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Racist remarks

August 31, 2010

Comments by German central banker Thilo Sarrazin show how urgently Germany needs a debate about racism in the country, according to Hendrik Cremer of the German Institute for Human Rights.


"Germany is doing away with itself: How we are putting our country on the line" is the title of Thilo Sarrazin's new book, due to appear in the bookstores next week.

Sarrazin is a board member of Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank - a prominent public position. Excerpts ahead of publication show that Thilo Sarrazin continues to do what he has been doing for a while now: in public announcements, he has assumed the task of splitting German society along the pattern of "we" and "the others." Within the group of "the others," he identifies sub-groups like "Turks," "Arabs" or "Muslim migrants;" in a generalized and derogatory manner, he assigns members of theses groups negative characteristics.

Sarrazin rejects accusations of a racist structure of thinking, and resorts to a stylistic device that is not unusual among people propagating such ideas. He laments the constrictions of political correctness, while conducting verbal racist attacks.

Hendrik Cremer
Hendrik CremerImage: Hendrik Cremer

In Germany, the term racism is often equated with the human rights crimes committed by the Nazis. Racism is often mentioned only in connection with politically organised rightwing extremism.

In court cases, the use of the term "xenophobia" has led to prosecutors or judges also speaking of "xenophobic" motives when judging a violent attack. But the use of such language will lead to a victim of physical violence feel even more ostracized. The example shows that in Germany, a country of immigration, not enough thought is given to racism and its current manifestation.

The narrow comprehension of racism in Germany, by no means sufficiently discussed, has other consequences, too. People do not give appropriate attention to everyday racism below the threshold of violence and structural discrimination, for instance in the educational sector or on the job market.

Of course, stereotyping, ostracism and discrimination in democratic societies can not be equated with the systematic, monstrous crimes of the Nazi era. Comprehending racism as limited to rightwing extremism, however, blanks out the state of scientific research as well as the international and European debate on the issue. Here, the comprehension of racism is already more far-reaching.

Over the past few years, several international organisations have criticized the narrow German understanding of racism. In 2008, the United Nation's Committee on Racism advised Germany to adopt a wider definition for the term racism as well as for the country's basic approach to fighting racism. In 2009, the European Council's Commission on Racism came to the same conclusion, as did a report this year by the UN special rapporteur on racism.

But Germany has started to move in the right direction. In its October 2008 "Action plan against racism," the German government acknowledged that there are racist sentiments and stereotypes beyond rightwing extremism, and that fighting racism is not limited to fighting rightwing extremism, but must take into account all of society.

Racism does not depend on ideas based on theories of ancestry and heredity, even though racial theories are still today propagated along such biological lines. Increasingly, and not only in Germany, racist argumentation relies on ascribing people to different "cultures," "nations," "ethnicities" or religions. One characteristic is this is the construction of supposedly homogeneous groups whose individual members are credited with certain traits.

That does not necessarily entail cultural degradation. Constructing groups subdivided into "we" and the "others" with the sole purpose of setting oneself off from the "others" ("They are different, we don't want them here") can also lead to serious social exclusion.

As a signatory of the UN Anti-Racism Convention, Germany has taken on duties that bind the public authority. IIt has also agreed to fight racism in politics and in public life. This is due to the recognition that a one-time commitment to human rights is not sufficient; rather, the commitment must be filled with life, exercised and defended. To what extent discrimination and racism develop in a society depends on the convictions and attitudes of its individual members. Politics, the state and its institutions play an important role: they set the standards.

That includes politicians or other state representatives pointing out and countering racism in the public arena. Anything else would thwart integration policies in Germany, which are meanwhile regarded as necessary and right.

So we should welcome the fact that of all people, Chancellor Merkel has branded Sarrazin's remarks as simple and stupid blanket judgements that are highly offensive. But one's reaction should not be limited to a rejection of Sarrazin's assumptions. It should be the starting point for a broad discussion about the understanding of racism in Germany.

Author: Dr. Hendrik Cremer, German Institute for Human Rights (db)
Editor: Chuck Penfold