Recently a friend of mine lent me an interesting book on the history of New York. It’s packed with historical maps, pictures and photos showing how Manhattan was settled, and its various building booms and economic highs and lows through the ages. What struck me in particular was the gulf in living conditions between the different social classes in the different eras – grinding poverty on one side of the tracks and gilded luxury on the other.
New York is of course famous as a place where, for over 150 years, countless different nationalities and ethnic minorities have lived together, cheek by jowl. Still, life in the melting pot was by no means free from social tensions. The book contains this description, by New Yorker Gerrit Smith, writing some time around 1860: "Even the noblest black,“ he wrote, "is denied that which is free to the vilest white. The omnibus, the bank, the ballot box, the jury box, the halls of legislation […] are all either virtually or absolutely denied to him."
For over a hundred years, these words held true. But things have since changed, both in America and in Europe. We have seen the universal declaration of human rights, equal opportunity laws, measures to combat discrimination and successive campaigns to change people’s opinions. Today we know that discrimination is a horrendous waste of talent.
Yet despite all this progress, in reality, in our daily lives, many things still do not meet this ideal. This was highlighted by a 2007 study showing that black people still face bigger obstacles than all other ethnic groups. Especially black women, who often suffer multiple discrimination – on account of both skin colour and gender, or even sometimes their religious beliefs. Indeed, women’s organisations dealing with discrimination often fail to give sufficient attention to these specific problems of black women.
This was one of the reasons for the founding of the Black European Women’s Council in Brussels on 9 September 2008. Its mission is to help black women by informing the public about the specific issues they face. I was asked to make a speech to mark the occasion – something I was only too happy to do.
I know from conversations with black women that even when their families have lived in the UK, Belgium or Holland for generations, they can still be treated like foreigners. I want that to change, so that someday soon black women can enjoy the same kind of freedom in Europe as they do today in downtown Manhattan.