Interview with racism researcher Mark Terkessidis

What does Black Lives Matter have to do with Germany?

The protests against police violence in the USA have triggered a discussion in Germany about discrimination, immigration and the country's image of itself. Why are people who do not look German considered foreign even if they hold citizenship? And how could we all live together better? A conversation with racism researcher Mark Terkessidis

In Germany, tens of thousands turned out to demonstrate for Black Lives Matter. Out of solidarity with black people in the USA - or because they see their own situation reflected in these images?

Mark Terkessidis: Many younger people attended the demonstrations. Either they had experience of discrimination themselves or had heard about it from their classmates. They are no longer prepared to accept that Ahmed, Vassili, Songül, Leyla or their parents are treated differently by the authorities or the police. And of course there was Hanau. That was incredible: people were murdered because they went to shisha bars. There are not the same cases of deadly police violence in Germany as in the USA, but there are incredible stories relating to the trivialisation of racist acts, false investigations, the insensitive treatment of victims, victims who are taken for perpetrators. The NSU affair showed that.

Shouldn't the slogan be different in Germany, so that it also includes minorities of Turkish origin?

Terkessidis: It always depends on who is most actively involved at any given moment. Black people's organisations like Each One Teach One or ISD (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland) have put racism and colonialism very firmly on the agenda. They are also able to link their problems with the situation in the USA and with the experience of being black, which is now seen as a universal form of racist experience. But it is quite clear that many people who are discriminated against in Germany have other origins, including European ones.

Black Lives Matter demonstration in front of the Victory Column in Berlin, 27.06.2020 (photo: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch)
"Race" is outdated, yet racism still exists: "The word racism extends far beyond the term 'race'. It is the term we use to address illegitimate divisions between 'us' and 'them'. Like sexism, it is about one of the great inequalities of modernity. It shouldn't really matter that a person is female, but if only men work at the next higher level of the hierarchy, how can this be addressed without talking about gender? It remains complicated, but we have to face this complexity." explains Terkessidis

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Why does Germany struggle so much with its role as an immigration country?

Terkessidis: De jure, Germany has only recently become an immigration country. It was only in 1998 that the federal government recognised an "irreversible process of immigration". Before that, it was assumed that the so-called foreigners would all go back home. In 2000 the citizenship law was changed, which made it clear: there are also Germans of non-German origin. Awareness of this has often been slower to catch on. But if we compare racist statements of today with those of the nineties, we can see that there is less crass biologism, such as referring to immigrants as "parasites".

Why did Germany hold on to its 'ius sanguinis' for so long?

Terkessidis: Descent was supposed to act as a guarantee of cohesion. It is no accident that the German national anthem puts "unity" before "justice and freedom". Unity was a constant of Germany's development from a loose collection of smaller states into an imperial power – and "blood" was considered the solution. France, on the other hand, encouraged immigration as early as the 19th century. Anyone who professed their loyalty to France should also be able to become French. Later, the blood right was also a convenient way to regulate immigration: you simply don't give rights to immigrants.

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