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Black lives matter: ‘Racism takes different forms but it’s a world issue’

It all started with demonstrations protesting about the death of George Floyd from police brutality in Minneapolis, but the Black Lives Matter protest is spreading like wildfire across the whole of the US. Every day, thousands of people are taking to the streets. We asked American Studies expert Sara Polak what’s behind this. ‘Since Ferguson six years ago, the movement has become a lot more organised. And Trump is adding fuel to the fire with his communication.’

‘American history is one long narrative of racism and the fight against it,’ according to Sara Polak, a specialist in American Studies. ‘And these current protests are a logical next stage in the struggle.’ She explains further: ‘In very general terms, racism – the idea that there is a hierarchy based on “race”, where white people are supposedly superior to black people – first emerged when European discoverers travelled to other continents and came across people who looked different from them.’ The development of colonialism spread this idea throughout the world, and it has manifested itself differently in different places. 

Kept small and powerless

‘In the US, the idea of white supremacy took the form of racial slavery right from the start. People with “one drop of black blood” or more could be made slaves,’ Polak explains. Later, after 1863, the system changed: black Americans were no longer slaves, but second-class citizens, mostly without a vote and always at risk of being lynched, particularly in the South. She continues: ‘In real terms, it was a kind of terror regime, where black communities were kept powerless. The often excessive and unpunished police brutality against black people, which we are still seeing today, is a continuation of this historical pattern, in which black people as a group have persistently been threatened, dehumanised and marginalised.’ 

'American history is one long narrative of racism and the fight against it. These protests are a logical next stage in the struggle.'

Fuel to the fire

Six years ago there were riots and protests in Ferguson, following the death of Michael Brown – also as a result of police brutality. Those protests were important, Polak says, not least because they were the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. ‘This movement created a new infrastructure for fighting racism and in particular racially motivated police brutality. Right now the fat really has hit the pan with the pressure from the corona crisis and the collapse of the economy, which have hit the black community extra hard. And unlike President Obama six years ago, Trump is now adding fuel to the fire with his style of communication.’ There is and always has been a large social undercurrent of white Americans who want to restore the hierarchy that gives them superiority. ‘Trump is showing a lot of sympathy for this movement.’

A world issue

Racism is everywhere in the world in all kinds of different forms; the scandal around ethnic profiling within the Tax Authority in the Netherlands is just one example. It’s clear that many of the grievances of the American protesters resonate with the experiences of people here, even though racism in the Netherlands is different from in the US, as my colleague Karwan Fatah-Black quite rightly says.’

'There is a large social undercurrent of white Americans who want to restore the hierarchy that gives them superiority. Trump is showing a lot of sympathy for this movement.’

Another important difference, according to Polak, is that in the US the racism debate is more developed than in the Netherlands. ‘One reason is that in the US there are more black scientists and academics engaged in research on the issue, so the vocabulary for analysing and discussing racism is much broader there. But at the same time, the inequalities that are a direct result of slavery and the Jim Crow laws (the laws that imposed racial segregation at local and state level in the United States after 1880, Ed.) are still very present.’ Polak points to the (video) footage of Amy Cooper that has gone viral. Cooper is a white woman who threatened a black man by calling the police and telling them that “an Afro-American is threatening my life.” Polak: ‘This man – who was birdwatching and who had asked Cooper to put her dog on the leash – will have understood right from childhood that incidents like this could prove life-threatening for him. Thousands of men like him have been lynched, based purely on  an accusation by a white woman – and that can still happen today.’ 

Editor: Marieke Epping

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