“We can find the George Floyd case everywhere, even in Africa”

Gathering in tribute to George Floyd in Abuja, Nigeria, June 10, 2020.

A former Princeton teacher currently employed at the American University of Nigeria in Yola, Senegalese sociologist Mahamadou Lamine Sagna is a specialist in the United States. He is the author in particular of Violence, Racism and Religions in America. Cornel West, a rebellious thought (ed. Karan, 2016). For Le Monde Afrique, he returns to the reactions generated by the death of George Floyd, killed on May 25 by a white police officer in Minneapolis, and to American systemic racism.

The manifestations linked to the death of George Floyd appear new in their multiracial and youthful component. Is there a sociological change in the fight against racism?

In the 1920s, this phenomenon already existed with the progressive party of Woodrow Wilson, the trade unionism of Eugene Debs or the popular party of Thomas Watson. These movements formed their struggles with the black populations, before, unfortunately, abandoning them. Thomas Watson even finished close to the Ku Klux Klan. This was remembered, which means that for many years, black people took to the streets alone.

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Today, the situation is unprecedented. Young people have little knowledge of this history and have not been subjected to segregation, which was abolished in 1964. He is only the second generation of African-Americans to live freedom. And whether it’s blacks, whites, Asians or Latin Americans who are protesting these days, everyone now knows that racism is structural and they are determined to make a difference.

These protests took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, of which African-Americans were the main victims from a health and economic point of view. Has this exacerbated the situation?

The symbolism of breathing is very important in this period of the Covid-19 pandemic. We saw George Floyd die asphyxiated. Attending this agony live touched us in our humanity. This pandemic is also blatantly revealing the link between the economy, health and the race issue. African-Americans are 2.5 to 3 times more likely to die from Covid-19 and are proportionally in excess among the 40 million Americans unemployed as a result of this pandemic.

“African-Americans are 2.5 to 3 times more likely to die from Covid-19”

This is not surprising and can be explained by the American system, which, as Cornel West has shown, intrinsically links what it calls the fundamentalism of the market economy – which requires that the economic comes before everything else – militarism – even the police are militarized – and authoritarianism. George Floyd’s death stems from this economic, military and political connection to Trump’s authoritarianism.

Police officers charged in various cases of racist violence often enjoy impunity. How to explain it?

The American system protects the police in particular through a law, the “Qualified immunity”, which makes it almost impossible to prosecute agents’ discriminatory practices. Racism is in all spheres of society and the state, to the point that it can be spontaneous, unconscious, while some individuals even make it into a kind of social contract, as one might assume in Trump.

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Certainly, there have always been people against racism in the police. But the problem is more complex. Racism is so systemic that black police officers behave in the same way as white people towards African-American populations. They internalized the fact that the black is by definition dangerous. This is the great strength of the symbolic violence of racism.

“Racism is so systemic that black police behave the same way as white people”

On the other hand, one cannot effectively combat police brutality if one does not fight against the arming of individuals. That’s the big difference with France.

Precisely, what about in France?

I do not know if we can speak of institutional racism in France, but racism is strongly present in the police, where the National Rally vote is relatively high. We note that the police frequently intervene on populations identified as black or North African. The French state has also been tackled on these issues by the UN, the European Court of Human Rights and the Defender of Rights.

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France has long refused to think about the racial question. Is it changing?

No, I don’t believe it. Theoretically, France does not recognize the racial question. The French find it difficult to admit the existence of racism in their country. But what is important and which can evolve is that young blacks or Maghrebis are fed up with a certain paternalism or sentimentalism, which is a way of hiding racism. They will no longer tolerate it.

How to explain the global scale of the current demonstrations?

As I said, the symbolism of breathing in full Covid-19 is important. With the Internet, images spread extremely quickly, and a world was born where borders are no longer as important. It is understandable that the George Floyd case can be found everywhere, even in Africa where many states use the police and the army to control populations who are not of the same ethnic or religious group. If you are consistent with yourself, you have to fight that in Africa as well.

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