Why the Black Lives Matter Movement Is Resonating Around the World
As protests erupted across the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police on the streets of Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter movement has received extraordinary support from people of all races—and has resonated around the world. There have been demonstrations and support for BLM in a number of countries (many of which have their own histories of racism and colonialism), and some governments have tapped into the attention the movement is garnering as a means to further their own national agendas and propaganda.
Here, Wellesley professors Danilo Contreras, Chipo Dendere, Anjeana Hans, William Joseph, and Nina Tumarkin discuss the current state of the Black Lives Matter movement in the regions and countries they study.
Danilo Contreras, incoming assistant professor of political science, on Latin America:
Discussions of race and racism in Latin America are still cast to the margins. One reason is that nation-building processes in the region avoided institutionalized racial segregation and, at least in rhetoric, were inclusive of Afro-descendant and indigenous populations. Latin Americans have been slow to acknowledge the costs of their so-called color-blind nation-building. Among these costs include the erasure of Afro-descendants and their historical contributions, as well as entrenched anti-Blackness.
The Black Lives Matter movement has found footing with populations in Latin America who identify as Black or Afro-descendant and mobilize based on similar grievances. Two factors have especially enabled the Black Lives Matter movement to resonate in the region. Afro-descendants have achieved greater recognition and important legislative gains over the past three decades. There is also clearer evidence that Afro-descendants disproportionately suffer from violence by state and non-state actors and are systematically marginalized.
However, Black Lives Matter has also encountered pushback in the region. Influential segments of the population continue downplaying the effects of structural discrimination and attribute inequality to social class rather than race. Relatedly, Black Lives Matter has been undermined by those who still subscribe to the myth of racial democracy, which assumes that patterns of racial mixing make Latin American societies egalitarian and immune to racism. Opponents of Black movements have drawn from this myth to brand racial politics as unpatriotic, racist, and imported.
“There is hope that this new wave of global protests has created room for conversation.”Chipo Dendere, assistant professor of Africana studies
Overall, Latin American governments have met anti-racist protests in the United States with restraint. They have refrained from commenting on the demonstrations or addressing the issues underlying demonstrations, which are common to the Americas. Regrettably, they have not seized the moment to introduce or expand anti-racist legislation. Nor have additional governments signed onto the Declaration of the Rights of People of African Descent.
How race and racism are discussed today in Latin America is changing. More Latin American states recognize that Afro-descendants face specific structural constraints. They remain largely invisible in their own nations, experience strident racism of every variety, and are overrepresented among the extreme poor and unemployed. States like Brazil and Colombia have led the way in enacting race-specific policies such as affirmative action to improve the representation of Afro-descendants in higher education. These policies have been promising, though more like it will be needed on the books and in effect.
Chipo Dendere, assistant professor of Africana studies, on Africa and Zimbabwe:
There has been broad interest in the protests and in particular Mr. Floyd’s death. The African Union sent a statement condemning police brutality, and individual African presidents have expressed their concern. Within different African countries or shall we say Africans on various social media platforms have been very vocal about BLM. Perhaps it is because much of the world has been grounded in their homes due to COVID and thus have extra time to watch the news.
Most Africans, particularly black Africans who travel, have an awareness of racism in the U.S. While folks have always known about police brutality, the cruel nature of Mr. Floyd’s death was shocking. On social media, people expressed shock that the officers involved were not immediately arrested and charged with murder. This is what would have happened in most African countries, especially in a case with video evidence.
In southern African countries—particularly Zimbabwe and South Africa—citizens have a more intimate understanding of racism because of past colonial experiences. “I can’t breathe” has also become a mantra for people to express displeasure with the authoritarian regime. The Zimbabwean government initially used the phrase to call out the U.S. government’s reluctance to address racism and police brutality in America. In turn, Zimbabweans (and other Africans) are saying to their governments that authoritarian policies and corruption are a form of chokehold.
Zimbabweans have a long way to go in openly discussing racism and other identity issues. In 1983, the Zimbabwean government orchestrated a genocide that killed thousands in the south. The genocide has never been addressed openly, and reparations are unlikely under the current regime. South Africa has not yet fully healed from apartheid. Economic disparities between Blacks and whites have deepened the divide.
There is hope that this new wave of global protests has created room for conversation. A lot of progress has been made across Africa in terms of equality and treating everyone with dignity.
Anjeana Hans, associate professor of German studies, on Western Europe:
The BLM movement is resonating with Western Europeans and leading to some long-overdue reckoning. There have been demonstrations in support of BLM throughout many major European cities, including Berlin, Paris, and London. It’s heartening that not only big and more international cities are hosting these demonstrations, but also smaller cities and towns like Tübingen, Germany.
The European Union’s parliament recently passed a strongly worded resolution in support of the BLM movement; it not only states that “Black Lives Matter,” it specifically “strongly condemns the appalling death of George Floyd in the U.S.” While it’s not a binding piece of legislation, its message is clear that anti-racism should be a priority overall. At the same time, the resolution suggests that members of the EU must address similar issues in their own structures.
Belgium is being asked to reckon with its colonial past: it’s not just that statues of Leopold II were removed, but rather that a long-debated issue—of how to address the nation’s colonial atrocities, especially in Congo—is being moved forward. In France, the movement is increasing visibility of longer-standing issues of racism, especially against the French population with origins in the former French colonies of Northern Africa; “Black Lives Matter” as a slogan for the anti-racist work being done there has a history going back several years.
In Germany, the government is especially aware of the need to support anti-racist movements and to do some difficult self-examination. I’ve been struck by how broad the appeal to the younger generations especially is—it’s a hopeful moment. At the same time, it’s only a first step. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has explicitly called George Floyd’s death murder and decried the dangerous polarization in the U.S.; at the same time, she said that Germany should use this moment to look at its own issues with racism.
Belgium is being asked to reckon with its colonial past... a long-debated issue—of how to address the nation’s colonial atrocities, especially in Congo—is being moved forward.Anjeana Hans, associate professor of German studies
Merkel’s statement makes clear that, at times, Europeans point to the situation in the U.S. as a way of suggesting that racism is an American problem, and that’s simply not true. Case in point is the role that racism plays in European soccer, where we often see instances of racist abuse of players by fans—bananas being thrown on the field, racist chants—that are evidence of how pervasive racism is there. But soccer in Europe is also a site at which solidarity can be demonstrated. For example, the English Premier League currently has its players wearing shirts with “Black Lives Matter” written in place of the player’s name, and German Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich are wearing BLM armbands during their games. That kind of visibility is potentially powerful.
William Joseph, professor of political science, on China:
The most significant way in which the BLM movement has found footing in the People’s Republic of China is in its vast online community, where according to the BBC, there have been more than 25 billion views of related posts. Most commentators offer strong support for the movement, which they often link to broader anti-American sentiments and critiques of the liberal democratic model of governance. These commentaries tend to reflect the aggressive nationalist tone that characterizes much of the digital discourse on global issues in China. Chinese diplomats have issued statements condemning racism in the United States, and the PRC press has reported and editorialized approvingly on the movement, with headlines such as “Why BLM could get rid of more than statues.”
But this must be put in the context of China’s harsh authoritarian political system. There have been no public demonstrations of support for BLM because independent mass political gatherings of any kind are not allowed—the fear is that they might spawn criticism of the government on issues such as widespread police brutality. All media in China, including social media, is to some degree under tight party-state control. Press coverage of BLM in the PRC is as much a propaganda weapon in the effort to influence domestic and international public opinion against the U.S. as it is to provide news about and analysis of the movement.
China’s support for the BLM movement is particularly hypocritical given its abysmal record on human rights, the tightening of its grip on Hong Kong, the discrimination that Africans and African-Americans studying or working in the PRC frequently experience, and the vicious repression of its Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang that includes pervasive high-tech surveillance, mass incarceration, and elements of cultural genocide.
Nina Tumarkin, professor of history, on Russia:
Anything resembling a Black Lives Matter movement is unimaginable in the Russian Federation, whose Afro-Russian and Black population numbers only in the tens of thousands in a country with 144 million people. Russian “racial” issues concern migrant workers from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus, who used to be labeled as “Black.”
In many ways, a more striking contrast with the U.S. could hardly be conceived. In the U.S., monuments are going down, while in Russia, they are going up—mostly to commemorate the 75th anniversary of their victory over Nazi Germany (at the cost of 27 million Soviet lives), but also to historical figures, including controversial ones such as Ivan the Terrible. Russians are mostly dismayed at the active iconoclasm in the U.S., with many opining that Americans lack the courage to face the indelibility of their own history. Besides, Russians associate the removal of monuments with the Bolsheviks, who are decidedly viewed as villains. And to many, the recent name-changing and strict vigilance about language use, and what to them looks like confessional “self-criticism” in the U.S., smack of hated Soviet practices.
At the same time, the widespread protests in the U.S. and other countries have resonated deeply in Russia. The Kremlin has a huge fear of protests, and most TV commentators and many bloggers view protests as having been organized to serve political agendas. Some TV coverage (virtually all of which is state-controlled) in June gloated about chaos and mayhem in the U.S. The arguments in Russia are about who has really been behind the U.S. protests, with the most common culprits being seen as Democrats who seek to weaken President Trump’s chances in the election. Police brutality too is a complex question, since Russian police are notorious, especially in their treatment of oppositionists.
For years—and especially since 2015—Russian authorities have done all they can to stoke and exacerbate racial tensions and hostilities in the U.S., with the aim of enfeebling our country, which the Kremlin sees as imperiously dominant and actively invested in weakening their own state.