Black Lives Matter in Germany, but Not the Way You Might Think  

Your Take: The struggles of black men and women in the United States are being used as inspiration to immigrant freedom movements in Europe.

People take part in a Black Lives Matter rally April 29, 2015, at Union Square in New York City.
People take part in a Black Lives Matter rally April 29, 2015, at Union Square in New York City. EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Black lives matter in Germany. Last month, by request of the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission), I keynoted the Network Inclusion Leaders, or NILE, conference, in Berlin, which focused on “building sustainable collaboration among young leaders of color who are committed to a just and inclusive society.”

There, I learned three unforgettable lessons about race in America’s story:

Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Many leaders of color in Germany boldly say “white supremacy” when naming their issues. This is largely because Germany’s narrative includes never forgetting where that racist doctrine led. But many white leaders cringe at being called “’white” because they seem to believe that recognizing ethnicity associates them with their country’s racist past. Some say, “I prefer to just be called a ‘person,’ not a white person.” By refusing to look at their racist past, they also blind themselves to their racist present.

So we should never forget. My wife and I visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin—or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, as they call it—and I was struck by how often the police were the instruments of that era’s political program. Politicians created Jewish ghettos by redlining neighborhoods, depriving Jews of work, stigmatizing them, and using any acts of crime or desperation by Jews to justify outrageous actions defiling their basic humanity.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe doesn’t beat around the bush. Its observance of history is very clear. Policies made ghettos; and politicians who scapegoated groups by race or religion stoked fires of hatred and destruction—and those who ignored the abuses helped them.

Black lives matter. The final observations inspired me. There are fewer black people in Germany than there are in Detroit. Being of immigrant background is a bigger deal there because Germany’s economic future depends on its over 16 million Turkish, Muslim, Asian, Slavic and black people who want equal rights and to maintain their heritages.

Yet during the NILE conference, the stories of black men and women in the U.S. and African freedom movements were repeatedly used as blueprints to inspire and unite these multiple ethnicities under one common vision of pluralism, freedom and justice.

Black lives matter to people seeking freedom in racially divided democracies all over the world. That is an incredible legacy to see in addition to our prowess in music, literature and the sciences. When we share our story, we inspire and empower generations globally!

So since my return to the United States a few days ago, our choices feel very clear to me. We can’t sit on the sidelines declaring ourselves colorblind, helpless and innocent in matters of racial injustice. Democracy doesn’t work that way. You don’t get to inherit the riches of freedom in America without settling its debts accumulated during generations of stolen opportunities and defiled humanity.

Facing that past means admitting that we are all responsible for authorities who kill in our names. Whether they do it to the murdered Jews of Europe or to the unarmed black youth of America, the moral of this story is clear: