Berlin Elections, Racism, and Who Belongs to the City

Refugees at Berlin Tempelhof
Refugees at Berlin Tempelhof

17 SEPT 2016. More than one instance of small-minded racism has marred my week, leading up to the Berlin city-state elections tomorrow. And the AfD has not had a monopoly on this kind of prejudice.

One expects xenophobia from the AfD. The Alternatives for Germany party––a populist right-wing movement––made stunning election gains in the State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in early September, with 21%. All eyes are now on Berlin, where they are polling at just under 15%.

The AfD local platform is, in a word, execrable. It includes a brake on refugee arrivals, restrictions on their benefits, a ban on the building of minarets, zero-tolerance “law and order” responses to crime, and anti-gay policies regarding marriage and adoption. You can see all their positions on the Wahl-0-Mat (where you can usefully match your political views to the parties running in the election).

The AfD have done particularly well in the former East––historically less diverse and less experienced with multiculturalism, and with higher statistical levels of xenophobia and poverty––but still does not have a majority in those areas, often maligned unfairly as “backward” by the press. It will be telling to see whether the old Berlin Wall is still visible on the polling map this election Sunday, and whether AfD-gains in the West might help predict federal elections in 2017.

But one need not look only to the AfD for xenophobia, where one expects to find it. Let me share an alarming, but revealing, anecdote. Perhaps it is just an individual case of misjudgement, but it still doesn’t reflect well on the Green Party campaign.

Last night, on Ackerstraße, in Berlin’s Mitte, a group of three Asian women and a European man––friends of mine––were sitting at a table outside a restaurant. A campaigner from the Green Party was going systematically from table to table with campaign materials. He then approached a white European couple sitting next to my friends. This couple did not speak German, so the Green Party campaigner spent some time explaining the Berlin election to them in English.  When he was done, he moved on,  glancing at the predominantly Asian-looking table. Instead of stopping to talk to them, he skipped them to try the next table, where three white people were having dinner.

My friends, German speakers––who are long-time Berliners and were in fact having a heated discussion about the election––reacted by calling him over and asking why they were the only table he skipped if he was so keen on promoting the Green Party. He replied, “I didn’t want to bother your dinner” and that from his “campaign experience [he] guessed they wouldn’t be interested”.

Later that evening, these same friends were walking down the street and found themselves followed by a group of boys who chanted after them: “AfD! AfD!”

As one of my friends, who posted her experience on Facebook, later remarked: “I appreciate that those two parties’ political direction differs 180 degrees,  but the motivations for the actions and decisions of the people we met last night were, in essence, the same”.

EU citizens are able to vote for their local representatives tomorrow, and the Green Party has even stated that it is discriminatory that non-EU foreigners, who have lived years in Berlin, should not have the right to vote.  But if campaigners racially profile who might belong to those groups of voters, it is highly problematic: the anecdote suggests a racial presumption of who is a German. And I must say this is a presumption I come across all the time here. I see this deep-seated racist impulse when I go to a restaurant in Berlin with my Japanese friends and discover I’m the only one who has automatically been given a German menu (they get the English ones), even though they speak much better German than I do. The waiters think I’m German because I am white.

The second source I wanted to share was a full-page opinion editorial in the Berliner Zeitung from yesterday, which complains that there are too many tourists on the streets of Neukölln. That Touristenhass, or hate-of-tourists, is a form of xenophobia posing as social activism, is something I’ve written about before on this blog.

High numbers of tourists have become an election issue, with citizens rightly complaining that holiday apartments raise rents. They also complain that floods of visitors change a neighbourhood’s fabric. Most of the mainstream parties, even the CDU, have stated that they oppose a completely free market for holiday apartments (although the free-market FDP is pro, and the AfD is neutral).

The Berliner Zeitung op-ed describes how the Neukölln neighbourhood around Weserstraße has reached its ‘carrying capacity’ of tourists, to the extent that it’s hard for the author to walk down her own street. That Weserstraße has become a party mile for the Lonely Planet crowd is well known, and I respect the author doesn’t like living in that street and that she shouldn’t have to put with the crowds and noise.

But what is striking is that the article blames the tourists themselves, and never once the bad public policy and zoning choices that led to this oversaturation. Instead, the article makes a final alarming observation about Asian people.

She observes that in Italy there were proposals to copy tourist sites from Florence and put them near the airport so that they could be photographed by tourists. Because in the words of the author, “Asians have a different concept than we do of authenticity”. She then opines wryly that Weserstraße can be cloned and put somewhere else. She reflects, “My former neighbors were Chinese. At Christmas they brought their plastic Christmas tree out of the basement, and after the holidays, it was put back for the next year. They could not understand why, every year, we bought a real tree”. 

A friend brought this article to my attention, and replied with a comment to the Berliner Zeitung. Translated into English, the comment read: “I really don’t see the difference between this Touristenhass (hatred-of-tourists) characteristic of the well-thinking big city and AfD-type small-town xenophobia. And about this question of authenticity, that ‘Asians have a different concept than we do of authenticity’. All of them? This is embarrassing. No. Actually, it is highly dangerous and xenophobic (naturally, me and my friends are always ‘authentic’, while others are not…)”.

Here, I really do think he has a point. Xenophobia and small-mindedness finds a “respectable” outlet for the left when channeled though the “virtuous” channels of battling gentrification and the scourge of tourism (which, mind you,  is largely independent tourism in the case of Weserstraße, compared to the mass -package tourism, much of it German in origin, which plagues the coasts of Mallorca, Crete or Turkey). The discussion points fingers at those who appear or speak differently, those who are “foreign”, rather than at Berlin’s own faulty urban planning decisions, which could be very much more the target of this month’s electioneering.

In my own Kreuzberg Wahlkreis, or election district,  I am encouraged by the amount of diversity I see in the candidates as I go to vote on Sunday. Almost all of them have a “migration background” (a moniker for German citizens who aren’t white, a moniker I think constantly suggests that they aren’t completely “German”).  There are big issues in the election: police powers, the extension of the A100 Autobahn, the State of Berlin’s support for refugees, the provisions for social housing, the rules for referenda and the voting age, the State’s recognition of gay marriage, and provisions for education on gender and “rainbow families” in schools––to name just a few. And if you can vote––both Germans (or whatever race and background) and EU citizens––then you really should.

State funding for projects against right-wing extremism is yet another election issue. But I wonder whether this electoral promise shouldn’t be broadened to a project against xenophobia and racism more generally––as expressed not just by the right, but also by the centre and the left.

We need to talk about the underlying presumptions of what it means to belong to the electorate, to belong to Berlin, and to be German in an increasingly diverse multicultural city. We need to discuss why racial minorities are not given campaign materials and why foreigners are blamed for bad urban planning. We need to ask why Berliners who are not German citizens are not allowed to vote in referenda. As we Berliners––both born here or who have chosen to live here––move towards the election, we need to think hard about whether the much-feared AfD has a monopoly these days on prejudice, and how widespread the mentalities really are here that fuel populism and extremism.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

7 thoughts on “Berlin Elections, Racism, and Who Belongs to the City

  • 18/09/2016 at 09:59

    You have just touched on an issue that has been around in Germany since decades. Tourism and the refugees situation have just brought it to light. And this is the positive part of all. It is highly important to have this debate on the streets so that finally we all know where we stand. From there we can start a transparent conversation.

  • 18/09/2016 at 20:28

    Joseph, I enjoy reading your blogposts and I enjoy them twice as much, when I disagree with you. Normally I don’t post replies, but this time I feel like it needs some clarification.

    Basically, the moment you wrote that a Green Party volounteer, passing by a restaurant table occupied by three asians and white guy speaking English with obvious native accent, was _racist_, I had hard time deciding if it’s serious or not. I guess that he a) knew that you’re likely not legible for the voting b) statistially, Germans are white. Oh, yeah. The races. They exist. It doesn’t mean that someone who notices that fact is _racist_.

    But that’s not my issue. My issue is that when you people write about such events in a complaining maneer, calling them “incidents”, you trivialize the actual problem. No, your asian friends were not victims of racism, in any possible way. Giving them English menus is not _racist_, it’s elegant to anticipate communication problem. Skipping your table is normal _judgement_, not _prejudicement_. Even if his judgement was wrong, there’s literally nothing wrong about what he’s done; he wanted to save some time. He’s not racist, he’s pragmatic. Even if that hurts someone’s feelings.

    The behaviour of AfD supporters was obviously unacceptable, but I also think it’s a bit unfair to think of these two events as anyhow related (ideologically, or in any other way).


    • 18/09/2016 at 21:43

      Thanks much for your comment, Grzegorz, and I’m delighted you like the blog. In this case, I will have to politely disagree with your position. First, a clarification: the people at the table were not speaking English (nor did I say so in the article), nor were they all ineligible to vote. This brings us to the main question, which is whether ‘racial profiling’ is racist. The volunteer most likely racially profiled the table as ineligible to vote based on the statistical criteria you pointed out (that most Germans are white: about 75% of Berliners have European backgrounds). We are looking here at a case when a racial characteristic (being Asian) is taken as a proxy to estimate some other piece of information that is not immediately knowable (being registered to vote in a local election). One could make the argument that the assumption that Asian people are less likely to be Berliner voters was simply a matter of economizing.

      That this might be pragmatic choice does not change that it is also a racist one. In fact, I would argue that racial profiling IS racism. Because one is not taking individuals on their own terms, but rather as stereotypes of a group. Racism, according to the OED is, ‘The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race’. Racial profiling assumes precisely that.

      These ‘pragmatic’ choices have the unfortunate effect of reinforcing who belongs and who does not belong to the city. The restaurant menu example in the blog post might seem innocuous, but people of colour perceive getting the English menu instead of the German one as a ‘micro-aggression’ (intended or unintended)––yet another micro-aggression of the hundreds they absorb every week telling them ‘you don’t belong’––of being treated differently because of their race.

      What happens to them works on the same criteria as in situations when my Middle Eastern friends are pulled aside more frequently for security questioning at airports. Or when black friends in Paris get stopped frequently in the metro by the police for the documents, when it never happens to (foreign but white) me.

      So what would I like to see happen more often in Berlin? I’d like a campaigner to stop him/herself from racial assumptions, and to go over to the table and treat those people as individuals. Statistically, he might be confirmed in his presumption that they can’t vote, but (s)he will have done the service of looking beyond race. I think in a big increasingly cosmopolitan city, especially, these assumptions are also less likely to be correct.

      Your comment is much appreciated because it allowed me to discuss further.

      • 20/09/2016 at 11:23

        Sometimes skin colour / race is a handy shortcut, nessy pah? Histopathology laboratories in China / Japan don’t stock antibodies against alpha-1-antitrypsin for use in immunohistochemical work because the genetic lesion that leads to accumulation of alpha-1-antitrypsin in hepatocytes is vanishingly rare in East Asian populations. “We don’t develop alpha-1-antitrypsin storage disorder. We don’t need to include it in our differential diagnosis of cholestatic liver disease in infancy. We don’t need to stock the diagnostic reagent.” Or, “The race may not be always to the swift, nor the battle always to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

    • 03/10/2016 at 08:55

      Stopped reading at the 3 asians story.
      PC is killing me.

      • 07/10/2016 at 06:22

        The biggest problems of political correctness is that people don’t say what they mean. Your comment, Franck, suggests that being politically incorrect means ‘telling the truth’. In this situation, the most likely truth is that the Asians at the restaurant table were racially profiled. It is too convenient to belittle this truth by saying it is ‘politically correct’. This ‘anti-PC’ rhetoric is a convenient refuge for intolerance.

  • 22/12/2017 at 12:28

    Very late to this, but thank you for this article. I understand what it means to have to explain to non-POC that racism and xenophobia can exhibit itself in ways other than racial slurs etc.

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