The Viciousness of German Structural Racism

Image: “Wut in Dessau: Oury Jalloh-Demo 2018” by tim.lueddemann, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Black Lives Matter protests in the United States have kicked off a long overdue debate on structural Racism in Germany. Whoever believed Germany to be a progressive leader is badly mistaken.


6 Minutes

Fifteen years ago, in 2005, Sierra Leonian asylum seeker Oury Jalloh burned to death in his jail cell in Dessau in Saxony-Anhalt while being tied by hands and feet. To this day, nobody knows what exactly happened. New research, investigations and an interview with an involved officer revealed that he suffered severe injuries and fractions, suggesting a cover-up of Jallohs prior death by claiming self-incineration. Today, the lead prosecutor at the time suggests that the fire might have served to prevent investigations into two other deaths.

The police officers present at the incident have consistently remained silent.

Who still talks about other eery and brutal cases of abused asylum seekers and migrants like Aamir Ageeb (31) or Achidi John (19) who died at the hands of German border police, all the way to the present day?


Today, countries worldwide have joined US-American protesters in the public fight against structural Racism and police brutality against people of color, after US-American Black man George Floyd died brutally at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. Germany is one of those countries: In the beginning of June, 25 cities had registered demonstrations.

Since almost day one of the protests, leading German media have immediately picked up on analyzing the historical baggage that lies at the foundation of the protest rage. There were attempts to contextualize the violence and looting within the despair and discrimination felt by many black Americans; there was reporting on the collective mourning that swapped all the way over to Germany and other countries; there were explanations and insights into the calls for police reform, as well as the ways many black people in the US have learned to behave in order to stay safe.

By now, the protest wave has kicked off a debate about Racism here in Germany and wider Europe, too. It’s not uncommon to come across German tweets displaying horror at structural Racism in the United States – while simultaneously questioning the need for this type of protest in Germany. After all, one would assume, Germany is much more progressive, and we lack the same structures and histories of slavery and segregation.

But this type of distinction is misleading and can evidently be borderline dangerous for people of color and migrants in Germany – factually speaking.

The United States are certainly dealing with unique structures rooted in its history of segregation. This includes law enforcement’s function as slave patrol before the Civil War, and mega crime bills or “black codes” put in place of slavery after its legal abolishment. (Here’s a great, short feature on policing in the US on npr’s Throughline podcast.)

By now, our discourse in Germany has grown beyond a focus on solidarity with protesters in the US. Germany is now seeing a full-blown media and social media discussion about structural Racism and discrimination in our own country.

This is where the viciousness lies. Because this debate does not exist without line-drawing: Don’t compare Germany to the United States – be glad you don’t experience the same things here as you would over there.

A piece titled “Deathly Risk: Being Black” [German] details the ways many German and non-German people of color have been experiencing latent and explicit forms of discrimination, potentially detrimental to mental and physical well-being.

“Exaggerated fixation, a lack of patience in disputes, […] Racial Profiling, a harsh and often demeaning tone, xenophobic statements: TAll of these are things that people with a migration background [Migrationshintergrund] have experienced with police [in Germany].”

“Todesrisiko: Schwarz Sein” – Volksverpetzer, 31. Mai 2020

A recent controversy surrounding popular talk show Maischberger is symptomatic of this double standard in public discourse. In early June, Maischberger put the US protests on its show agenda, among other topics. The five invited guests were all white.

Critics began calling out how problematic it would be to not invite guests of color in a discussion of topic so sensitive, complex and important to many people’s safety. Blogger and publicist Nasir Ahmed, a leading critic, details the response he received when they reached out to him to avoid further spiraling after his petition had amassed over 30,000 voices. He was told that while there would be talk about the rioting, racism would only be a side topic, therefore not necessitating the presence of people directly affected. In the petition, Ahmed wrote:

“[…] those affected by Racism and right-wing extremism are not provided with a display, but they instead have to create one on their own on social media, while Fascists and Racists within AfD ranks and others receive millions of views on national television.”

Nasir Ahmed on Change.org, June 4 2020

Maischberger recently set up a new episode, this time with a more diverse list of interviewees. Change came quickly, but it had to be a controversy first.


The most distinct historical difference between Germany and the United States might be legalized segregation and slavery. But at its core, German Racism is also structurally conditioned, rather than a set of singular incidents and bad apples, affecting people of color and migrants in all areas of life.

While we look to the US in disgust, we’ve only recently opened up the topics of structural Racism in our own institutions – like the police force. So far, uttering the R-word still makes people shudder. When Social Democratic Party Chair Saskia Esken stated the existence of “latent racism within the ranks of security forces that needs to be fought”, Police Union vice speaker Sven Hüber replied: “We don’t need these attacks on the police”, and (white) Rhineland-Palatinate Interior Minister Roger Lewentz assured that he “never experienced the type of racist shortcomings that might be attributed to it.”

At the same time, our German military has been struggling with a bad reputation for strong right-wing extremist tendencies among members for decades.

And the rest of the list of both latent and explicit structural Racism is long. A structure refers to non-singular incidents. In other words: incidents of Racism are not exclusive to a few bad apples, but indicative of a broader attitude towards anything perceived as foreign, non-belonging.

In a single Tweet, author Mohamed Amjahid collected some of the major past scandals in German discourse that centrally shaped each debate ensuing afterwards. “Since Germany is being all woke right now, here are some small reminders”, Amjahid writes. Below is a translated excerpt including added details.

  • “Christian Lindner in the bakery”: In 2018, FDP party head Lindner said in a speech that “while queuing in your local bakery and overhearing someone order a bread roll in broken German, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s that highly qualified AI developer from India, or just an illegal or leave-to-remain foreigner.“
  • “Boateng as a neighbor”: Alexander Gauland, Vice Chairperson of populist right-wing AfD, the largest opposition party in the parliament, said in 2016 about German Soccer player Jerome Boateng, also a person of color: „People like him as a soccer player. But you don’t want to have a Boateng as your neighbor.”
  • Nafri: A derogatory term blanketly labelling men from North-African countries, coined shortly after the border opening in 2015 and the incident over New Year’s in Cologne in 2016,
  • “Islam does not belong to Germany”!, a response by former Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in 2018 to Merkel’s claim that it does,
  • “Kopftuchdebatte”: The entire public debate around hijab-wearing Muslim women in Germany,
  • “I don’t want to say ‘Schaumküsse’ “: The decade-old debate on politically correct labeling of traditional foods and objects that has raged as much in Germany as it has in the US. Arguably the most bizarre example might have been the “N****kuss”, describing a chocolate-covered, foam-filled candy cookie now know simply as Foam Kiss [Schaumkuss]. You can guess what the first word translates into.

The list goes on, as you can imagine. And it’s not limited to public examples of both microaggressions and outright hatred. While Germany does not deal with the same historically entrenched system of Racism as the US, Racism is just as vicious, systematic and dangerous over here. Our own history is not drenched in slavery, but in Neonazi violence, the National Socialist Underground and participation in colonialism, to name a few.

“Whenever I give a lecture in the US on Racism in German literature, at the end there’s always that one German person that’ll say: ‘Not all Germans are Racists’ “.

Priscillia Layne, US-American professor of German Studies in North Carolina in DIE ZEIT,

In the light of our own history and failure to deal with Racism until now, cases like Oury Jalloh’s seem to appear in a very different light.

We’re experiencing a unique time for change. I’d go as far as claiming that no other time has seen such a distinct focus on the structures of Racism via protests carried out globally. This is a unique moment for Germany, as well. We are globally noted for our humanity. That shouldn’t absolve us from our responsibility to look inward when outside events prompt us to.

“The many Black[-led] movements in the Untied States, like the Civil rights Moevement, have been able to build a lot. In my experience, the existence of Racism in the United States is denied less often than in Germany.

In Germany, there is still a perception that Racism is an illusion. I see that every day as part of my work.”

Céline Barry, Leader of the Anti-Discrimination Advice Center EOTO e.V. in Berlin, in DIE ZEIT

For further reading and action


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