The movement against anti-Black racism has put the failures of U.S. democracy on display and sparked solidarity protests around the world. Occurring in the midst of a global pandemic, the protests have exposed the wide reach of systemic racism in many Western democratic societies, particularly within policing and criminal justice institutions. More broadly, the protests have revealed that deep trust deficits exist between Black communities and their governments. If Western democracies wish to maintain some credibility as lead advocates for human rights and democratic governance, they must seek to fully understand and address the role that racism plays in undermining the legitimacy of their institutions.

The Soft Underbelly of Democracy

The global narrative on the use of police violence against Black people rightly centers around the problem in the United States: the country’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world, Black people make up one-third of the entire prison population but only 12 percent of the total population, and the recent murder of George Floyd has accentuated a history of brutal killings of Black people. Moreover, Floyd’s death finally seems to have moved public opinion. In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans now express support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet focusing exclusively on the United States neglects the extent to which systemic racism deeply permeates law enforcement and criminal justice in other highly developed Western democratic countries. A study in Canada on fatal police encounters from 2000 to 2017 found that Black people made up nearly 37 percent of the victims in Toronto, even though they comprised only 8 percent of the population. In Australia, Black Lives Matter solidarity protests sparked protests against the police killings of indigenous Australians, who are also grossly overrepresented in Australia’s prisons relative to their small population size. And like in the United States, there is rarely any accountability for police brutality; in the United Kingdom, for example, there has not been a successful prosecution for a death in police custody in over fifty years.

Ashley Quarcoo
Ashley Quarcoo is an international development practitioner and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Racial profiling of Black people is also widespread, even in countries often held up as models of democratic governance by the international community. For example, for the last three years, Freedom House has rated Finland as one of the freest countries in the world, earning a perfect score in the Freedom in the World Index. However, according to the “Being Black in the EU” survey, administered by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights across all twenty-eight EU member states in 2018, Finland recorded the highest rates of race-based harassment and violence. Participants in a separate three-year study of racial profiling in Finland described in detail their experiences of being stopped in public spaces predominantly because of their race or ethnicity—including in railway and metro stations, cars, shops and parks, and restaurants and bars and on the way to work and school. The study notes the variety of state security actors engaged in profiling, including the police, border guards, and customs officers, as well as private security guards, bouncers, and salespeople. Such pervasive levels of harassment and surveillance of Black people in many Western democracies stand in sharp contrast to the accolades often given to these “free” societies.

In the United States, racial bias in policing and the violence it can generate have eroded the state’s relationship with Black communities, diminishing trust and lowering expectations for what residents of a democratic country should expect from their government. There are signs that similar trends are also occurring in other Western democracies, where Black people who experience policy brutality or other kinds of racial discrimination feel they have no recourse. According to the “Being Black in the EU” survey, a majority of victims of racist physical attacks by police officers did not report the most recent incident because they felt doing so would not change anything or because they did not trust or were afraid of the police. Because of a lack of trust, Europeans of African descent are also not reporting incidents of discrimination, such as being unable to obtain access to employment or housing. According to the survey, only 14 percent of victims of race-based harassment reported their experiences to the police, human rights institutions, or any other authority, despite knowing about such institutions and the relevant antidiscrimination laws.

The Data Problem

The collection of data related to racial issues is a serious shortcoming in numerous Western democracies. The European Union’s Racial Equality Directive of 2000 prohibits discrimination based on racial and ethnic origin in its member states, but a dearth of official data make it difficult to monitor the implementation of antidiscrimination laws. In Germany, ignoring racial issues has been a conscious choice, borne from a fear of the ways that Nazis used race science to try to prove the superiority of white people. Discussion of race has been so intimately tied up with World War II atrocities that Germany and many other EU member states do not collect official statistics on race or ethnicity. France stripped the term “race” from all of its laws in 2013 and imposes criminal penalties on the use of the concept in employment—though it does have strong policies to combat hate speech and discrimination. In other countries such as Denmark, there is little political support to collect racial or ethnic data because of the belief that discrimination is not a problem there. European civil society organizations informally collect and monitor data related to discrimination, harassment, and violence against minority communities. But the limited amount of available data only provides a snapshot of potential discrimination patterns.

The lack of racial demographic data limits governments’ ability to accurately identify and prevent patterns of race-based discrimination, as well as to address the social, public health, and economic needs of certain communities that may be deeply impacted by structural racism. It ensures, in fact, that structural racism goes unseen. And the damaging effects of this failure are evidenced by, for example, the higher coronavirus infection and death rates among Black populations. Canada, which has not been gathering racial demographic data on coronavirus infections, is now facing increasing pressure to change its color-blind data collection policy, which health officials say disadvantage minority communities likely to be more directly impacted. Brazil’s government only began to collect coronavirus-related data by race in late April, well after the Ministry of Health flagged high death rates among Afro-Brazilians. As in the United States, structural racism in employment, healthcare, and housing have dramatically influenced the virus’s impact on Brazil’s Black communities.

Measuring How Democracies Perform in Addressing Racism

The limited data on racial discrimination and systemic racism in many Western democracies is one reason that highly regarded global indices, such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Democracy Index and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, lack indicators or do not track data on institutional racism. As a result, this measure of democratic governance is overlooked and Western democracies are credited with high scores that do not account for key nuances in their treatment of racial minorities. Global democracy supporters must do more to measure and assess the impacts of systemic racism when evaluating the performance of democracies.

Germany is now taking steps to more holistically understand the experiences of its Black population, estimated to be nearly 1 million people. Its Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency launched a #AFROZENSUS survey this year to collect basic demographic data as well as data on people’s experiences with discrimination. If the government can draw on this data to improve its responsiveness to the distinct challenges facing minority communities, Germany may be able to demonstrate that with appropriate protections, the government can be trusted to use data in the service of human rights and more inclusive governance.

The High Stakes of Leaving Racism Unseen

The breadth and depth of global protests have demonstrated that governments can no longer stay silent on systemic racism. Democracies will continue to lose credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of an increasing number of citizens if they fail to take concrete action to eliminate state violence against racial minorities and to hold those that perpetrate it accountable. In a democracy, the state should be held to a higher standard.

The rise of far-right political movements in many Western democracies has also highlighted the risks of staying silent. Racialized politics have increasingly gained currency in many countries through powerful actors who have weaponized it for political purposes. But these actors are only successful because the racial discourse is grounded in unconscious racist bias or explicit racist beliefs that still exist in democratic societies, institutions, and culture. Racism is a breeding ground for fascism, oppression, and the abuse of human rights. To be credible and effective advocates for global democracy, Western democracies should work urgently to repair their social compacts with minority communities and address racism within their institutions.