Why a row has broken out over Berlin’s new anti-discrimination law

German city-state Berlin has triggered nationwide controversy with a new law that puts the burden on authorities to disprove allegations of discrimination, with opponents decrying "general suspicion" of police.

Why a row has broken out over Berlin's new anti-discrimination law
A sign paying tribute to George Floyd hangs at the U-Bahn Mohrenstraße. Photo: DPA

“Experiences of discrimination are part of daily life for far too many people” Social Democratic Party (SPD) lawmaker Susanne Kitschun said during Thursday's debate in the capital, which is also one of Germany's 16 federal states.

Under the new law, people could be entitled to compensation if officials discriminate against them based on ethnic origins, religion, political worldview, disabilities or a slew of other criteria.

It also opens the way to mass lawsuits if multiple people are affected.

READ ALSO: Germany has uphill battle to fight racism

But criticism has hailed down on city hall from across town in the federal government district.

“We have to stand behind our police and ought not place them under general suspicion,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said last week.

Seehofer's conservative colleagues in parliament urged that police not be sent from other states to support officers in Berlin if it meant the reinforcements would be subjected to the new legislation.

The capital's controversy recalls a 2017 political battle in Germany's most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia.

An incoming conservative-led government abolished a requirement for police officers to display identification on their uniforms less than a year after it was introduced.

'Berlin is not Minneapolis'

Opponents' criticism of the new Berlin law centres on the rule that if allegations are judged “credible”, it will be up to the public authority concerned to disprove them.

Dirk Behrendt, a Green party politician in charge of Berlin's justice system, said that the eased burden of proof was a “tried and tested tool” in anti-discrimination law, calling criticisms “overblown”.

“The vast majority” of police and other public servants had nothing to fear as they did not perpetrate discrimination, he added.

Some critics contrasted the situation in the capital to police violence seen in the United States, after a black man, George Floyd, died during a May 25th arrest by a white officer in Minneapolis.

“Berlin is not Minneapolis,” wrote one commentator for regional public broadcaster RBB.

“Of course there are inhumane people in the police, in isolated cases even far-right extremists. But they have never been pursued more intensively than in recent times.”

Germany is on high alert after a string of extreme-right crimes over the past year, including the killing of a pro-refugee politician, a failed attack on a synagogue that left two dead and a gunman who killed nine people of migrant background.

READ ALSO: Merkel condemns racist 'murder' of George Floyd

Member comments

  1. Well it is time the police and that discriminating person at the Ausländerbehörde felt a bit uneasy, too.

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Black people in Germany face ‘widespread’ racism, survey finds

In the Afrocensus, a first-of-its-kind survey charting the lived experiences of black people in Germany, the vast majority revealed they experienced 'extensive' discrimination in almost all aspects of public life.

Dr Karamba Diaby
Dr Karamba Diaby, an SPD politician and anti-racism advocate, carries out voluntary work in his constituency of Halle, Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hendrik Schmidt

“The results of the Afrocensus indicate that anti-Black racism is widespread in Germany and anchored in institutions,” the authors of the new report said in a press release on Tuesday. “There is no area of life in which discrimination and racism are not extensive problems.”

Though the overwhelming majority of respondents said they had experienced discrimination at least ‘sometimes’ in almost all areas of life, housing was the area where they said they were discriminated against most often.

Just two percent of respondents to the Afrocensus said they had ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ experienced racism in the housing market, compared to more than 90 percent who said they had experienced it ‘often’ or ‘very often’.

READ ALSO: ‘Black lives need to matter in Germany’ New project to uncover racism in everyday life

Experiences with police and security personnel also counted among areas of life where racism was particularly prevalent: 88 percent of respondents had experienced discrimination from security staff ‘often’ or ‘very often’, while around 85 percent had had the same experience with police.

More than 85 percent had also experienced racism in their education or in the workplace ‘often’ or ‘very often’ in Germany. One in seven had lost their job during the Covid crisis. 

According to the report, 90 percent of respondents had also experienced having their hair grabbed, while more than half (56 percent) had been stopped by the police or asked for drugs by strangers.

Meanwhile, 80 percent said people had made comments about the colour of their skin or sexualised comments about their race on dating apps. A vast majority – 90 percent – also revealed they hadn’t been believed when they’d spoken out about racism in the past, or that people had said they were “too sensitive”. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: My experiences of everyday racism in Germany

In spite of widespread discrimination, almost half (47 percent) of the respondents were engaged and active in their community – mostly carrying out some form of social or voluntary work.

First of its kind

Based on wide-ranging data, the findings paint a vivid and concerning picture of what life is like for the one million or so black people living in Germany today.

To produce the report, researchers from Berlin-based Black community group Each One Teach One and Citizens for Europe conducted an extended survey of 6,000 black people from the Africans and Afrodiasporic community to try and discover more about on the everyday lives and experiences of this group. The survey was carried out between July and September 2020. 

It represents one of the first attempts to gather a wealth of quantitative data on this subject, and as such offers some of the first truly scientific insights into anti-Black racism in modern Germany.

“With the Afrocensus, we have succeeded in doing exactly what has long been demanded within the black community for a long time: making the realities of our lives visible within the framework of qualitative, but above all quantitative research,” Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana und Dr. Karamba Diaby wrote in a foreword to the report. 

Diaby, a high-profile politician within the centre-left SPD party, was one of only two Afro-German politicians in parliament when he first took his seat in 2013. He has since become known for promoting political engagement and empowerment within the migrant and black community. 

In January 2020, an unknown gunman fired shots through the window of his constituency office in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, in a suspected racially motivated attack. 

READ ALSO: How people with migrant backgrounds remain underrepresented in German politics

Since the Second World War, Germany has avoided gathering data that allows people to be traced by ethnicity as a means of protecting persecuted groups.

However, critics say this approach only works to make the issues faced by these groups invisible. 

Writing on Twitter, Daniel Gyamerah, Division Lead at Citizens For Europe, called for an “action plan for tackling anti-Black racism and for empowering black, African and Afrodiasporic people” and the establishment of advice centres for people facing racism and discrimination.

More research into the intersectional experience of black people in Germany is needed, he added.