The influence of America on our understanding of racism and diversity

For centuries, black European and American activists and intellectuals have approached racism as a trans-Atlantic phenomenon. Many white Europeans, meanwhile, think that racism mainly occurs on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. With a new project, three researchers of RICH want to show how the Dutch sense of racism and diversity is connected with ideas and realities in America.

‘Today, racism is often dismissed as something American’, says researcher Jorrit van den Berk about the new project Mapping Transatlantic Routes of Identity: Using computational models to trace American concepts of diversity in Dutch public debates. ‘So Dutch people feel there is no real need to talk about it. But it is not an American debate, it is an international debate, which the Netherlands is part of as well.’ With the project, Van den Berk and his colleagues Laura Visser-Maessen and Jaap Verheul aim to shed light on the influence of the American Black community on Dutch concepts of freedom and democracy. Van den Berk: ‘Internationally, a huge number of people have risked - and given - their lives to put racism on the map. But that is not really understood in the Netherlands.’

Dominee Martin Luther King in de RAI Amsterdam op 16 augustus 1964. Bron: Hugo van Gelderen/Anefo

Digital humanities

The project differs from earlier transatlantic research on this subject. Previous work, according to Van den Berk, often focused on specific historical circumstances. ‘For example, Martin Luther King's speech in a divided Berlin in the sixties and how it was received on both sides of the Wall’, he illustrates. ‘Racism and diversity are very often discussed in a national context. Of course, that is at least half the story. But we still know surprisingly little about how this debate is influenced by concepts and terms from a different national context.’

"We still know surprisingly little about how this debate is influenced by concepts and terms from a different national context."

In this project, that gap in knowledge will be filled with the help of digital humanities techniques. In the first phase of the project, the researchers analyse the influence of the American debate in Europe over a longer period - 60 to 70 years - by ‘text mining’ digitized Dutch newspapers. ‘From millions of pages we can distil when terms from the black freedom struggle entered the Dutch public debate’, says Van den Berk. ‘When was a particular term first used? What about peaks and falls in usage? Next, we're going to read those articles. What meaning did such an American term have in the Dutch context?’

Black Lives Matter

The momentum seems ideal for this research project now that the Black Lives Matter movement is increasingly prominent in the news. ‘Of course, it inspires us’, agrees Van den Berk. ‘But the idea goes back much further.’ Visser-Maessen: ‘Black activists in particular - whether in America, or in England, Germany or the Netherlands - say: people must understand that where we are now and what is emerging now is a result of the past.

"People must understand that where we are now and what is emerging now is a result of the past."

'There is a great disconnect between the national consciousness of our past and how it links to the present. We do recognize that we had colonialism and slaves, but then there is a gap between knowing that that happened and how that explains how people in the Netherlands, especially black people, are positioned in society. As if those two are not connected. This project will show that it has been a very long battle - that is still going on and that cannot be taken for granted. The ideas of freedom and democracy and diversity did not logically arise from a tolerant point of view, but they developed because black people have continuously been putting the freedom struggle on the radar. That is a very important insight that could also help the Dutch debate.’

Black Lives Matter march through Baltimore City. Author: John Lucia

Social change

The racism debate in Europe needs to be addressed, but is also a sensitive topic, feels Visser-Maessen. ‘Moreover, the emphasis on great leaders, such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, has left many people feeling, what more can I do? Immediately, it becomes very big. But if you look at the long history of civil rights, you see that all the changes that have come about in the understanding of democracy and freedom are achieved by the very small steps of ordinary people doing small but often brave things. Bob Moses, the black activist who I discussed in my PhD thesis, used to say, ‘If you want to achieve successful social change, you need to encourage people to think about what talent they have and how they can use it for change.’ You can storm the barricades, you can collect money’, Visser-Maessen sums up. ‘But it can certainly also be done by doing research.’

Jorrit van den Berk teaches American politics, history, and international relations. His research concentrates on the history of transatlantic relations, with a focus on public diplomacy and the connection between diplomacy and society. His current research focus is mainly on identity, memory, and race in international relations.

Jaap Verheul is professor of Transatlantic Relations at the Faculty of Arts and also teaches cultural history at Utrecht University. Verheul focuses on the cultural dimension of the modern transatlantic relations between the United States and Europe, and also has developed computational methods to study conceptual change and identity formation.

Laura Visser-Maessen specializes in African American history and civil rights, and teaches on (auto)biography, literature, and cultural memory as well as the American political tradition, cultural diplomacy, and racism in the US. Her most recent book, Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots, examines the dilemmas of a civil rights leader who worked to cultivate local leadership.