Time to talk about racism

Until such time as there is an open debate about racism, the debate about integration in Germany will not more forward. After all, as Aladin El-Mafaalani explains, integration and racism are two key elements of a discourse on participation that a country of immigration has to address

By Aladin El-Mafaalani

It is a well-known fact that there are many different kinds of discrimination: it can relate to gender (sexism), sexual orientation (homophobia), a person's affiliation to a social grouping (classism), age (ageism) and, among others, discrimination against people with disabilities. Discriminatory behaviour towards people in response to their culture, religion, skin colour or ethnic or national roots is classified as racism.

Correspondingly, this broad definition of racism can also serve as an umbrella term for different kinds of racism, including anti-Semitism, antiziganism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. In other words, racism is about drawing boundaries that determine who belongs and who doesn't on the basis of biological and – these days more often than ever – cultural attributions.

Consequently, an action is racist when one assigns group-based traits to one person or several people on the basis of the afore-mentioned characteristic features, which subsequently leads to the devaluation of a person or his/her exclusion. This action can be carried out consciously and in bad faith – only then would one refer to the person carrying out the action as a racist. On the other hand, an action can be taken unintentionally, possibly in good faith. It nevertheless remains racist.

Therefore, one should only describe people as racists if they actively and consciously exclude other people because of their religion, culture, skin colour or ethnic background. Racists have a largely closed racist-influenced image of themselves and the world and are largely the subject of research into right-wing extremism (regardless of whether they organise and perpetrate acts of violence or not).

Structural racism

Research into racism concentrates in particular on the much more frequent racist, excluding actions and processes carried out unintentionally by people and institutions who do not have a closed image of themselves and the world. 

If the discrimination is systematic – i.e. if it cannot be limited to a small section of society, but is evident in several areas of societal life – then it is described as structural or institutional racism, a subject that to this day is far too infrequently addressed in Germany.

Many studies have supplied evidence of exclusion practices in schools, and on the labour and housing markets. The NSU scandal made it quite plain that even within the police and intelligence agencies, people are being devalued and excluded against a backdrop of collective attributions, a practice that meant the authorities impeded their own investigation.

Posters in Munich with pictures of victims of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) (photo: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)
In a case that rocked Germany to the core, the extreme right-wing National Socialist Underground (NSU) was held responsible for the murder of nine men of Turkish and Greek origin and a Germany police woman. The poster pictured here shows images of these nine men and calls on people to "Forgive nothing! Forget nothing!"

It must be assumed that racism occurs in all areas of society. This is not because there are so many racists in the aforementioned sense, but because of the existence of widespread unchallenged prejudices and racist attitudes not only within the population, but also in the structures of institutions, which means that exclusion is taking place systematically without the intention of systematically excluding people. Because this is the case in all societies, it is not a question of moralising the problem or even condemning people. No one should have to justify having racist knowledge; one should only have to justify doing nothing to combat it.

There are, however, positive developments: institutions and organisations where the employee structure is representative of the diversity of society are considerably less likely to exclude people. The reason for this might be that the "us-and-them" boundaries cannot be drawn along the lines of the aforementioned characteristic traits. 

"Racial profiling"

It also seems sensible and conducive to the building of trust to spread diversity within an organisation itself. In the case of the security authorities, this would entail not appointing all Muslim employees solely to posts relating to matters concerning Islamism. Imagine if such personnel had occupied key positions within the intelligence agency working on the NSU murders; there would, in all likelihood, not have been any "blind spots", and even if there had, it would have been easier for the victims and their loved ones to believe that the deficits were caused by poor working practices and not institutional racism.

Another positive message is that professions where people are trained to judge objectively are less susceptible to discriminatory behaviour: for example, it is more difficult to find evidence of discrimination within the justice and education systems – or at least any evidence that is found is less convincing – than on the labour or housing markets. 

Things becomes especially problematic when actions are guided by explicitly non-objective criteria, and when these critera are backed up by senior personnel, regulations and laws. "Racial Profiling", for example, is the name given to an identity check that is not carried out because of a concrete suspicion or any unusual behaviour displayed by a person, but because of the colour of his/her skin. 

Because racial profiling is – and has been – explicitly and consciously practised in Germany (and in some cases is even part of professinal training) and because the domestic security agencies are extraordinarily important institutions with sovereign duties, this is an extreme form of institutional racism. 

Racism still a taboo term

In a society where this is not only part and parcel of everyday life, but is (still) legal and is largely perceived as legitimate, it can be noted that there is still a lack of sensitivity in dealing with this set of issues. The fact that racism is still a taboo term is also an indication of this.

Pupils and a teacher in a German classroom (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Racism in the classroom: four years ago, the first nationwide study was conducted into the subject of "diversity in the classroom" in Germany. The study sought to investigate claims of discrimination against teachers with a migrant background. The result was shocking: more than 22 per cent of teachers had experienced discrimination and racism at school

However, it is only a taboo when referring to structural or institutional racism. People are only too willing to talk about right-wing extremism, to organise and attend counter demonstrations in order to distance themselves from racists. On the other hand, people are not as keen to hear that racist attitudes and conduct are very widespread in the population and institutions. It is much more a case of attempting to present this problem as one of the uneducated lower classes or as an eastern German phenomenon. 

Although slightly more incidences are discernible within these groups, this is an issue that pertains to society as whole, and all its classes – even the upper classes and the educated middle classes. Naturally, immigrants too can be just as racist as other people. 

It does, however, make a difference who is thinking in derogatory, excluding terms and behaving accordingly: if these people are members of the majority, the effect is far more problematic than if they belong to minority groups; if they are people in positions of power, then it is still more dangerous.

Open and honest discourse about racism

Another "uncomfortable" aspect of structural racism is that practically all organisations and institutions have to critically assess and amend their formal and informal structures before they can open themselves up culturally and socially. The fact that personnel in schools, public administrations, and senior staff are still a long way off reflecting society's true diversity, shows that there is huge room for improvement. The establishment and expansion of authorities concerned with anti-racism and anti-discrimination could also be helpful in this regard.

There are good reasons to believe that the racism discourse will be more open and honest in future, and that as a result, social sensibilities will be sharpened. Following the Sarrazin debate, in which the subject of integration was at the heart of the discourse, the NSU scandal has resulted in a more robust debate on structural racism. 

There is reason to hope that the future will bring a debate on racism that will make up some ground. After all, issues such as migration and integration on the one hand and discrimination and racism on the other should have more or less equal weighting in a discourse on participation. This is what Germany can learn from other immigration societies even though it currently lags a long way behind.

Aladin El-Mafaalani
© Qantara.de 2014
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan
Aladin El-Mafaalani is professor of political science at the Muenster University of Applied Sciences.