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Frequently Asked Questions about racism

  • The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination defines racist discrimination "as any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on "race", colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life."

    The consequences are dire: Racism prevents the equal participation of all persons in a society, it misrepresents some people as “inferior” and can lead to psychological and physical violence. In extreme cases, it is used as a justification for genocide or mass killings.

    However, even subtle forms of racism are discriminatory and toxic for a society. This includes, for instance, supposedly well-intentioned comments such as “your German is so good”. People who are constantly reminded that they “do not belong” experience this as humiliating, frustrating and paralysing. Such exclusions are not always intentional, but can also be the result of ignorance or thoughtlessness. However, this does not make them any less distressing or discriminatory. What matters, therefore, is to become aware of them and act accordingly.

    While German law differentiates between racist and other forms of discrimination based on descent, the penalties for racist discrimination and discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin remain the same. There are many forms of racism. Distinctions are made, for instance, between anti-Black, anti-Muslim or anti-Asian racism.

    According to current scientific knowledge, however, there is no such thing as “human races”. Any categorisation into “races” based on supposed or actual traits such as skin colour or origin and the attribution of distinct and unequally valued traits and features are arbitrary and primarily a means of disparaging and excluding people.

  • Ethnic origin means that a person is considered to be part of a group of persons that form a, for instance, social, cultural or historic unit or are connected by a sense of community. These include, for instance, the Friesian, Sorbian or Tyrolean ethnic groups or the Romnija and Roma.

    Just as with “race”, “ethnic origin” is a concept, not a fact. It tends to ascribe a greater set of shared traits and characteristics to a given group than they usually have. Roma and Romnija are anything but a homogeneous group but fall into many different groups that are diverse and distinct in many respects. Nor can a person’s nationality, religion or belief necessarily be inferred from their ethnic origin.

  • Many people experience racist discrimination so frequently that it is referred to as everyday racism. Racism can occur throughout the entire spectrum of social life. Time and again, our counselling centre is contacted by persons who were turned down because of physical features such as the colour of their skin, for instance, when looking for a flat. Or they were called racist names at school, yet the school management was not taking it seriously. Cases at work range all the way from name-calling to missing out on career opportunities to constant rejections of applications.

    Commissioned by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, the 2017 study “Diskriminierungserfahrungen in Deutschland. Ergebnisse einer Repräsentativ- und einer Betroffenenbefragung” (Discrimination Experiences in Germany. Results of a representative survey and a survey of affected persons, only available in German) shows that racist discrimination experiences pervade all spheres of life. Particularly persons of Middle Eastern, North African or Turkish descent experience discrimination in education, the workplace and on the housing market.

  • Institutional racism refers to forms of discrimination, exclusion or disparagement that emanate from a society’s institution, such as the police, public authorities or schools. It is not rooted in the prejudices or derogatory attitudes of the acting individuals. Rather, it is the interpretation or application of rules, regulations, norms, routines or ingrained practices that lead to the direct or indirect discrimination of certain population groups. Institutional racism is usually harder to identify than individual-level forms such as racist slurs or assaults and calls for other approaches to fighting it.

    By contrast, structural racism cannot be traced down to individual institutions. Instead, it is about historically and socially evolved power relations that are deeply rooted in a society’s structures, discourses or imagery. Such structures can also prevent certain population groups such as those with a migrant background or people of colour from being represented in key policy-making, administrative or economic positions proportionately to their share in the overall population.

  • Discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin or for racist reasons is prohibited. In addition, the General Equal Treatment Act (German abbreviation: AGG) protects persons who are discriminated against on grounds of gender, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual identity. Importantly, the Act does not only cover employment and occupation, and aspects of civil law. It also covers all contracts that regulate the access to goods and services. This also includes, for example, the access to residential space. A landlord may not, for instance, state that they refuse to rent to “Roma” or “Turks”.

    In addition to the principle of equal treatment, the AGG also explicitly provides for the promotion of certain groups of persons, known as “positive action”. For instance, companies can offer further training measures specifically to persons with a migrant background.

    The AGG’s scope of protection does not cover government action, in other words, it does not regulate the relation between citizens and the State. This can make it more difficult for those affected to assert their rights for protection from discrimination by and from the State. A major contribution to addressing this is made, for instance, by Berlin’s anti-discrimination law (Landesantidiskriminierungsgesetz - LADG) that became effective in 2020. The LADG provides for special legal protection against discrimination from public authorities of the Land of Berlin. Thanks to this law, persons affected can assert their rights in case of, inter alia, discrimination by police officers, administrative staff or teachers.

  • State-run bodies are bound by the prohibition of discrimination laid down in the Basic Law. Article 3 III of the Basic Law forbids that any person be disfavoured because of their parentage, language, homeland and origin or because of their race. This means that no-one who turns to a public authority may suffer any legal disadvantages as a result of their language, parentage or origin. The same applies if the authority acts on its own initiative. Police checks on the sole ground of skin colour (racial profiling) are unconstitutional and prohibited. Many UN and EU institutions also consider this practice an infringement of human rights. The Deutsches Institut für Menschenrechte (German Institute for Human Rights) sees racial profiling as a violation of the Basic Law's ban on discrimination and right to informational self-determination.

  • Day-care centres, schools and institutes of higher education are for the most part state-run. Racist behaviour by teachers and educators is prohibited, parentage and origin may not play a role in interpersonal interaction. Educational institutions are required to intervene if pupils or students engage in racist behaviour against their peers. The constitutional prohibition of discrimination requires the institutions to put a stop to such behaviour and intervene to protect those affected.

    Individual Federal Länder have included an explicit discrimination ban in their Land school laws. Brandenburg’s school law, for instance, stipulates that no pupil may be favoured or disfavoured on racist grounds, because of their nationality, language, religious or philosophical convictions.

    Pupils, students and teachers at private educational institutions are all equally protected by the General Equal Treatment Act. At state-run institutions, only staff can invoke the AGG if the principle of equal treatment is breached by their employer or colleagues.