Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana: Standing up for justice

Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana is Germany’s only black MEP. She tells Rajnish Singh how she’s working to reform the police, enhance gender equality and get more people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities into the EU institutions.
Pierrete Herzberger-Fofana | Photo credit: Pierrete Herzberger-Fofana's office

By Rajnish Singh

Rajnish Singh is Commissioning Editor at the Parliament Magazine

13 Nov 2020

In 1989, seminal US rap group Public Enemy released their anthemic hit “Fight the Power”. The track was essentially a call to action against the systemic racism black people were facing in the States. More than 30 years later, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has reignited the issue of structural and systemic racism, but this time around the issue has manifested into a global call to action.

Among those answering that call is German Greens deputy Pierrette Herzberger- Fofana, who is fighting against systemic prejudice and racism in the European Union. As Europeans grapple with the economic and social consequences of the pandemic, those from ethnic minority groups have been hit particularly hard.

Asked whether issues such as inequalities in healthcare provision, employment opportunities and access to education had been exacerbated by structural racism, Herzberger-Fofana says, “Not only do I believe this, I know this is a fact. Multiple studies have shown that due to a combination of cultural and socioeconomic factors, as well as a higher prevalence of underlying conditions such as high blood pressure and body mass index, cardiovascular disease, and type two diabetes, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.”

 “I do not want to point my finger at individual policemen or policewomen for doing their job, but I cannot accept their disproportionate use of force as a consequence of racist structures”

She also identifies other factors including, “limited access to higher education, dependence on public housing and low-income jobs and structural racism.” On the prevalence of racism in European society generally, she says, “According to my many years of experience, dare I say that there is no black person in Germany, or maybe even in all of Europe, who has not been a victim of racism.”

In order to help BAME communities, the Greens/EFA deputy says, “I want the EU and Member States to keep in mind, when creating policies, the need to help reduce inequalities, including ensuring adequate income protection for those in low-paid or precarious jobs.”

Following the killing of George Floyd by police officers in May this year, thousands of people in the US and Europe took to the streets -despite the pandemic - demonstrating under the banner of the BLM movement and calling for immediate action to tackle systemic racism. In the European Parliament, MEPs demanded the European Commission take the issue of discrimination seriously.

Herzberger-Fofana welcomed these developments, saying, “At last the issue of structural racism has finally become much more visible. Many people outside of the BAME communities simply can’t comprehend that human beings could be treated badly in their daily lives because of racist attitudes.”

To pressure the Commission, Herzberger-Fofana, with the support of other deputies, sent a letter to the executive’s President Ursula von der Leyen calling for new measures to address systemic racism. Following a meeting with members of the Anti- Racism and Diversity Intergroup in July, von der Leyen agreed to the creation of a new EU anti-racism coordinator, who will be tasked with tackling structural racism within the institutions.

The Commission President also pledged to recruit staff from more diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. Herzberger-Fofana says she was pleased by the Commission’s response, as well as other announcements including an EU anti-racism summit during the summer of 2021, an EU strategy against racism and national action plans for Member States.

“Multiple studies have shown that due to a combination of cultural and socioeconomic factors… black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic”

Another issue the BLM movement has highlighted is police brutality suffered by minorities. Herzberger- Fofana herself had such an encounter in Brussels; her case is currently under judicial review.

To address the prejudice BAME people face, she first wants to see acknowledgement of the existence of racist structures within Europe’s police forces, which she believes engenders violent behaviour towards minorities. But she stresses, “I do not want to point my finger at individual policemen or policewomen for doing their job, but I cannot accept their disproportionate use of force as a consequence of racist structures.”

Instead, she wants to see law enforcement agencies introduce new approaches to policing, based on dialogue and respect for human rights, such as the ending of discriminatory procedures like identity checks based on racial profiling.

Although at EU level, Parliament passed a resolution against police brutality, she accepts that most of the reform remains in the hands of Member States; it is national governments that must develop policies and measures to combat discrimination and put an end to racial profiling and police violence.

In October, MEPs marked European Gender Equality Week with a series of events across the European Parliament. Herzberger-Fofana and minority women across Europe like her, believe there are clear links between racism and gender inequality. An example of this is ‘intersectionality’, a term that refers to the situation of women who simultaneously experience multiple forms of discrimination.

While there has been much debate about gender equality, Herzberger-Fofana believes many minority women have been left out of the discussion. “Unfortunately, white feminism has not considered the sexism and racism that BAME women experience simultaneously. They have felt excluded from mainstream feminist movements. Intersectionality offers them a new space to negotiate their identities and become visible to each other and the world.”

October also saw the celebration of European Black History month another important diversity and equality milestone. “Black History Month is not only about honouring the past and upholding memory, but also a way for imagining a better future,” explains Herzberger-Fofana.

She recently hosted an event in her home city of Erlangen, Germany, which, although well-attended, revealed to her how lacking people’s understanding of history was, especially colonialism and how it still affects race relations today.

During the BLM demonstrations earlier this year summer, there was much debate across Europe about removing statutes of historical figures who played a leading role in imperialism and the slave trade. In Belgium, statues of King Leopold II were either vandalised or removed as a response to his brutal rule in the country’s African colonies.

Herzberger-Fofana believes many Members States have not yet reconciled or admitted to the detrimental affect colonialism had on the countries they ruled, especially in Africa and Asia. She argues, “There are so many people who do not understand that the very root of the problem lies in Europe’s history of exploiting other ethnic groups and treating them as less worthy. Colonial history, truthfully told, needs be on the school curriculum. There is no way around it for me if you really want to eradicate structural racism.”

Another key area that needs to be addressed, says Herzberger-Fofana, is the woeful under-representation of minorities in high-ranking EU senior staff members from minorities in the EU institutions is a sad reality. It doesn’t reflect the diversity of people living in Europe. Discrimination has many faces and manifests itself in institutional racism.”

Herzberger-Fofana is, however, hopeful that the Commission will move things forward to increase diversity, saying, “I believe President von der Leyen was shaken by the recent developments of visible, horrible racism and by the deaths of our fellow citizens. She herself said, ‘We need to talk about racism. And we need to act. It is always possible to change direction if there is a will to do so.’ So, I do believe in her willingness to make changes.” But when asked as to what these changes will look like if they will be far-reaching enough, she admits, “I guess only time will tell.”

“The lack of senior staff members from minorities in the EU institutions is a sad reality. It doesn’t reflect the diversity of people living in Europe. Discrimination has many faces and manifests itself in institutional racism”

A vice-chair of Parliament’s Development Committee, EU-Africa cooperation is a priority issue for the German deputy. For many, 2020 was supposed to be the year that redefined relations between the two continents but, thanks to the pandemic, several events including a major summit were postponed, and it seems the new EU-Africa Strategy is now on the backburner.

However, she is still upbeat, saying, “I believe 2020 can still be the year that redefines EU-Africa relations, just maybe differently from what we had initially planned or imagined. Although the big EU-Africa Summit in Brussels could not take place in October, and the vote of the EU-Africa Strategy was postponed, one can still clearly see that the pandemic unveiled differences within our relations and respective systems.”

Herzberger-Fofana says she feels compelled to pick up the EU-Africa baton saying, “I understand it is my duty to make sure that EU-Africa relations remain a priority. I am especially concerned with defining the steps we, the European Parliament, need to take in order to demonstrate our sincere commitment to our African partners and truly achieve a partnership of equals.”

Key to relations between the continents has been the use of development aid. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell recently said that the EU and Africa should take “full advantage of the levers offered by development aid in order to accelerate private investments in sectors which are strategically important to our two continents”.

In response, Herzberger- Fofana says she recognises the importance of aid as well as its shortcomings, explaining, “Development aid is an important instrument that can contribute towards sustainable development. However, it has been observed that aid has been poorly allocated and did not consider the needs of the concerned populations or, in the worst cases, helped fund conflicts.”

Herzberger-Fofana also wants to see the Union reconsider its own development policies with regards to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as defined by the Agenda 2030 Action Plan. “The same applies to private investments. In recent years, the discussion around entrepreneurship, Private-Public-Partnerships and the Multi-Stakeholder-Partnership approach, linking the private sector with the field of development, has won ground. I believe that this can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how much of the above-mentioned partnership-of-equals-approach is respected.”

She concludes, “For my group and I, it is a priority that we enable and promote investments, whether private or public, based on integrated systems of mutual benefit that respect and protect human rights, worker’s rights and the environment.”

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