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The Fight Against Racial Injustice Is Transatlantic


The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in police custody have spread all over the world in the past few weeks. From Paris to Sydney to Rio de Janeiro, demonstrators have expressed solidarity with the victims of police brutality and unfair treatment in the U.S. But they've also sought to call attention to what they see as systemic racism in their own countries as well, countries that have often been portrayed or portrayed themselves as different, better, more enlightened on matters of race. We wanted to hear some perspectives from outside the U.S. on this. In a few minutes, we'll hear from journalist and activist Desmond Cole in Canada. But first, we turn to Gary Younge in the U.K. He was a U.S.-based correspondent for The Guardian for several years covering race and racism in this country. He's now professor of sociology at the University of Manchester in England. And he's with us now. Gary Younge, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

GARY YOUNGE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, why do you think George Floyd's killing has hit such a nerve with so many people around the globe?

YOUNGE: I think there was something about the brazen nature of it. It was so clear. It was so brutal. And then beyond that - because it's not - sadly, it's not unique. Beyond that, I honestly don't know. There's something about the kind of - there's something particular to the alchemy of these particular deaths when they happen, that they come together in a certain way. So I covered Ferguson. And I'm still not quite sure why Michael Brown's death captured the nation's imagination in a way and Ferguson captured the nation's imagination in a way that others didn't because it - the sad thing was that it wasn't particular. But I think that one of the things is that America's standing in Europe has never been lower. When Europeans look at America at the moment, they don't like what they see, and they haven't for a few years. And so this particular murder, after we've seen the children in cages and the derogatory references to certain countries, it stands not just as a murder that stands on its own but as a metaphor for what's been going on over the last few years.

MARTIN: And the images from England are quite striking. I mean, the image from Bristol of the statue of a slave trader being torn down and dumped in the harbor by protesters went viral a few days ago. And I have to say this really resonated with many people in the U.S. who have been calling for Confederate monuments to be taken down. And I take it there's been a similar debate in the U.K. over these kinds of monuments and statues and so forth. Does this feel like a turning point in the U.K.?

YOUNGE: It does. When these things happen in America, there is a sort of boomerang effect for the kind of children of Empire here, with whom I am one. My parents are from Barbados. So they throw a boomerang, and they're saying to people - they start by protesting George Floyd in this case. And they say, but you know what? There are things here. And when one stops and thinks that actually the Brits were complicit - they weren't just complicit, they directed the slave trade in America until America became independent and then the new world took it over that there are these continuities, these parallels that one can draw particularly in things like the erection and the pulling down of statues. So it's very much hit a nerve, not because the nature of the racism in Britain or Lisbon, which had what I've heard is its biggest anti-racism demonstration ever last week or France. It's not that the racism is the same, it's that there are parallels that can be drawn.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, you wrote a piece that was published last week by The New York Review of Books titled "What Black America Means To Europe." And in it, you talk about how familiar the names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and now George Floyd are to many Europeans. But you also say that there are people just like them in the U.K. and France and the Netherlands. But you suggest that it is harder for Europeans to look at the racism inside their own borders. Why is that?

YOUNGE: Well, there's a few reasons. I mean, first of all, America is are more lethal country in a range of ways. Forget race for a moment. Just - there are more murders. There are more guns. People are executed. There's a higher incarceration rate. And so its racism is more lethal, which means that there are more of these cases. So there is that. But then you have a Europe which, first of all, the most egregious expressions of our anti-black racism took place abroad in the colonies. So we had all the things that Americas had - slavery, segregation, so on - but our civil rights movement - we had Nkrumah and Gandhi. And it took place in Jamaica and so on. And so there is a kind of way in which white Europeans have not been sensitized to that in the same way that white Americans have, even if white Americans then come up with a different understanding of what that meant, they can't deny that it happened. Whereas many Europeans still say we're really proud of the Empire. The Empire did wonderful things. So there is this kind of very selective amnesia about who we are and how we got here.

MARTIN: That's Gary Younge. He's a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester in England. And we reached him there. Professor Younge, thank you so much for talking with us.

YOUNGE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.