From the United States to Germany, and Canada to Poland, the killing of George Floyd by a white Minnesota police officer has galvanized a transatlantic movement for human rights and social justice. Activists have managed to sustain their cumulative mobilization in honor of countless lives, most recently in outcries following the September grand jury acquittal of officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor, who had been sleeping when they broke down her door with a battering ram to execute a no-knock warrant.
Most Western countries have not seen mobilization on this scale or of this scope in several decades, yet organizations, businesses, and institutions continue to debate how best to meaningfully respond. Demands for action have been innumerable, yet national responses have been limited and, in many cases, insufficient in scope to secure and stabilize communities. This is a moment for nations and alliances to consider their responsibilities in the underlying systems that have yielded inequitable outcomes and less security for the most marginalized than for their better-off peers.
On Sept. 22, the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament convened a joint meeting and advanced toward a transatlantic response to systemic racism. The United States and other Western democracies are grappling with their shared inheritance of persistent practices that date back to when race-based discrimination was enshrined in laws—when Black people were legally and morally deemed to be no more than expendable property. The cumulative weight of generations of such treatment — in culture, in politics, and in the economic system — has led to radically unequal and inequitable societies and set the stage for international protests against racial inequality and injustice.
The November 2020 elections in the United States will have a substantial impact on the ability of democratic countries to address their failure to ensure the same rights, protections, and opportunities for all their populations because of enduring institutional and systemic racism. If the discriminatory impacts of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade endure in the systemic treatment of impacted populations, only meaningful multilateral and transatlantic engagement that empowers the descendants of the colonized and enslaved will meet the demands of demonstrators pouring into streets across the globe.
The next U.S. presidential administration should seek national and international political commitments by its allies, alliances, and international organizations, coupled with investment commensurate with the insidious scope of the hate we seek to overcome.
The Need for a Transatlantic Response
World War II brought about global carnage that demanded sophisticated international cooperation towards economic recovery. The Economic Recovery Act of 1948, proposed by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall and passed by the U.S. Congress, resulted in more than $13 billion invested in the reconstruction of Europe. This investment was critical in Europe’s recovery, in cementing ties between Western democracies, and in obstructing the westward spread of Communism.
This moment again calls for a similarly substantial investment in the reconstruction of economies, but this time the economic objective is genuinely transatlantic and the scourge that must be confronted is one with deep historic roots.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated the inevitability of such a policy. As the coronavirus lays waste to economies on both sides of the Atlantic, it exacerbates the inequities of systemic racism. Research has shown that socially disadvantaged communities, including those impacted by systemic racism, are more susceptible and vulnerable to the consequences of the pandemic. National responses to the pandemic have already outweighed the scale of the Marshall Plan, yet sufficient attention has not been given to how this moment can be seized to rebuild our societies and economies with inclusive policies that make our communities more resilient, even as they make them more equitable.
Now is the time for the United States to forge transatlantic agreements with the United Kingdom and the European Union, to address racism at the scope and scale of the historic Marshall Plan.
What Would a Transatlantic Plan to Address Racism Look Like?
Over the last decade, the United States has established a range of bilateral agreements in the Western Hemisphere to advance social inclusion for racial and ethnic equality. Joint action plans and memoranda of understanding with Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay have fostered everything from academic exchanges with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to public- and private-sector solutions for racial health disparities, access to education, and equal access to the justice system.
Why don’t similar agreements exist to advance these objectives in a transatlantic context? Members of Congress and parliamentarians in Europe have advocated for just that since the 2009 Black European Summit at the European Parliament and in subsequent transatlantic exchanges. A joint declaration last month from members of the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress emphasized the role of the recently established European Union (EU) Commission Anti-Racism Coordinator to facilitate the adoption of national action plans for EU Member States and the United States. Such national action plans, due by 2022, would reinforce a much-needed EU-U.S. Joint Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality and Inclusion that could be negotiated by the next U.S. presidential administration. Momentum is building for multilateral and bilateral agreements, to draw from and build on the global racial justice movement.
Potential opportunities are already before us. A future U.S.-U.K. Free Trade Agreement following Brexit, for example, should include incentives for economic empowerment of British and American communities marginalized by systemic racism. The British Parliament and the U.S. Congress should be required, as part of any such agreement, to conduct regular equality impact assessments for populations affected by said agreement. Both legislative chambers could turn to relevant legislation. They could be guided by relevant U.K. legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010, in order to provide metrics against which any such agreement could be measured. In addition to annual metrics, however, both nations also should measure the realization of long-term goals to empower and uplift marginalized communities.
In terms of opportunities within the EU, the European Commission’s Action Plan on Racism released at the end of September should incorporate multilateral considerations. The plan calls for a robust role for public-private partnerships of EU Institutions and member States with civil society in convening a summit against racism in Spring 2021. The summit would produce a commitment to develop joint action plans with the United States, the United Kingdom, and other nations implicated in the enduring legacy of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.
Notably, the plan also calls for a consistent approach to collecting data on equality, which has long been a contentious issue among EU member States since World War II. Throughout much of the 20th century, many European nations argued against disaggregated ethnic data collection for fear it would be used by ethnic majorities to enact hateful policies. Marginalized groups, however, have advocated for such data collection for decades to inform policy and determine benefits that could rectify the legacy of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. Without such data, there are few means to disabuse electorates in Europe of false narratives and assumptions about the role and history of ethnic and racial minorities in Europe.
The new plan must navigate this historical context and catalyze more investment in the impact of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). This should include any efforts to implement the related demands of the European Parliament. Any exploration of new trade negotiations between the United States and the European Union should include measures to empower minority and women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises and economic incentives intended to dismantle institutional racism.
Inequities Highlighted by the Coronavirus
Global protests for racial justice were no doubt intensified by the systemic inequities revealed and compounded by the coronavirus. At the same time, the pandemic has precipitated governmental reinvestment in national economies, demonstrating that governments can indeed execute large-scale strategies to improve and safeguard their democracies when the political will exists. It should be evident in our bilateral and multilateral agreements that anything less than full inclusion for all inhabitants of our nations results in vulnerabilities that leave us all less secure.
Given the shared history of slavery, racism, institutional prejudice, and systemic inequity across the Atlantic, it follows that we should seize this moment to begin to conceive of transnational mechanisms to address the sordid legacy of grave social injustice, and deploy our economic resources and capacities to healing a wound that is now centuries old.
(Editor’s note: Readers also might be interested in Just Security’s series Racing National Security.)