One night in May I was woken up by noise coming from my next-door neighbor. It wasn’t that unusual for the area. But one neighbor in particular, a woman, was drunkenly blasting music yet again, as she did on holidays, weekends, solstices, when it’s hot, when it’s cold and – as on this occasion -- at 1am on the Monday morning before I was to start a new freelance job.
So I knocked on her door with the intention of asking her to turn down the music as politely as can be expected of a black woman from Chicago wearing a night cap, acne cream and an oversized bed shirt that says “FOODIE”. But she didn’t answer the door. Instead, a weathered older man turned up. As I later learned, this was my downstairs neighbor – the one who played death metal so loudly that it shook the laminate boards in my flat two stories above his. This man asked me what I wanted. I inquired after my neighbor, to which he responded in brusque German that my neighbor was none of my business. I said that in this case it was my business and asked for her again.
At this point, enveloped in a cloud of smoke, the man stepped out of the flat, with another, unfamiliar, woman at his heels. He lunged at me, jabbed his finger in my face, and shouted, in German, that I didn’t belong in his country, because I’m not German. He called me a “nigger” and a “black cunt” and kept repeating that I should “fuck off”. He spat at my bare feet. His lady friend parroted his words, getting so close to my face that I saw the vast expanse of her aging pores. Not once did I raise my hands, though the urge surged through me like warm liquor.
I retreated, in a rage and in tears, into my flat and called the police. The cops already knew my neighbor and me, because I had a history of complaining and once even filed a report after my front door was vandalized. Usually, the police did nothing at all. This time they at least showed up. I explained the situation, in broken German and with frayed nerves. Specifically, I reported the hate crime that had taken place.
The police officers told me to close my door, and that they would handle it. For fifteen minutes, I listened to them try to reason with three drunken people about why playing loud music this late was inconsiderate. I heard my male neighbor and his friend tell the officers that they could do whatever they wanted because he was German and I’m not. The police left. The man, his friend and my neighbor continued to blast music, from both his flat downstairs and hers, for the rest of the night. They also banged on the walls, screaming that I should leave Germany. A friend, who came around 4am for support, said he heard the music from the street. I called the police again, but they never came.
Later on, after an especially sleepy day at my new job, I went back to the flat accompanied by my loved one, packed my things and stayed with friends. When I went back to check my mail, I found my name ripped off the bell and the mailbox. Once I found urine all over my front door. A month later, I moved out.
I understand that most Germans are wringing their hands at the thought that “Nazis” will soon take the podium in the German parliament for the first time since the 1960s. That’s how Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, described the prospect of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) moving to the Bundestag, after this right-wing populist party’s surprisingly strong showing in the election of September 24, when it won nearly 13 percent of the vote.
But I wasn’t surprised in the slightest, because I’m black. Since I arrived in Germany more than a year ago, I’ve been yelled at, berated and verbally abused by people telling me to leave the country about a dozen times. And my experiences pale in comparison to those of my friends.
The title of a 2016 report by Amnesty International says it all: Living in insecurity: How Germany is failing victims of racist violence. Hate crimes against asylum seekers, the report said, increased by 16 times between 2013 and 2015. And “racist violent crimes against racial, ethnic and religious minorities increased by 87% from 693 crimes in 2013 to 1,295 crimes in 2015.” Much of this rise is a response to Angela Merkel’s open-border policy of 2015, which allowed about one million refugees, many of them fleeing the Syrian civil war, to enter Germany.
But if Germans want to have an honest debate about racism, they can’t pretend that xenophobes, racists or neo-Nazis only appeared out of thin air during the refugee crisis. In fact, neo-Nazis have been organizing and mobilizing – unchecked and often unacknowledged -- for decades. One was an elected politician who set fire to a sports hall used to house refugees. Others march by the thousands to protest the alleged ‘Islamization’ of Europe every week. Some conflate the Holocaust with standard soldiering to romanticize a war that was irrefutably about ethnic cleansing. Some have murdered innocent people simply because they had foreign names and brown skin. Some even openly don swastika tattoos in the German army, the Bundeswehr.
Mainstream Germany may have learned from its Nazi past, pledging to prevent the evils of the Third Reich from ever recurring again. Reparations for survivors and Holocaust memorials scattered all over Berlin are testament to that. But racism didn’t disappear when the Allies liberated concentration camps across Europe. Like a virus, it went into remission – but it was never actually cured from the structures and social psychology of German culture.
Most Germans tell themselves a different story. Just ask Biplab Basu, a victim support counselor for ReachOUT , a German facility that specializes in counselling victims of hate crimes. He describes the German narrative thus: “Somebody fell from the sky called Hitler – racism in Germany did not exist before or after.” In this telling, the Holocaust is “understood to be an aberration, and not a part of general colonial development of European and white societies.” National atonement for the Holocaust thus effectively marked the end of a frank discussion about how racism persists in German society.
The result is a country where hate crimes are often unacknowledged, pursued or prosecuted. “A ‘hate crime’ concept is still not present [in Germany],” says Basu. The police rarely use the word ‘hate crime’ in their reports. Instead they often dissuade the victims from pursuing matters further – compounding the victims’ psychological suffering.
Eben Louw is a psychological counselor affiliated with ReachOUT who specializes in treating victims of hate crimes. He often travels around Germany to train other psychologists in how to treat victims in the aftermath of a racist attack. He says demand for his services is growing because racists have of late felt emboldened by the rhetoric of the AfD and other right-wingers. Louw believes that the clinical treatments that are available to victims in Germany are inadequate.
“Racism is simply siphoned into this ‘intercultural deficit problem,’” says Louw. As a result, "academia, especially within clinical and social psychology, has been focusing on migration as the salient issue for social problems. The focus has been on intercultural misunderstanding instead of racism.”
Both Louw and Basu believe that public denial, government inaction, and structural racism add to the psychological distress of victims. Like some rape victims, these are often re-traumatized because they are forced to defend their experiences, or even to question whether the attacks on them happened at all. “The victims become victims again, this time of skepticism,” says Basu.
Another obstacle in dealing with hate crimes is that the German dialogue about racism has centered mostly on anti-Semitism, for obvious historical reasons, and on hatred of Muslims, for political reasons since the refugee crisis. As a result, black victims in particular are neglected. Earlier this year, the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent went on a tour of Germany to meet with government officials, legal experts, human rights organizations, parliamentarians and black residents. In a statement released in February, the panel announced that it was “deeply concerned about the human rights situation of people of African descent in Germany.”
German racism works on “a continuum”, the panel said, in which aspects of German culture contributed to the Holocaust and continue to linger as racists attitudes today. Its conclusions were comprehensive and damning: Though Germany has a law against racism, the General Equal Treatment Act, its scope is too narrow, only targeting private institutions suspected of racial discrimination. It does not “cover racial discrimination committed by the state,” which includes police brutality and racial profiling. Incidents of racial injustice are not “effectively investigated” which denies justice for the victims.
As a result, people of African descent are “victims of racist violence and hate crimes. They fear for their safety and avoid certain places as they will be attacked. They are subjected to racial discrimination by their classmates, teachers, workmates, and structural racism by the government and criminal justice system. Despite the gravity of the situation they are not officially recognized as a group particularly exposed to racism.”
This assessment explains why many Germans have never heard of people like Oury Jallow who, in 2005, was mysteriously killed in a police detention center in Dessau, after allegedly setting fire to his own mattress. Or why there was no public outcry for Ousman Sey, who died in Dortmund police custody in 2012. Or why there is no interest in N’deye Marieme Sarr, who was inexplicably shot by police while picking up her child from her white ex-husband.
I’ll never know why I never heard back from the police after that night. But now I know that when, not if, I find myself in that position again – I will think twice before I call them again.
Jennifer Neal is an editor for Handelsblatt Global.