Germany Grapples With Day-to-Day Racism

Police checks are common at airports, railway stations and on trains

Police checks are common at airports, railway stations and on trains

The German constitution forbids racial discrimination, but a legal framework remains missing to actively prevent it. DW looks at how Germany is dealing with the problem of racism in everyday life.

“As a black person in Germany, you encounter racism on every level of society. At work, looking for an apartment, or in political matters. And in private life, of course,” said Tahir Della, a Munich-based photographer and board member of the Association of People of African Origin in Germany (ISD). The group, founded in the 1980s, aims to bring African-Germans and their projects together and opposes racism.

Della: Racism exists at every level of society

The US civil rights movement got its start in the 1950s to fight against racial discrimination. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. described his vision of a future America without racism, where skin color and a person’s origin would no longer play a role.

Fifty years later, what does that future look like in Germany? “People ask me on the street if I have any drugs,” said Della. “Or – and this is even with the authorities – it’s expected that I’d be better able to respond to poorly spoken German rather than proper German. This may seem harmless at first glance, but it gives black people a negative reputation and contributes to the lack of understanding about the status of people with dark skin in Germany.

Different characteristics

A generally accepted definition of racism does not exist in Germany. “There are different dimensions and manifestations of racism. It can be spontaneous or organized, open or covert. There are violent racist acts, racist remarks and discrimination in everyday life,” said Hendrik Cremer, who has worked with the German Institute for Human Rights (DIMR) since 2007.

“Unlike before, racism today is usually justified not with biology but with culture. What’s typical today is the formation of groups based on different cultures, nations, ethnicities or religious affiliation,” said Cremer. But these groups are only constructions and supposedly homogeneous, and members are attributed with general characteristics. “Such categorizations of people only achieve a racist dimension if they’re accompanied by the devaluation of individual groups and hierarchies.”

Similar experiences

Racism not only affects black people in Germany, of which there are many fewer than in the US. Anti-Semitism is also a form of racism, as well as antiziganism directed against the Roma, or anti-Muslim racism. “There are many parallels to other groups that are discriminated against in this country, the racist experiences are similar,” said Della.

What is the legal basis that applies in Germany in terms of racism? “All the international human rights treaties which Germany has signed contain a prohibition of racial discrimination,” said Cremer.

But he said that in order to actually fight against racism in Germany, the legal protection in the country is not adequate. “In Germany, the General Equal Treatment Act was introduced in 2006. Although it addresses the sectors of workplace discrimination and restrictions in the housing market, the law still has many gaps.”

Legal hurdles

Germany’s constitution does prohibit racial discrimination in general, but there is basically no case law that specifically deals with it, said Cremer. “Those who want to take action against racist remarks are only able to refer to Section 130 of the Penal Code, which refers to sedition.”

The legal hurdles, therefore, are high. To give an example, the criminal case against the former finance senator of Berlin, Thilo Sarrazin, who according to experts in a 2009 interview made overtly racist remarks about Turkish and Arab immigrants in Germany, was suspended.

When it comes to racism, the German government has the task of protecting people from racial discrimination. But it must also not engage in discrimination itself with, for example, identity checks by the police. According to Cremer, racial profiling, where people are selected for police checks on the basis of their external features, is a common and widespread police practice in Germany.

‘Police are part of  society’

As a result, the police are able to carry out random controls of migrants at airports, railway stations and on trains. In late June, the DIMR published a study on racial profiling in Germany, calling for the abolition of the relevant paragraph of the Federal Police Act which, according to study author Cremer, gives “the police the ability to perform racial identity checks.”

“Most of the black people I know have faced the problem of frequent police checks for no apparent reason,” said Della. “But the police are part of society and simply express existing prejudices.”

Cremer: Racism is mostly culturally based today

“Racism in Germany is frequently and regularly equated with the far-right scene. But that view is too narrow and does not take into account racism in mainstream society,” said Cremer. Everyday racism is rarely seen or recorded, and therefore cannot be addressed.

“Racism is clearly a phenomenon that affects all walks of life and can be found everywhere,” said Cremer. He says the terms “Ausländerfeindlichkeit” and “Fremdenfeindlichkeit” – hostility toward foreigners or strangers – are not adequate, and says one should only speak of racism. “These terms are simply inappropriate.”

Unconscious racism

There are, of course, situations and statements where it’s debatable whether they could be considered racist or not, said Cremer. “Freedom of expression should be respected and honored,” he said. But knowledge and understanding of what is considered racist – and not only within the German judiciary – is not well defined.

“If you tell people that their behavior – like the constant question, ‘Where do you really come from?’ – comes off as racist to black people, their typical response is: ‘I didn’t mean it like that.’ I even believe that,” said the ISD’s Della. “But the fact is that you can also unconsciously be racist because you have certain stereotypes in mind. I would venture to say that Martin Luther King would not be pleased.”

– DW