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President Biden held a private audience in the White House on Tuesday with the family of George Floyd. A year ago, Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, whom a bystander filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. The footage went viral and sparked weeks of outrage and protests in the United States against police brutality and systemic racism. It also kindled a reckoning over the nation’s dark past. Corporate executives, Hollywood celebrities and prominent politicians spoke out in support of protesters around the country. Confederate statues were hoisted off their pedestals. “Black Lives Matter” was emblazoned in front of the White House by city authorities.
In a statement after his meeting with the Floyd family, Biden urged lawmakers in Congress to push through criminal justice and police reform legislation in Floyd’s name, a month after Chauvin was convicted of his murder. The president noted how Floyd, in the words of his daughter Gianna, “changed the world” and opened a new chapter in the “battle for the soul” of the country: “His murder launched a summer of protest we hadn’t seen since the Civil Rights era in the ’60s — protests that peacefully unified people of every race and generation to collectively say enough of the senseless killings,” Biden said.
Of course, the legacy of Floyd’s murder did not stop at the borders of the United States. His death, as Today’s Worldview wrote last summer, inspired multiple social justice movements across the world, particularly in European countries that are still battling — or struggling to recognize — the ghosts of slavery and colonialism haunting their own societies.
In France, protesters marched against their own police forces’ history of abuse of ethnic minorities. In Britain, the moment brought new scrutiny of law enforcement’s disproportionate targeting of minorities for “stop-and-search” actions. The United States’ revived conversation about its legacy of slavery and the entrenched inequities that followed abolition led to a parallel soul-searching over the misdeeds of Europe’s imperial past.
“George Floyd’s murder was a turning point in Europe’s history by lifting the veil on racism within policing,” wrote Ojeaku Nwabuzo and Nabil Sanaullah of the European Network Against Racism. “Acting both as a catalyst and a wake-up call, the event fueled a new level of awareness in Europe and encouraged more honest conversations about its past and its decolonization. Just a few weeks ago, Germany decided to return looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria, while in June last year Bristol sent the statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the depths of its harbor.”
Yet the advent of this new racial justice moment has provoked a stark backlash. In the United States, a form of anti-anti-racism now animates the Republican Party, with right-wing politicians and pundits trying to paint their opponents to the left as an intolerant tribe bent on abolishing the police and brainwashing youths with an “anti-American” creed fixated on the country’s historical sins. In a half-dozen U.S. states with Republican-controlled legislatures, lawmakers have introduced bills to exclude from public schools the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework that focuses on how policies and laws perpetuate racism.
This nationalist culture-warring has flared in Europe, too. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government put forward a widely panned commission report that concluded that the country’s system is no longer “rigged” against ethnic minorities. Critics contended that the commission’s true purpose, rather than investigating racism, was to set the stage for a culture-war agenda. In what the right-wing Spectator magazine dubbed an “anti-woke manifesto,” some hard-line Tory parliamentarians have put forward a set of proposals intended to counteract their opponents’ “intense hostility to western civilization.” These include significantly curtailing immigration and breaking up the publicly funded BBC.
In France, last summer’s social justice awakening has faded into electoral jockeying as national politics drift to the right. French government ministers railed against the specter of “Islamo-leftism” in universities, while accusing activists of importing American “identity politics” into France’s political life. Meanwhile, earlier this month, a group of active-service French soldiers posted a letter in a right-wing publication warning of a looming “civil war” and accusing the country’s ruling establishment of making concessions to “Islamism” — a charge that taps into heated debates surrounding France’s Muslim-minority communities, where many hail from former French colonies. The letter led to an angry reaction from the government of French President Emmanuel Macron but was welcomed by his main challenger, far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
“Ahead of presidential elections next year, Macron has instead focused on being seen as tough on crime, in what his critics say constitutes a turn to the right and an attempt to woo far-right voters,” wrote my colleagues Jennifer Hassan and Rick Noack. “France recently passed a controversial security law to expand police powers and make it illegal to identify on-duty police officers if the intent is to harm them — a vague rule that may also impact the work of journalists and rights activists, some fear.”
It’s in the nature of nationalism not to want to feel guilty. Both Le Pen and her far-right counterparts in Germany have publicly bemoaned the need to still shoulder blame for their forefathers’ roles in the crimes of the Holocaust. For some nationalist parties, weaponizing that resentment offers a path to power.
In a piece about the American reactionary backlash, the Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong spoke to Pawel Machcewicz, a Polish historian who has researched Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes. His lost his job as the head of a national museum on the country’s experience of World War II after officials from the ruling Law and Justice party saw the museum as insufficiently patriotic.
“Democracy turned out to be very fragile,” Machcewicz told the Guardian. “I knew history was important for Law and Justice, but it became a sort of obsession. I never thought that as a founding director of a museum of the second world war, I would become a public enemy.”