"The concept of different human races is in itself a result of racism, not its prerequisite," they wrote in the Jena Declaration.

Indeed, anthropological genetics has shown that the division of humankind into smaller, discrete categories based on particular physical characteristics is not really possible: even at a molecular level, there are so few differences between populations that humans cannot actually be divided into separate "races", because most genetic traits vary instead on a continuous basis. Moreover human biology is very homogeneous, compared with the greater genetic variation in other closely-related species like apes.

Politicians from across Germany's political spectrum are taking part in the current debate. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) definitely wants the term to stay. Conservatives within Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are sceptical about changing the constitution. Thorsten Frei of the CDU agrees that the constitution should be modified where it is out of date, but he cautions that "we have to fight racism in our society," and questions whether removing Article 3 would have a real impact.

You may also like: Human rights and civil society in North Africa – Tunisia joins George Floyd protests to say 'no' to racism

It's not easy to change the Basic Law

"Our constitution quite clearly condemns racism," argues Marko Buschmann from the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). "But it needs even clearer language." The socialist Left party points out that it first put forward a motion to remove the term ten years ago. "Only racists believe there are different human races," Left Party MP Jan Korte said in interview.

Johannes Fechner, the legal affairs spokesman for the co-ruling Social Democrats (SPD), has demanded that the term also be removed from Germany's criminal code and the Anti-Discrimination Act.

The small city-state of Bremen has led the way and removed the term "race" from its local constitution and replaced it with "racial discrimination". The local SPD, the Greens, and the Left party had joined forces, arguing that Germany carried the burden of its Nazi history and should be especially careful with such wordings. Other states have also modified their respective legal documents.

You may also like: Interview with migration researcher Naika Foroutan – "We need a debate about ourselves"

Other European countries including France, Finland, or Sweden removed the term race long ago, says Cremer. Changing the constitution, however, is not easy: it requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. This may be difficult to achieve.

"Ethnic identity" is the term that Bundestag parliamentarian Karamba Diaby, who is black, has proposed to replace the term "race"

But, as he says, the discussion has only just begun.

Volker Witting

© Deutsche Welle 2020

More on this topic