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Germany: Time to Deal with Institutional Racism

By Eddie Bruce-Jones, Lecturer in Law, Birkbeck College School of Law, University of London

In the context of a spate of racist crimes committed by a neo-Nazi group and police brutality against Black minorities, this article analyses the institutional racism prevalent in political, legal and law enforcement institutions in Germany.

The recently commenced German trial of the National Socialist Underground, reportedly the largest neo-Nazi trial in German history, has made ‘institutional racism’ a public issue in Germany. For some, it has always been an issue. This includes Semiya Simsek, daughter of Enver Simsek, the first man murdered in the serial killings committed by the NSU since 2000, who thought early on that her father was killed for being Turkish. The institutional racism claim refers not to the Nazi-killing itself, but to the police response to this and similar murders. The family of the first victim claims that the police did not spend time looking for the murderers, but instead purported that the victim was involved in dangerous and illegal activity and that the perpetrators of the murders were likely to be non-Germans. In other words, political, legal and law enforcement institutions relied on blatant prejudgments and racially- and/or culturally-informed assumptions about the identities of both victims and perpetrators.

Institutional racism is a term that has a broad meaning in settings like the United Kingdom and the United States. This general meaning relies on understanding what institutional racism is not. Whatever institutional racism is, it is not the mere presence of interpersonal violence or fanatical extremism. The ‘institutional’ part indicates that racism exists in the very fabric of our social lives, constituted through our agencies, governing bodies, and legal systems, for example - including those that we embrace as socially beneficial.

To define institutional racism as a policy-oriented term of art is a more specific task. In the United Kingdom, following multiple failures in the police response to the murder of a teenage boy named Stephen Lawrence, [1] the 1999 publication of the Macpherson Report became a milestone in codifying a particular conception of institutional racism. The definition helped to succinctly describe institutional racism, both in regard to the London Metropolitan Police as well as more generally. The definition reads: ’[T]he collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.’

Political, legal and law enforcement institutions relied on blatant prejudgments and racially- and/or culturally-informed assumptions about the identities of both victims and perpetrators

This definition, as well as the process of producing it publicly in the six years following Lawrence’s death, has helped British society think of racism beyond the interpersonal. This particular formulation has had traction, having shifted the starting point of discussing institutional racism from the nebulous to the relatively concrete. This has been empowering in the United Kingdom, and as I recently witnessed at a recent day-long workshop on institutional racism in Germany, hosted by the Büro zur Umsetzung von Gleichbehandlung e.V. (Office for the implementation of Equal Treatment), it has been a thought-leading concept among German activists, who are now in the process of refitting the definition for the German context. This has become evident in the context of the NSU trials as well, as various reports on the trial have referenced the British context as a possible guiding practice for Germany.

Among the various forms of institutional racism I have had the opportunity to witness and discuss with colleagues and activists in the German context, racial profiling and police violence stand out as two distinct areas that require urgent attention. Both have featured in the treatment of activists who have been engaged in demonstration and legal advocacy for clarity around how Oury Jalloh, a young man who was legally resident in Germany and seeking asylum, burned to death in a holding cell in Dessau in 2005. The circumstances surrounding the particular case beg certain crucial questions regarding institutional racism in the police force, most specifically his being detained and put into four-point restraints and affixed to a mattress without being charged with a crime, [2] and the fact that this has been legitimised by the regional courts. However, instead of assisting activists in discovering the totality of the circumstances that lead to Jalloh’s death, the police and, to some extent, the judiciary have treated the activists as threats to be managed rather than concerned citizens to be protected. This is particularly true of the treatment of the Black activists involved, whether or not the intention of the officers and judges involved. [3]

Activists regularly attending the Oury Jalloh trial and related demonstrations have told me on a number of occasions that Black members of the activist group are specifically targeted in various ways in the context of their involvement with demonstrations and advocacy. This was clear to the activists on 7 January 2012, when, during a demonstration in Dessau commemorating the seventh anniversary of Jalloh’s death and the ongoing trial against one of the officers implicated in his death, the police brutalised two of the Black activists in the Oury Jalloh Intiative, both of whom were treated in hospital, one of whom had been knocked unconscious and had to be kept in hospital for several days. The same two members of the group were, on a prior occasion, asked for identification when driving from the courthouse, whereas the other passengers in the car (both white) were not. These are examples that can be viewed as racially–informed practices that, at the very least, disproportionately and unfairly affect non-white people. It has the effect of intimidating activists, particularly racial minority activists, who are made to feel most visible and most vulnerable.

Germany, as a society, has turned its gaze to the police at various points in time, but none so poignantly identify institutional racism as the past decade, and specifically, the past year. The issue of racialised police brutality has been an ongoing discussion for years, but the NSU case and the Oury Jalloh trail and other cases have located institutional racism as occupying a significant position in the relationship between the police and the German public. It remains to be seen how expediently the German public can mobilise these observations into concrete policy initiatives to tackle institutional racism. With any luck, Simsek and Jalloh, like Lawrence, will serve as crucial figures in the transformation of their society and will not have died in vain.

[1] This included racially stereotyping Lawrence’s friend Duwayne Brooks, a co-victim of the attack and a witness to the brutal murder, and the treatment of Brooks as a suspect rather than a victim. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, 1999, pg. 14–19.

[2] He was arrested for bothering city-employed park sanitation employees by asking them repeatedly to use their telephones to make a phone call, and then was further cited resisting arrest, neither of which should result in overnight incarceration and certainly not the use of four-point restraints.

[3] This is also captured in the extended discussions that resulted from the Macpherson Report. On page 25 of the report, which highlights submissions by the MPS Black Police Association’s spokeseman, institutional racism is described as effects rather than intention. “The term institutional racism should be understood to refer to the way the institution or the organisation may systematically or repeatedly treat, or tend to treat, people differentially because of their race. So, in effect, we are not talking about the individuals within the service who may be unconscious as to the nature of what they are doing, but it is the net effect of what they do”.

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