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Opinion: Fighting Racism Needs Action, Not Words

Peter Phillipp (jen)May 19, 2006

When a public figure warned dark-skinned people to avoid parts of eastern Germany, he raised a new debate on racism. DW's Peter Phillipp says talk on the topic is good, but action would be better.

Public declarations help, but they don't suffice: Action is needed to combat racism.Image: AP

Was it a generic judgement, or a serious and substantiated warning? Once again, it comes down to a battle of ideologies. The same questions came up several weeks ago, after an Ethiopian-born German was nearly beaten to death in the street in public. The pundits asked: Are East Germans more xenophobic and racist than the rest of the country? And just how well does Germany as a whole deal with people of color? It took a while for the debate to die down, but now, it has broken out again. In force.

It was an unusual comment for a former government spokesman to make. In a radio interview, Uwe-Karsten Heye warned people of color who were planning to attend the World Cup in Germany this summer to avoid certain areas of eastern Germany. Otherwise, he said, they faced serious danger. Of course, Heye was just repeating what statistics have long showed: Certain regions in Germany are more dangerous than others. But it was certainly wrong to give the impression that racism prevails solely in the eastern states. Official statistics clearly refute this. There are radical right-wingers in the West as well as the East, and the violent crimes they commit are rising in both regions.

Short-term memories

This of course makes east Germans no more racist than their western German counterparts. But that is also not what Heye meant to say, which is why he issued a correction to his statement. He wanted to draw attention to a problem that authorities and public officials all too often turn a blind eye to: Xenophobia and racist assaults tend to be seen as a "one-off" event, and then things go back to business as usual. Long forgotten are the roiling far-right scenes of the early 1990s in places like Rostock and Hoyerswerda in the east, and Solingen in the west. Then, foreigners were openly hunted down and most average citizens looked on passively.

In recent times, active racist violence may have calmed down in Germany, but the core problem hasnt been eliminated. It can't be, because there is no patent remedy for racism. Interviews with horrified citizens look good on television, but they don't prevent racism, which has its roots in ultra-bourgeois homes, in joblessness and hopelessness, in failed schools and training programs, and -- above all -- a lack of will on behalf of the government to resolutely tackle the problem. When right-wing radicals flood into Saxony's parliament, why shouldn't their followers feel compelled to go out on the street and set fire to a Turkish kabob stand, or thrash an African?

Call for energetic action

Of course it is wrong to designate whole parcels of land as radical-right danger zones, and declare them "no-go zones." To do so is to be unfair to the honorable and upright citizens in those regions. We cannot make this problem go away simply by talking. We need to take action at last. Energetic action, if necessary, in terms of monitoring, prosecution and punishment, so that the violent far-right elements and their backers finally feel the pressure.

This is not something we can accomplish overnight, and certainly not before the World Cup. But the sooner we start, the better.