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What's life really like for black people in Germany?

April 25, 2020

Blacks are Germany's most visible minority. But how they experience racism and discrimination remains largely unknown. The Afrozensus, or "Afro Census," wants to change that by asking about their experiences.

Close-up of young woman
Image: Imago Images/PhotoAlto/F. Cirou

After grocery shopping at Arnimplatz in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district recently, I saw a scene that is not uncommon in the German capital. A man had passed out. And the cops were trying to move him from the pavement after what was probably a bad case of daytime drinking or drugs. As I walked by, I noticed the third policeman. He was black. I smiled slightly as I did a double take. Fortunately, he returned my smile, so it wasn't awkward. This was the first time I'd seen a black police officer in Berlin.

I see black people in many places in the German capital, but I rarely see them working in client-facing roles, in jobs that allow them to engage directly with the public. Their roles tend to be less visible — confined to restaurant kitchens or worse. "Why do bathroom attendants have to be African?" a good friend from Kenya, who also lives here, once asked me.

Read more: Racism in German football: Lots of progress made, but lots of work to do 

That black people are overrepresented in menial jobs is an example of structural and institutional racism, says Poliana Baumgarten, a German Afro-Brazilian filmmaker whose work deals with racism and discrimination.

"It just shows there's not even a chance for black women to get jobs where they would experience some form of dignity," she adds.

Lack of data hampers anti-discrimination efforts 

Racial discrimination has been rising in Germany. The absolute numbers of reported racist incidents have increased, and they are growing faster than other forms of discrimination, according to the country's Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency. There were nearly 20% more racist attacks in 2018 than in 2017, based on official crime statistics. However, the data that would allow the anti-discrimination agency to see just how racism affects specific groups of people is missing. Germany doesn't collect information on race and ethnicity.

That's a problem, says Daniel Gyamerah, an expert on anti-discrimination. He believes that the data needs to be more targeted to help fight discrimination against people of African descent. 

"They are seen as blacks and experience racism against black people, but there's no research about that," he explains. 

Daniel Gyamerah, the founder of Each One Teach One
Daniel Gyamerah is chairman of Each One Teach One, an empowerment organization by People of African Descent and Division Lead at Citizen For Europe, one of the project partners of the AfrozensusImage: Séverine Lenglet

"Politicians look at numbers," he says, noting that more evidence of racism is needed to get policymakers to act. 

More than 1 million people of African descent live in Germany, according to estimates. And anti-discrimination advocates want to better understand their lives and experiences of racism. Gyamerah came up with the idea that will now result in Germany's first Afrozensus. The survey could help shed light on what it's like to be black in Germany today. 

"Our aim is not to differentiate blacks from other ethnicities or communities, it's to show that there are intersections," he says, noting how other social categories, such as gender or religion, can change how a black person experiences discrimination.

The Afrozensus, which is funded by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, will collect standard demographic data — age, gender, disability — and discrimination experiences. It will also ask respondents about their economic participation, civic engagement and expectations from lawmakers.

"The data would allow us to broach the issue of discrimination in public discourse in Germany, because it becomes more visible," says agency spokesperson Sebastian Bickerich.

How people of color experience living in Germany

Legacy of the Third Reich

It's impossible to discuss racism in Germany without mentioning National Socialism. The effects of the Nazi period on German society still linger. And some experts attribute the country's inability to adequately tackle racism in public discourse today as a response to the understanding of race during the Third Reich.

There is an idea that "by acknowledging racial differences, you are promoting them," says Sarah Chander, a Brussels-based social justice advocate.

She believes politicians need to adopt an understanding that comes from anti-racist organizations to deal with discrimination. 

"We need to recognize the social differences that you ascribe to us with race," says Chander, whose work has given her an overview of the problem across Europe. "We can't just hope that those differences won't exist if we don't talk about them."

Daniel Gyamerah would agree.

"Because of National Socialism and the unfathomable responsibility of the entire society, in relation to Nazism and what our forefathers did, it often means that the consequences of German colonialism are neglected," he says.

Emaciated Herero survivors
Thousands died in the genocide in German South West Africa — in concentration camps and from starvationImage: public domain

Gyamerah points to colonialism and National Socialism as elements of a "racist continuity." The first genocide in the 20th century is linked to Germany. Tens of thousands of Nama and Herero were killed in German South West Africa (now Namibia) after they rebelled against colonial rule. And while several German politicians have acknowledged the genocide, an official apology is still pending. Numerous streets in the country still bear the names of individuals many would consider mass murderers.  

"The focus is on National Socialism because the collective responsibility there is so big that it's difficult for society to recognize other events in German history," says Gyamerah. "Colonialism and anti-black racism have no place in the country's public discourse."

Read more: Berlin confronts Germany's colonial past with new initiative

Is Germany changing how it talks about race?

Speaking at the country's integration summit last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel used the term schwarz (black) to question why people of African descent have to prove they are German even when they were born and raised here. This was the first time in years a high-ranking government official used the word. Some saw her statement, in the aftermath of the most recent racist attack in Hanau, as a direct reference to discrimination that targets blacks or other people of color. 

"It's a huge relief that groups of people who are more likely to suffer discrimination are actually being named," says Maureen Maisha Auma, professor of childhood and diversity studies at the University of Magdeburg.

"For a long time, it was a taboo because [racism] was lumped together with xenophobia, which in a sense also places the blame on the person who is being discriminated against," she explains.

What is the African diaspora experience in Germany?

The German chancellor's recent viral sound bite gives more weight to the calls from scholars like Auma who have repeatedly spoken about anti-black racism.

"The way we see the world, because we navigate it in a black body, has started to take on a meaning [in Germany]," Auma says.

While Germans have recognized that racism is an issue, "they still have reservations about having certain groups of people in their proximity," according to Sebastian Bickerich. Examining how those reservations affect blacks in the country could begin with the Afrozensus, which will be launched in May in three languages — German, English and French. People can already sign up to receive the online survey. Its initiators want the results, which are slated for publication at the end of the year, to spur policymakers into action.

But for Germany's black population and people of color, it will be about more than just numbers. It will also be an opportunity to get insights into how to deal with discrimination, says Daniel Gyamerah.

Chiponda Chimbelu DW Journalist
Chiponda Chimbelu Business journalist and member of the the Editorial Council