Maintaining democratic values in the face of race

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Washington, D.C., January 2, 2019 | comments

By Reps. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), and Gwen Moore (D-Wis.)

A year ago, when Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Cecile Kyenge spoke in Washington at a Capitol Hill event, she emphasized the European Union’s (EU) motto: “united in diversity.” Today we can see just how deeply challenged this principle is – not just among EU member states, but throughout the world.

Across Europe, fear-mongering, anti-migrant political parties have made legislative gains and now rule in Hungary, Austria and Italy. The impact: a more divided, less democratically stable, and dangerous Europe. Reasonable people may differ on the issue of migration, its root causes and appropriate responses, but the toxic rhetoric surrounding this debate is stoking grievances, fueling intolerance and fomenting violence.

Examples of such toxicity are readily identifiable. Earlier this summer, political leaders in Austria called for Jews and Muslims to pre-register to consume kosher and halal food, harkening back to the use of “lists” during the Holocaust. In November, the Danish parliament formerly adopted the government's so-called “ghetto plan” that among other things restricts benefits and demolishes housing in low-income heavily immigrant and Muslim neighborhoods. The name tells all, reflecting a punitive program that stigmatizes rather than values Denmark’s diverse communities. Two years ago, political leaders in Poland argued against admitting migrants because they carry “parasites and protozoa” that might cause epidemics, forgetting that their Polish brothers and sisters are the largest immigrant group in the United Kingdom, with nearly 1 million. When “anti-foreigner” rhetoric spikes, so do violent hate crimes against “foreigners” — including Poles in the UK. In Italy, a string of shootings this year targeting persons
of African descent and Roma have wounded more than 30 people, including a one-year old Roma child, and left many others terrorized.

In November, the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency launched its first ever report on “Being Black In the EU” with 30 percent of those surveyed being impacted by racial harassment ranging from 63 percent of respondents in Finland to 21 percent in the UK, and life mirroring rhetoric with some of the highest rates of racial profiling and employment discrimination being reported in Austria and Italy.

Ironically, MEP Kyenge, the first person of African descent to have served in the Italian cabinet, is facing defamation charges for calling a ruling political party “racist.” This is nothing less than an effort to punish MEP Kyenge for speaking truth to power.

As African-American members of Congress, we have had first-hand experiences with racism, and are grappling with its rise on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans of color in Europe serving as diplomats or in the armed services, or as exchange students, or on travel have also recounted to us their personal experiences with discrimination and prejudice, ranging from denial of service at restaurants to brutal attacks in the streets. We know that, in both the United States and in Europe, a failure to tackle racism head on is dangerous – sometimes even fatal – as recently highlighted by the tragedies in Pittsburgh and Kentucky targeting members of Jewish and African-American communities and, in the case of Pittsburgh, linked to anti-migrant sentiments.

The reality is that Europe, like the United States, is already diverse. How our countries manage that diversity is a litmus test. Can our democracies, the ones we have fought wars to build and protect, respect the equal rights of and further opportunities for individuals, regardless of race or creed?

We will continue to work with colleagues across our districts, across the aisle and across the ocean to make our societies more inclusive and just. In particular, we hope to build on the achievements of Europe’s first ever People of African Descent Week (PADWEEK), convened by the European Parliament in May to, in the words of MEP Kyenge, “honor the history and contributions of Europe’s 15-20 million strong Black population, and reaffirm European values by developing strategic and coherent responses to make our society more inclusive in the face of rising racial prejudice and violence across Europe.”

Together, our nations can move towards a future in which racially, ethnically, and otherwise diverse populations are celebrated, guaranteed fundamental human rights, and given the tools, opportunities, and support needed to realize and sustain the ideals of our democracies.

Moore is the whip of the Congressional Black Caucus. She and Jackson Lee are commissioners on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Hastings is a former Commission chair. Meeks is co-chair of the European Union Caucus.

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