Black Lives Matter in Germany: Protests, solidarity, and resilient colour-blindness

Like other European countries, Germany has witnessed a wave of demonstrations in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a US policeman. According to official (police) figures, on the first weekend of June 15,000 protesters attended a rally on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz square, and the largest demonstration in Munich drew 25,000 participants.1

A sea change in German public debate?

For commentators such as Afro-German journalist Alice Hasters, this outburst of protest potentially spells a sea change in the German debate on race and racism: the concatenation of highly mediatised police violence, a Coronavirus pandemic whose impact on populations is strongly racialised, and a rise of far-right politics in Germany with its attendant spate of racist attacks might be about to alter German politics and society in fundamental ways – or so Hasters argues.2

Yet while the German public debate has been unanimous in its condemnation of racism in the United States – particularly when it comes to police violence against Black bodies – analysing the situation closer to home has proved more challenging.

Defending German police forces

For instance, Saskia Esken, co-chairwoman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) spoke in an interview of “latent racism” existing among the ranks of German security agencies, drawing implicit parallels to the American case. She has since faced a fierce political backlash3, leading her partially to retract her statements.4

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer immediately and sharply rebutted Esken’s claims, proudly claiming that since 2012 the Federal Police had scrupulously dealt with a total of 25 cases of suspected racism among its officers.5 Friedrich Merz, one of the hopefuls to succeed Angela Merkel as chairman of the Christian Democrats (CDU) – and as Chancellor – struck a similar note: the comparison with the United States was misplaced and racism much less of a problem in Germany, he asserted.

Conservative media outlets have supported Seehofer and Merz. Writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, journalist Hansjörg Friedrich Müller criticised German left-liberals supporting the Black Lives Matter movement for failing to realise that social life in the Federal Republic was nothing like in the United States. Speaking of ‘latent’ or even ‘institutional’ racism in any area of German society was, therefore, completely erroneous.6

Structural discrimination and institutional racism

To be sure, much of the aggrieved animus that undergirds these arguments is easily dispelled: German police and law enforcement have been dogged by a list of racially charged missteps and racist practices far too long to constitute individual isolated cases. These range from the complicity of security agencies in neo-Nazi killings7 to the linkage of policemen and army members with far-right groups more broadly, to unresolved deaths of non-white suspects in police custody.8

More generally, a plethora of scientific studies have shown that racialised minorities are faced with structural discrimination in much of German societal life: compared to their white German co-citizens, those with ‘Arabic’ or ‘Turkish’ names receive lower grades in school for the same work submitted;9 and even if they can show the same CV as their white counterparts later in life, they are much less likely to be invited for a job interview10 or for an apartment viewing.11

And whilst this does not amount to claiming that the situation in the Federal Republic is an exact replica of an American state of affairs, it does mean that structural discrimination and institutional racism cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.

Political consciousness or hedonism?

Yet in spite of its sulky polemicism, Müller and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung do hit upon a genuine point: precisely because there have been so many well-reported racist incidents and so many opportunities to recognise the existence of structural discrimination in Germany, this begs the question why now? In other words: why is the protest against American police violence seemingly able to generate more political momentum than, for instance, the attacks of far-right gunmen on German soil, targeting synagogues or shisha bars popular with racialised minorities?

According to Müller, German demonstrators’ fixation on the US indicates that they are driven by the desire to experience a global moment of protest – rather than to engage in a potentially painful political debate and to envisage concrete action that has a bearing on their lives in Germany.

In late May, an open-air rave on boats floating down one of Berlin’s canals appeared to confirm Müller’s suspicions: though the rave had been organised by Berlin’s techno music clubs to alert authorities to the dire straits of the city’s renowned music scene in times of Covid-induced venue closures, some participants brought along a large transparent reading ‘I can’t breath’, a misspelt version of the Black Lives Matter slogan.

Police violence against Black protestors

The sight of George Floyd’s dying words sprawled across a boat full of drunken revellers dancing in the summer sun was widely castigated as tasteless.

Yet even if it is unfair to say that German crowds have expressed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement for purely hedonistic motives, the preoccupation with police violence and racism in the United States has German anti-racist activists: might pointing the finger at the United States not be a way to avoid problematising the situation in Germany?12

This is all the more true since the mass gatherings in the wake of the killing of George Floyed appear to have been marked by racially charged police violence. In Berlin in particular, observers and organisers of the demonstration on the Alexanderplatz square reported policemen singling out Black attendees for violent arrest, as well as policemen insulting demonstrators using racial slurs.13

The uphill struggle of anti-racist activists

Yet all those activists who seek to shift the focus from condemning the United States to debating racial hierarchies and racist practices in Germany face an uphill struggle. This applies first of all to any attempt to convince Germans of the existence of something akin to ‘institutional racism’, particularly in the police forces.

For in a survey conducted by Der Spiegel magazine, most Germans asserted that police racism was ‘not a problem’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger, urban, and left-wing respondents tended to see the police as a more racist an institution than their older, rural, and right-wing counterparts.14

The unspeakability of ‘race’

Yet this uphill struggle must also be fought on much more fundamental matters: in fact, to centrist, liberal, and leftist sectors of the German public, the very legitimacy of a political project that aims for a conversation about race and racism is questionable.

Indicative of this unease is the major progressive policy proposal that has been advanced in response to the protests: Green and Social Democratic politicians have suggested to expunge the term ‘race’ from the German constitution. At issue is Article 3, in which the country’s Basic Law states:

“All are equal before the law. Men and women hold the same rights. No one may be disadvantaged or given preferential treatment due to his [sic!] gender, his descent, his race [Rasse], his language, his homeland and origins, his faith, his religious or political views.”

One might reasonably see it as one of the goals of ‘Black Lives Matter’-inspired protests in Germany to force a public conversation that no longer avoids the terminology of race and racism. In fact, many German activists of colour have for a long time sought to compel authorities to recognise race more explicitly e.g. in their censuses.15

German progressivism and ideologies of colour-blindness

It is therefore striking to see that the progressive policy response to these demands has been an initiative to  erase race further, rather than to recognise it as a powerful structuring force in social life. The somewhat confused argument undergirding this policy proposal is, as a leading Green Party member put it, that “only racist theories start from the assumption that there are different human races.”16

On this account, then, speaking in terms of race (as a social construct and as a salient dimension of social experience and discrimination) makes you a racist. This ultimately means claiming that the real racists are Black Lives Matter activists, because they insist on rendering race visible and speakable as a definitive feature of their lived reality. Thereby, a well-meaning German Left is reinforcing an ideology of colour-blindness that invisibilises the predicament of racialised minorities.

(It is worth noting that this echoes similar responses in France, where President Macron has reacted to the protests by accusing university researchers of dividing the Republic: it is academics’ obsession to talk about race that is responsible, according to the French leader, for the fracturing of French society along racial lines.)17

From anti-Black to anti-Muslim racism

Finally, anti-racist mobilisation in the Federal Republic must also take into account a landscape of racialisation that is complex: present-day anti-Black racism is not the offspring of a plantation society (as in the American South) but of a history of empire and colonialism in which Germany participated but where Britain and France have usually been placed in the limelight. And it coexists and overlaps – but also diverges from – an anti-Muslim racism fuelled by contemporary anti-immigrantism as well as a long history of the racialisation of Semitic Others.

Against this backdrop, Muslim activists in Germany have sought to build bridges to Black Lives Matter; and representatives of Islamic associations have expressed their solidarity.18 For many German Muslims, the African American struggle is also deeply evocative of their own position in (white) German society; and they have taken inspiration from the political symbols and cultural repertoires of Blackness to make their own civic claims.19

Conversely, some German Muslim commentators and intellectuals have taken cues from the Black Lives Matter movement to problematise anti-Black prejudice in Muslim settings, highlighting potential challenges that might preclude the building of anti-racist alliances.20

It is thus fair to say that the killing of George Floyd and the global effervescence of the Black Lives Matter movement has unsettled the German scene. What kind of durable change it will bring to the Federal Republic remains to be seen.

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