Why is our society so racist

(Anti) racism

Naika Foroutan

To person

is Professor of Integration Research and Social Policy at the Humboldt University of Berlin (HU Berlin), Director of the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research at HU Berlin and Director of the German Center for Integration and Migration Research. [email protected]

Racism and right-wing extremism are integral parts of the united Germany. This is clearly shown by the pogroms of the 1990s, the series of murders by the terrorist organization NSU, recurring attacks on refugee shelters and hundreds of fatalities from right-wing extremist violence in the past three decades [1]. The right-wing terrorist murder of Walter Lübcke in Kassel on the night of June 2, 2019, the anti-Semitic and racist attacks in Halle an der Saale on October 9, 2019, the murder of nine people for racist motives in Hanau on February 19, 2020 and findings The fact that right-wing extremist networks can be found in security authorities, the armed forces and the police led to a political level in 2020 - in contrast to the previous decades of trivialization - that right-wing extremism and racism are an urgent threat to the constitution of democracy in Germany.

Even if racism and right-wing extremism disproportionately target people with immigrant biographies, when asked how to deal with this threat it makes sense to bring in post-migrant perspectives that do not relate racism exclusively to preventing migration, hostility towards refugees or analysis categories such as "foreigners" and "xenophobia "equate. While the latter, as terms used in German debates, "sometimes helps to de-thematize racist normality and evade social criticism", [2] postmigrant perspectives allow us to look at the consequences of racism for society as a whole.

As a first step, this article looks at historical and contemporary definitions and broader adaptations of the term "racism". In a second step, conceptual difficulties are identified. Finally, it will be discussed why in a society that is becoming increasingly pluralized and in which established binary dividing lines are becoming blurred, racist constructions are still so strongly linked to migrant affiliations, and how this can be overcome.

Historical and contemporary classification

For many years the term "racism" was mainly interpreted as a prejudice or as an individual, derogatory attitude towards other people because of the color of their skin. Via colonial discourses and the history of the enslavement of black people from Africa, it was linked to a biological determination that was powerful for centuries and is still today. Colonialism used the concept of racial classification to legitimize slavery, exploitation, domination and violence against non-white peoples through biological degradation. Since it did not fit with the Christian ethos and the basis of the Enlightenment to abuse other creatures of God or potentially "equals" after the development of universal human rights, "legends of legitimation" were created that did not construct, describe and catalog whites as their own, lower "race" whose treatment would not have to be analogous to whites. [3] Subsequently, disciplines such as ethnology, geography or medicine made a decisive contribution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to supposedly proving the invention of "races". Although studies in the 1970s showed that there are no human races and that physical differences such as skin or hair color, height or physiognomy are biologically meaningless and have no effect on skills or behavior, biological racism is still very important to this day the structuring of the social reality of people to whom certain negative properties or properties deviating from the "norm" are ascribed due to their physique.

From the middle of the 20th century, the perspective on racism expanded from individual, explicitly derogatory attitudes to more implicit prejudices and processes, discourses and more subtle exclusion processes, [5] which are not only set in motion by individuals, but on a broader social, structural and institutional level can develop effects. [6] While social psychologists like Gordon Allport in the first half of the 20th century defined racism primarily as an individual problem of open hostility that could be reduced through contact, social science from the middle of the 20th century defined racism as a power and domination stabilizing, complex and interlocking system that draws on historical continuities and reacts adaptively to transformations of the present. [7] Racism does not only work on the micro level, political, economic and symbolic status and resource competitions are also regulated on the macro level. From this perspective and under conditions of competition for goods and resources - not just economic and political, but also symbolic - contact does not necessarily help to reduce racism. Rather, in direct contact the fear of distribution can increase and the group threat can increase, which in turn can intensify racism and discrimination. [8]

Today, racism is seen as a hierarchical evaluation of social groups, which has not only affective, but also political, social, health and economic consequences for these groups and produces systematic exclusions from positions that could change social structures. At its core, racism is thus a dominance structure [9] in which the presumed biological or cultural superiority of one or more socially hegemonic groups is constructed in order to justify or induce the social inequality of other groups. [10]

Racism as a system of order

It is therefore not enough to ostracize racist attitudes or individual concern. Rather, it should be recognized that racism as a system acts both intentionally and non-intentionally on an institutional and structural level over generations, disadvantages people and groups, excludes them from central social processes and positions, gives them access to important goods and resources such as the Example of education, work and health denied - and in the worst case even kills them. According to the sociologist Stuart Hall, the mechanisms of institutional racism in the organizational structures "are passed on in informal and unspoken ways through their routines and daily procedures as an indestructible part of the institutional habitus. This type of racism becomes routine, accustomed, self-evident." [11] In the relevant racism theory, the functioning of racism can essentially be described in three steps:

In one first In the first step, people or groups of people are presented and classified as homogeneous groups based on characteristics that can be selected differently depending on the historical context. [12] The attributed characteristic does not necessarily have to apply to the individual individuals, it functions as a "bearer of meaning". [13]

In one second Step - often referred to as racialization [14] - these characteristics are biologized, and their carriers are assigned specific, mostly negative characteristics. [15]

In one third Finally, there is a hierarchy [16] of the groups constructed in this way. Depending on the social formation, such hierarchies also allow flexible transitions between "we" and "the others". Marking groups read differently and systematically devaluing them can only succeed if social structures make it possible to articulate and organize the distribution of opportunities for action and the management of conflicts in the form of such collective identities.

The social psychologist Birgit Rommelspacher stated in 2004 that when "marking differences" it is crucial that "the groups are formed on the basis of arbitrarily chosen criteria (...) and that a certain objective is pursued with these classifications". [17] The intentionality implicit here would, however, still have to be checked empirically. Other social psychologists assume that intentional, open racism is increasingly being replaced by unintended, but no less lasting, subtle forms of racism. [18]

Culture as a racial carrier of meaning

In addition to the still virulent - but at least publicly ostracized - biological racism, in which alleged human characteristics are localized in the body and viewed as hereditary, a trend towards the culturalization of racism can be observed throughout international research in recent decades. [19 ] The sociologist and civil rights activist William E. B. Du Bois still had the so-called color line seen as the dividing line between the regulatory policies of western nations, [20] research critical of racism increasingly agreed from the middle of the 20th century that the new border was constructed less biologically on the basis of skin color and more culturally. Not only Paul Gilroy made this observation of the superimposition of the concept of race by the concept of culture the subject of his research, [21] also other sociologists such as John Solomos and Les Back described how the concept of race was recoded as "culture". [22] They observed how this was done in the same way as before with the classification and hierarchization based on skin color: The characteristics of social groups are based on central carriers of meaning such as "culture", "ethnicity", "religion" or "nationality" naturalized and narrative embedded in order to legitimize social ostracism or social inequalities with the deviation of the culturalized or racialized groups. So there is no need for "races" for racism. This cultural racism, also known as "differential racism", assumes a difference and immutability of cultures, which should be named and kept apart. [23]

On the basis of the above-mentioned carriers of meaning, social groups are assigned a set of supposed properties and mentalities that are viewed as little or no changeable and with which individuals can be reduced to mere specimens of supposedly homogeneous groups and treated as "others" - with all the consequences who has this for their exclusion from social, structural and institutional contexts. [24]

It is important to make these transformation (s) visible because they point to the relational and adaptive character of racism, that is, to the fact that this is not about "traditional thinking", but about a form of exercising power with other dimensions social relationships, for example sexism or classism, interacts.

Differentiate between discrimination and racism

Unequal treatment of people on the basis of (actual or ascribed) individual or group-specific signifiers, which leads to disadvantage, harm or injustice, is discrimination. [25] The difference between "discrimination" and "racism" is conceptually unclear. Discrimination can occur on the basis of various ideologies of inequality - such as paternalism, capitalism or fascism - and is to be understood both broadly and more narrowly than racism: broader because, among other things, sexist and classicist discrimination and, for example, the discrimination of people with disabilities are considered in their unequal treatment; tighter because it is mostly about unequaltreatment and less about the discourses, historical continuities or bodies of knowledge that flow into the analysis with a view to racism. Racism must therefore be distinguished from discrimination on the basis of the repertoire with which it is analyzed. In addition, discrimination primarily affects the unequal treatment of social groups with consequences for the emergence of inequality. Discrimination can therefore be measured in terms of effects and outcomes. Unequal access to central goods and resources can be quantified. At the same time, active discrimination can rarely be proven and is often only recorded as a subjective perception. [26]

Racism can therefore be interpreted either as a sub-category of discrimination or as an intersection at the interface between discrimination (as an act) and social inequality (as a consequence). Racism would then have to be analyzed, so to speak, as a superordinate variable that adds a symbolic, discursive and affective dimension as an amplifier. Racism at the interface of discrimination and social inequality is also characterized by the fact that symbolic hierarchies can be maintained in the event of social advancement. Barack Obama was racially degraded as a black person as President of the USA. Homophobia, classism and sexism can also be regarded as subcategories of discrimination that are also subject to hierarchical and power-maintaining system functions, just as they can, as overarching variables, intensify social inequalities. In this respect, the categories developed in Anglo-Saxon research on discrimination and racism depend race, class and gender as difference marker and system carrier, analytically inseparable. [27]

Who is affected by racism?

Racism is therefore a social phenomenon that can adapt to the respective historical context and develop further, with which there can be different forms of racism over the years - but also at the same time. [28] If one follows this argument by Stuart Hall, this means that there can be both racism based on religious ascription - for example against Jews or Muslims - as well as colonial or post-colonial racism against black people or against people with an Asian reading. In addition, racism can be directed against "culture", i.e. traditional actions or values ​​that are actually lived or not practiced, but only ascribed. What can be mentioned here is anti-Semitism, which can also be effective without religious practice, antiziganism or, historically speaking, anti-Slavic racism, which, in connection with the expansion and killing policies of the National Socialists, has a colonial structure, but also in parts Reference to the defense against certain nationalities is expressed. This reference to nationality - known as "xenophobia" - can also represent a specific characteristic of racism.

Discussing different forms of racism can lead to very controversial debates, as the analogy method is assumed to level out and aim at equating. For example, the comparison between anti-Semitism and hostility to Muslims has repeatedly led to heated debates. But subsuming anti-Semitism under the concept of racism is also questioned - here primarily with the argument that racism is looking down on groups, while anti-Semitism includes the assumption that Jews are superior. [29] It is forgotten that anti-Asian racism, for example, also works with philo-racist constructions - when, for example, "the hard-working Vietnamese", the rigid "Chinese tiger mums" or the collective corporatism "of the Asian world" are mentioned. Also the debate as to whether racism should actually only be used for the historical experience of the enslavement of black people, and whether therefore only racism or anti-black racism focused on skin colors should be called "racism", while the unequal treatment of Muslims , Sinti * zze and Romn * ja and others would have to be called "discrimination", shows the conceptual difficulties the concept of racism has in postmigrant society, in which, with increasing ascents and emancipation processes of marginalized groups, their struggle for visibility, naming and shaping politics increases.

The method of analogy, however, serves primarily as a comparison in order to explicitly work out similarities as well as differences. Of course, it must be clear that anti-Semitism, anti-black racism or hostility towards Muslims differ in their historical experiences and effects, that the Holocaust did not happen again in its dimensions, calculation and organization, and that research into anti-Semitism therefore has specific historical knowledge and analysis tools. It is also crucial to recognize that anti-black racism and slavery are marked by a history of violence and centuries of oppression that also involved Jewish and Muslim traders.Does that mean, however, that comparing colonial racism with anti-Semitism or with current hostility towards Muslims and subsuming these violent practices under a common overarching category of discrimination or as a specific subspecies of racism ignores perpetrators or relativizes the Holocaust?

It is the relational character of racism that makes it possible to generate "the other" at any time in response to specific historical-political constellations To allegedly legitimize political exploitation against the background of emerging human rights, Muslims are construed as "the other" in current debates, especially with regard to discourses on prevention of migration and the alleged incompatibility of opposing cultures. Therefore, Stuart Hall advocates speaking of "historical-specific racisms" in this context. [30] This differentiation makes it possible to work out features "that are common to all social systems that are described as 'racially structured'" [31] and at the same time to work out the respective differences and specifics of racisms. Only then can a perspective critical of racism carry out the analysis of political and social constellations and make systematic forms of exclusion and securing power visible. When it becomes clear that the respective racialized group is ultimately interchangeable, it becomes clear that racism is not about the groups themselves, but about their function in maintaining the self-image, the privileges and the power of a dominant society.

Racism and Migration Issues

Demands to detach racism in a post-migrant society from migration links in order to focus on systemic anchors and historical continuities [32] must be taken seriously. Of course, it is important to emphasize that racism is not necessarily linked to issues of migration. Racism also exists in societies in which there is hardly any migration, and it is also directed - and historically for much longer - against social groups that are not migrants: against Sinti * zze and Romn * yes, against Jews and Jews, against black Germans, in whose biographies migration was generations ago. However, the specific context in which racism also occurs in Germany cannot be denied. Currently 21.2 million people and thus 26 percent of the population in Germany have a so-called migration background. [33] A third of these people were born in Germany themselves and do not have immigration experience of their own. However, this also means that two thirds migrated themselves - which in turn does not mean that they are automatically affected by racism. The reality of immigration in Germany is still strongly characterized by labor migration from Europe, with white migrants, for example from England, Scandinavia, the USA or Canada, appearing as belonging, while primarily phenotypically visible migrants, who are associated with Jewish, Orthodox religion or with nationalities that are read as "inferior", immigrated or came to Germany as refugees, are excluded from the hierarchically dominant collective.

If the categories "xenophobia" and "xenophobia" are demographically comprehensible, it would still make sense to subordinate them to the concept of racism as a specific form. Over eleven million foreigners live in Germany, i.e. people who only have citizenship other than German. All of the victims of the NSU killed for racist motives were foreigners, and all of the victims in Hanau were people with a migration background - most of them had immigrated themselves. Racism therefore also takes place on the basis of newcomers - based on the argument of the "right of the established", according to which the newcomers do not have the same rights in society. [34] Even if it can be criticized that the terms "xenophobia" and "xenophobia" allegedly verbalize the denial of membership of the "German people", the exclusion from membership is completely independent of passport and residence - and regardless of whether a person has really migrated or not.

In Germany in particular, racism is strongly linked to questions of migration and changing ideas about integration and is directed against people who have immigrated as migrants or refugees and who are raced, devalued or attacked as Muslims, Africans or southerners or even be killed. In this respect, linking racism research with critical migration and integration research is obvious as long as there is no established racism research in Germany that can also provide quantitative research approaches to systematically record the extent, causes and consequences of individual, structural and institutional racism.

In the post-migrant society, it is about negotiation processes that start after migration has taken place and continues to take place when it is generally established that advancing pluralization cannot be stopped. The positioning on migration and plurality currently forms an almost ideological, bipolar line of conflict that can be politically represented in pro and anti-plurality and pro and anti-immigration. In fact, on the basis of post-migrant perspectives, an attempt is made to sharpen the view that it is not "the migration" or "the migrant" that is causing constructions of fear and increasing racism. It is the increasing pluralization of society that is being averted. This is connected with a logic of order, which in European societies is justified primarily with homogeneity, which is why pluralization symbolizes disorder for many people. A pluralization of gender positions, sexual identities, class habitus and even nationalities allows an increasing defense against national-ethno-cultural (multiple) affiliations to be exercised in the figure of the migrant. [35] The abstraction of plurality suddenly becomes tangible in the body of "the other", namely "the migrant" who crosses borders without being asked: national external borders as well as identity, cultural and symbolic affiliations.

At the same time, one must be aware that racism in postmigrant society is only superficially about migration - in fact, it is about negotiating recognition, equal opportunities and participation, which are also contested goods of migrants, their descendants and other groups that have been marginalized for too long are claimed. The societies of Europe are polarizing in terms of the advancement, emancipation, entitlement to participation and visibility of these marginalized groups. Dialectically, the racist placement is argued primarily at migrants and their descendants, who - as outsiders - demand that recognition from the established that is normatively promised on the basis of the German Basic Law but not granted empirically. At the same time, equality and freedom continue to be the central promise of modern democracies, which rely on plurality and parity as principles. This normative paradox further fuels racism in post-migrant society.


If equality is defined as the norm of democracy in modern societies, but at the same time it is stated that this promise must result in the representation and participation of marginalized groups, then the effect can arise that the rise of minorities is at the expense of established groups and positions and privileges be questioned in the dominant society. However, social hierarchies are not given up without a fight. They are defended and therefore have to be "legitimized", otherwise a cognitive dissonance arises, which has a crisis effect on society. One way of resolving cognitive dissonance is to lower the norm. Racism tries to "explain the fact of the unequal treatment of people" rationally "(...), although society assumes the fundamental equality of all people". [36] Racism can therefore be understood as a blatant lowering of the norm, in which the non-dominant groups are blamed for their social disadvantage.

The promise made in Germany under Article 3 of the Basic Law as a principle of equality must therefore not only be aggressively sued in the Cabinet Committee of the Federal Government against racism and right-wing extremism, which was created in March 2020, but must also be deposited with target margins. Just as Fridays for Future set a visionary climate target, an anti-racism pact with gender equality targets by 2030 would have to be formulated, against which future governments would have to be measured and monitored.