of far-right parties, including the openly fascistic, burgeoning anti-minority and refugee sentiment, a growing wave of racially-motivated crimes, with widescale under-reporting of racial harassment and violence, and an alarming rise in violent, neo-Nazi and white-supremacist extremism.
This partly explains why the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated so much in Europe. Beyond the natural human urge to express solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed, events across the Atlantic have thrown into sharp focus the bigotry and discrimination in our own societies.
Many came out to protest against racism, police brutality and the legacy of slavery in their own societies. While Europe prides itself on having led the global charge to abolish slavery in the 19th century, European nations profited immensely from the slave trade and from trading in the products created using slave labour, such as sugar, tobacco, cotton and rubber.
This legacy is even glorified in some public spaces, which became targets for protesters, such as the infamous statue of the British slave trader Edward Colston toppled in Bristol. In Belgium, a long-raging debate over what to do with the monuments commemorating King Leopold II, who caused millions of deaths in the deceptively named Congo Free State—which he personally owned and ran as his private, de facto slave colony—reached a climax with the defacement, vandalisation and removal of his statues across the country.
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Banished to the wastelands
Racism pushes its subjects to the margins of society. This occurs not just culturally, socially and economically but often also physically. Such environmental racism is an under-appreciated and under-examined form of discrimination which we at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) have been working to highlight and combat.
We recently released a report exposing the environmental racism targeting one of Europe’s most marginalised minorities, the Roma. Pushed to the Wastelands investigates the systemic and systematic discrimination against many Roma communities, which pushes them out into marginal and polluted lands and neighbourhoods, as well as depriving them of access to public utilities, healthcare and basic environmental services, such as piped drinking water, adequate sanitation and waste management.
Environmental racism is also a major problem in other parts of the world, such as in the United States, where the term was first coined and where numerous studies, including one by the Environmental Protection Agency, have confirmed its existence and consequences.
Environmental racism is partly a product of another form of toxic discrimination, classism, as people of colour tend to be disproportionately poor in western societies. In addition, poverty is one of the main factors behind deaths from air pollution. Of the estimated seven million people killed by polluted air each year, the vast majority are in poor and developing countries and, of these, most are poor or live in poor neighbourhoods, according to the United Nations.
But class alone cannot explain this phenomenon: even well-off members of minority groups are more likely to suffer the effects of pollution and environmental degradation, according to Harriet Washington’s recent book on environmental racism.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown this racial inequality into stark relief. Numerous countries have reported significantly higher coronavirus death rates among minority groups. These include the US, where three times as many blacks have died of Covid-19 as whites, Canada and the UK.
Racist killers who actively murder are, mercifully, still rare. Yet racism, particularly the environmental variety, kills on a far grander and more horrifying scale, by stacking the system against minorities, neglecting their health and education, and forcing them to shoulder a heavier proportion of the environmental burden.
What makes matters worse and harder to challenge or change is that environmental racism is an invisible assassin, operating in the murky shadowlands on the edges of society’s consciousness and conscience. Unlike racist murders or hate crimes, where there are clear individuals to blame and towards whom people can direct their outrage, environmental racism is so hardwired into the system that it is often difficult to detect and unravel—so much so that sometimes even those involved in perpetuating it do not realise they are part of a racist enterprise.
Green movement, white face
The mainstream environmental movement in many countries has historically had a predominantly pale complexion and whites still tend, by and large, to dominate the large non-governmental organisations. But although there was a history of racism in the early days of the environmental movement, this relative lack of diversity today is arguably not a reflection of racism but a legacy issue and an expression of wider structural problems plaguing society.
For example, NGOs operating in the EU capital tend to draw personnel from the ‘Brussels bubble’. For various complex, structural and legacy reasons, this is predominantly white. Still, as civil-society organisations which stand against racism, we must do more actively to promote diversity. At the EEB, we are looking into ways of doing so.
The whiteness of the environmental movement is also partly a matter of public perceptions, often fuelled by unconscious bias. Moreover, rather than not being in the picture, non-white activists are sometimes airbrushed or edited out of it, because white voices carry more cultural weight.
On one notorious recent occasion, this occurred quite literally. The Associated Press news agency cropped a photo of five young female climate activists outside this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos to exclude the only black face among them, Vanessa Nakate of Uganda. ‘None of my comments from the press conference were included. It was like I wasn’t even there,’ Nakate said. Her fellow activists were also incensed by the omission.
Away from international fora and western capitals, on the frontlines of the struggle for environmental justice, brown and black activists are leading the charge. These grassroots environmental defenders have been surprisingly successful.
However, this activism, which often occurs in dangerous, authoritarian contexts, comes with a high price tag, which includes intimidation, kidnappings and even murder. This makes it imperative that the mainstream environmental movement not only enhance its diversity but also stand in solidarity with frontline defenders—to better hear and empower them.