Statistically speaking, black people in Germany don’t exist

Thanks to the refugee crisis, race and immigration have played prominently in Germany’s upcoming election.

Immigration is the top issue for Germans voting in the federal race on Sept. 24. Germany’s interior minister has a 10-point proposal for defining national identity, including that “we don’t do burqa.” The far right’s campaign posters boast headlines like: “Burqas? We like bikinis,”; “New Germans? We can make them ourselves,”; and “Islam doesn’t fit with our cuisine.” The ads feature scantily clad women, a pregnant white woman, and piglets, respectively.

But mysteriously absent from this debate is the voice of racial minorities. “Black people in Germany are mostly invisible,” says Daniel Gyamerah of Diversity in Leadership, a German advocacy group for people of color that advocates for equality of data.

Germany doesn’t see race—or at least it pretends not to. Racial categories that are commonplace in the US and UK—such as white, black, and Asian—don’t exist in Germany. The government doesn’t see any need to measure the number of ethnic minorities in certain schools, universities, and jobs, because it doesn’t want to divide its citizens. The prevailing argument, which holds in much of Western Europe, is “if you don’t want to create racism, you have to avoid using categories,” says Simon Patrick, a senior researcher at the National Institute for Demographic Studies. Everyone is German, the thinking goes, and should be treated the same across the board.

To some, these are lofty principles aimed at boosting equality. But many feel they harm racial progress. While the racist sentiments of the far right often spark heated debate, there is little discussion of the deep-seated discrimination plaguing established communities of color on matters like education, policing, and employment. The election’s focus on immigration has overshadowed these issues, leaving black, Asian, and ethnic minority communities in the dark.

In a country that prides itself on the use of data and evidence, the lack of information speaks volumes. The result, says Gyamerah, is that if “you’re not counted, then you don’t count.”

One size fits all

Germany doesn’t collect racial statistics (i.e., black, white, Asian). So while the US knows its black population makes up roughly 13% of its population, and the UK’s black population amounts to roughly 3%, Germany is clueless. A UN team that recently examined racism in Germany estimated there to be many as one million people with “African roots” in Germany, more than 1% of the population. But such estimates are unreliable, partly because it’s unclear how many black people would identify as having “African roots.”

What Germany does document is the country of origin of recent immigrants. According to official statistics, one in five German residents are now first or second-generation immigrants, meaning either they were born in another country or have one parent born in another country. (For a rough sense of comparison, 11% of France’s population has at least one immigrant parent.) Among German voters, one in ten have a migrant background. The country’s largest immigrant block (amounting to just over half of its immigrant voters) is made up of ethnic Germans from largely former Soviet countries (largely known as Spätaussiedler) and Turkish Germans.

Beyond that, the demographic data is extremely hazy. All ethnic minority Germans who aren’t first or second-generation immigrants are just labeled “German.”

Large immigrant groups like Turkish Germans have gained some clout, partly by winning seats in parliament. But without granular data, the tendency is still to view migrant voters as one political force. “There is not that one type of migrant voter. Why should somebody who came to Germany from Ukraine 20 years ago have the same political preferences as somebody who moved here from southern Turkey? Or somebody who came here from Italy in the 1950s?” Dennis Spies, a researcher on migrant voter behavior in Germany, told Deutsche Welle.

By contrast, ethnic minorities in the UK and US are now a formidable political force. In 1965, there were just six black Americans in the House of Representatives. By 2015, that figure jumped to 44. This year, the UK elected its most diverse parliament to date (jumping from three ethnic minority MPs in 1987 to 52).

Black Americans played a crucial role in electing Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. In the 2016 presidential election, low voter turnout among blacks was considered a major reason for why Hillary Clinton lost. In the UK, ethnic minorities helped the Labour Party gain enough ground to deny prime minister Theresa May a governing majority in parliament.

Politicians in these countries outwardly court ethnic minorities. In a nod to black culture, Clinton famously told a radio host she keeps “hot sauce” in her bag, while UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn courted grime artists to mobilize black and ethnic minority voters.

This just doesn’t exist in Germany. “Policy makers don’t even know that black people as a group exist,” says Gyamerah. They are genuinely “surprised when we talk about black people,” he says.

The lack of attention results in racism, and makes solving problems caused by racism harder to fix. “If you want to implement anti-discrimination policies, you need to identify those who are facing discrimination,” says Patrick.

In German schools, for instance, advocates of ethnic minorities say teachers block minority pupils from advancing. Students of color are overrepresented in the worst schools in Germany (and underrepresented in the schools designed to send children to universities) and discriminated against in the labor market. “You have no real proof, although you have a lot of anecdotal evidence,” says Sarah Chander, an advocacy officer for the European Network Against Racism.

Racial profiling is also a problem with police. In 2016, when Germany was rocked by allegations of mass sexual assault by Arab men on New Year’s Eve, police claimed an acronym they used to describe screened suspects, ‘Nafris’ (an abbreviation of “Nordafrikanische Intensivtaeter” or “North African Repeat Offenders”), was not racist. A recent UN report found racist stereotypes prevent authorities from properly investigating and prosecuting racist violence and hate crimes.

By contrast, in the UK, accessible data shows black Brits are four times as likely as their white counterparts to be stopped and searched by the police. Armed with this fact, black and ethnic minority communities and racial justice organization have successfully pressured the government to change tack and reform the police force. They pointed to studies that showed stop and search does little to reduce crime and that racial discrimination was a leading cause (pdf) of black and Asian Brits being stopped and searched more.

A long, hard road

Ethnic minorities have existed in Germany since long before the refugee crisis, even if they don’t feature prominently in history as it’s told. The country’s sizable minority population is the result of 17th century black servants coming to Germany, the country’s colonial presence in Namibia, Cameroon, Togo, and Tanzania, foreign black soldiers stationed in Germany during World War II, and later migration waves from Turkey and other southern countries.

The few black and ethnic minority politicians who do exist face a lot of abuse. One of Germany’s first black MPs, Senegalese-born Karamba Diaby, is fighting a torrent of online criticism (including being called “a black monkey”, a “traitor”, and “nigger”) in his bid for reelection. Last month, the National Democratic Party (NPD), a far right party, shared an image of Diaby campaign poster with the caption: “German representative of the people, according to the SPD. Who betrayed us? The Social Democrats.” Diaby quickly replied with a post of his own, boldly stating, “I am not your negro.”

Alexander Garland of right-wing AFD party, cut down (paywall) a German public servant of Turkish origin for denying that there was a “specific German culture” and said he wanted to “dispose of her in Anatolia.” German chancellor Angela Merkel joined a chorus of critics accusing Gauland of racism.

Some suggest the paucity of data is intentional. These are policies that allow dominant groups to “keep the position and domination in the country,” says Patrick. Whatever the reason, it’s clear the problem will persist long after this election season.

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