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French and German activist politicians discuss battling racism with legislation

May 10, 2021

French and German activist politicians discuss battling racism with legislation

May 10, 2021
in The Harvard Gazette

“The term race is outdated in Germany, and it is racist itself,” said Aminata Touré (upper left). Touré was joined by moderator Mary Lewis (upper right) and Christiane Taubira, France’s minister of justice from 2012 to 2016.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

The murder of George Floyd last May by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis triggered a series of protests and a reckoning on race that spread across the nation and renewed discussions about deeply embedded racism in countries around the world.

Two prominent European human-rights activists appeared in a trans-Atlantic Harvard event on Thursday to discuss ways legislation on that continent can and has been used to fight racism. The event also marked both the anniversaries of the Floyd killing and that of the French Parliament’s passage 20 years ago of “Taubira’s Law,” which recognized the Atlantic slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity.

Christiane Taubira was France’s minister of justice from 2012 to 2016. She introduced the French anti-slavery law as well as legislation permitting same-sex marriage and adoption. Aminata Touré is vice president of the Schleswig-Holstein Parliament in Germany and the first Afro-German vice president of a parliament in that country.

Moderator Mary D. Lewis, Robert Walton Goelet Professor of French History, began the conversation by asking Taubira about the law that bears her name, specifically comments she made at the time of passage that it amounted to a symbolic reparation.

Taubira replied that she now feels that reparation can never be fully possible. “No one on earth, no matter how rich or how powerful, can reform the millions of lost lives,” she said. “So let’s make it clear: The crime itself is not repairable. Sorry is not enough. That’s why this law recognizing slavery as a crime against humanity contains other sections — such as teaching this history at all levels, celebrating officially every year, and [creating] a national committee dealing with history and memory.”

Taubira’s Law, she pointed out, also exists to remind young people and students that certain laws, such as those permitting slavery, can themselves be immoral.

Touré spoke of an effort she’s been spearheading to have the word “race” removed from Article 3 of the German constitution, which prohibits racial discrimination. Lewis pointed out that it may seem contradictory to remove “race” from an equal protection clause, but Touré pointed out that the word has particular connotations in Germany, where it promotes the idea of one bloodline as superior to another.