Comparing Racisms in Post-Migrant Societies

Naika Foroutan

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Dr. Naika Foroutan is a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow from September to December 2022.

She is Professor of Integration Research and Social Policy at the Institute of Social Sciences (ISW) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin where she heads the Berlin Institute on Integration and Migration Research (BIM). She is also director of the German Center for Integration and Migration (DeZIM) a research center funded by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) that produces empirical analyses on migration, integration, and racism in Germany. She is also a consultant for German political parties and civil society organizations.

Dr. Foroutan's research focuses on the analysis of discourses, attitudes, and policies in nation-states that are transforming into immigration countries. She examines the impact of pluralization on norms and values as well as on attitudes and policies related to migration and integration. She studies the transformation of collective and national identities as well as racism and conflicts related to minorities in pluralistic democracies with a particular focus on Islam and Muslims. She has published widely on Muslim identities and anti-Muslim attitudes in countries of immigration as well as on Islamism and radicalization. Her empirical studies on "East-Migrant Analogies" gained considerable attention by comparing East Germans with migrants and testing for effects on anti-Muslim racism. The empirical study was followed by her most recent book, The Society of Others, which she published together with journalist Jana Hensel.

Dr. Foroutan has also been leading in developing a new theoretical and critical approach to reinterpreting plural societies through the lens of post-migration. For this theory-building she has gained wide recognition and visibility and has been awarded several academic prizes such as Hoffmann Academy Prize and the Fritz Behrend Prize for excellent academic research. In her book The Post-migrant society: A promise of plural democracy she analyses the re-configuration of the German society once it has acknowledged to be a country of immigration.

Her DAAD/AICGS research project, "Comparing Racisms in Post-Migrant Societies," is based on the recently published empirical study, "Racist Realities: How Does Germany Deal with Racism?" A series of racially-motivated murders over the past decade has brought the issue of racism into the political consciousness of German society and led the government to acknowledge in 2020 that right-wing extremism and racism have become a serious and immanent threat to German democracy. The German Center for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM), which Dr. Foroutan heads together with her colleague Dr. Frank Kalter, was therefore commissioned by the German government to develop a long-term National Discrimination and Racism Monitor (NaDiRa). The aim is to record and understand the extent, causes and consequences of racism in Germany. Initial data collection on the German population's perception of racism has shown that there may be analytical, empirical, and phenomenological differences between Germany and the United States when it comes to understanding racism. Exploring these differences is the goal of Dr. Foroutan's research at AICGS.

Similarities and Differences in Approaching Racism in Germany and the United States

Rising Relevance of Racism in Germany

A series of racist murders has brought the issue of racism into the political consciousness of German society and prompted the German government to acknowledge officially in 2020 that right-wing extremism and racism have become a serious and urgent threat to democracy.

The murder of the Christian Democrat politician Walter Lübcke on the terrace of his home in Kassel in the west German state of Hesse in June 2019, followed by an anti-Semitic and racist attack on a Synagogue in the east German city of Halle on Yom Kippur in October 2019, when two people were murdered, plus the murder of nine immigrants by a white supremacist bank employee in west German Hanau in February 2020, were paired with a growing realization that far-right racist networks can be found in the security agencies, the German armed forces, and the police.

In a speech to the nation, Chancellor Angela Merkel finally reacted: “Racism is a poison. And this poison exists in our society. And it is already responsible for far too many crimes,” she declared one day after the racist attacks in Hanau. She also set up a cabinet of ministers to combat racism and right-wing extremism at the highest level of government. Unlike previous racist attacks in the last decades, where the authorities suspected the families of the murdered immigrant victims as perpetrators instead of looking for right-wing terrorists,[1] the establishment of this cabinet in the German government marked the beginning of a new national policy aiming not only at combating racism and right-wing extremism but also at understanding more about causes, conditions, and effects of racism—both for racialized people and the society as a whole.

Although U.S. theories on racism have been imported into German academia and have been elaborated further, it is new that quantitative representative data is collected and empirical research is broadened towards knowledge on how racism is perceived in the public eye.

Nevertheless, it took until May 2020 for the racist murder of George Floyd in the United States to lead to large anti-racist rallies led by the Black Lives Matter movement in Germany. It is quite telling that the public protests against racism came to Germany in a roundabout way via the United States. For decades there has been an externalization of racism going hand in hand with the idea, that “these kinds of things” would not happen in Germany or would be far worse in other parts of the world, mainly in the United States. And while hardly anyone knows the names of the victims of Halle and Hanau to this day, everyone associates the name of George Floyd with a brutal racist murder and structural racism rooted in the very institutions of a modern western democracy.

For the German public to understand more about racism in their own country the Bundestag finally commissioned the German Center for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM), to develop a long-term  National Discrimination and Racism Monitor (NaDiRa). The aim was to survey, record, and understand the extent, causes, and consequences of racism in Germany and also to learn about its similarities and differences compared to other countries of immigration. Thus, the German discourse of racism is increasingly intertwined with the German negotiation of its status as a country of immigration. Initial data from the recently published empirical study, “Racist Realities: How Does Germany Deal with Racism?” on the German population’s perception of racism has shown that there may be analytical, empirical, and phenomenological differences between Germany and the United States when it comes to understanding racism.

Why compare and what?

This short paper is only to be seen as an initial effort to collect ideas regarding how empirical differences could be measured in the future and what they should focus on.

Analytical & Terminological Differences

While obviously there are analytical differences, for instance, Germany focusing more on migration and the United States focusing more on race, there is also a terminological difference that goes hand-in-hand with differing analytical conclusions and empirical difficulties for comparison. The most pronounced difference is already in the use or non-use of the term race in Germany,[2] and the long persistence of the words Ausländerfeindlichkeit and Fremdenfeindlichkeit (hatred against foreigners or xenophobia) instead of talking about racism. But the analytical and terminological differences lie also in the different modes of measuring migration background or talking about citizenship or naturalization. And while “whiteness” as a category in the United States indicates access to positions of power, status, and norm-setting privileges, it does not really make sense in Germany because it does not appear as a counterpart to “blackness” and does not form a major binary opposition in the German demographic landscape.

Historical differences

The first obvious difference would be that Germany has not emerged out of settler colonialism even though the Roman Empire expanded quite deeply into the German southwest. So, the way racism in the United States and even more in Canada is connected to settler colonialism would not have its direct analogy in the German approach towards understanding racism. German land did not emerge from the destruction of other peoples, unlike the United States, which already built the discovery of its country on the extinction of the First Nations and the accumulation of its wealth and capital on the exploitation of African peoples and their descendants through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Although one should clearly discuss how involved Germany has been in colonialism and the imperial world order and how Europe was profiting from the plantation economy in the United States, still there has not been a strong black or enslaved workforce in Germany forming its demographic composition. Furthermore, the murder of Jews during the Holocaust and the Nazism of the Third Reich is a distinctive historical element that makes it difficult to grasp racism in a similar way in the United States and in Germany, as racism in the German context is far more linked with anti-Semitism. And while Germany has only recently come to terms with its status as a country of immigration, the United States claims that status as a historical founding narrative, which leads to two analytically distinct approaches of defining “the other” in the national identity.

Intergroup Relations & Hierarchal Differences

The different demographic and historical compositions are intimately connected to different group-making procedures. Even though Germany now ranks second behind the United States in terms of international immigrants (in absolute numbers) there is still a huge gap in the relative composition of society. Germany currently counts more than 27 percent of its population as having a “migration background,” yet it is not as ethnically and racially pluralized as the United States and is still struggling with religious diversity. In the United States, the question of unequal access to positions and resources is mainly discussed along color lines, with Black people still forming the highest disadvantaged group. In Germany, similar to France and other European countries, high inequalities and denial of access mainly affect Muslim immigrants and their descendants. The latest empirical data show even that in Germany there is a higher awareness of racism when it affects Black people, but the very same situations are not perceived as racist when they affect Muslims or Sinti and Roma. And while Jews seem to be considered “white” in the U.S. understanding, there is still the notion in Germany of Jewish as opposite to German. These differing racial, ethnic, and religious hierarchies make an empirical comparison quite difficult, although there have been attempts.[3]

Structural Differences in Knowledge Production

Another difference in comparing racism is the different structural status of knowledge production on racism. In Germany, research on racism is not yet institutionalized. There are neither research institutes nor corresponding chairs or degree programs in this field. Racism study is primarily conducted through neighboring disciplines, such as migration studies, anti-Semitism research, inequality research, or social psychology. While in the United States racism research, race relations, and racial inequality studies are not only established disciplines in universities but also form regular parts of educational curricula. Therefore, there is far higher knowledge production and a mainstreaming of awareness in the United States compared to Germany, when it comes to understanding, reflecting, and debating racism.

There might be more fields that are worth looking for possible comparative approaches. But these four already leave enough room for debate. I could obviously add the political field with its different concepts of security, different narratives of grandeur in the international realm, or different modes of border control, but I leave it here and point to the recent data of the National Discrimination and Racism Monitor (NaDiRa) that might open the space for further empirical comparison between the United States and Germany.


Racism and right-wing extremism are obviously not new phenomena but have their historical roots, for example, in Germany’s colonial aspirations, which led to the genocide of the Herero and Nama people in Namibia, or in the systematic murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust.[4] Racism did not end with denazification—even though this was a major narrative for decades—but continued through the history of both the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic. Nearly 300 racist murders have been counted since German reunification with only the pogroms of the 1990s in the cities of Solingen, Mölln, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, and Hoyerswerda remaining specifically in the public memory where houses with immigrants were set on fire while Germans were standing outside clapping and cheering.[5]

But while the United States has had a vivid debate on race, racism, and race relations reaching into the past century, informing political debates, policy making, and antagonist polarization, it is only quite recently that dealing with racism has entered public debates and awareness in Germany. And although U.S. theories on racism have been imported into German academia and have been elaborated further,[6] it is new that quantitative representative data is collected and empirical research is broadened towards knowledge on how racism is perceived in the public eye.

Thirty years after German reunification, the first representative empirical results of the National Discrimination and Racism Monitor (NaDiRa) offers quite clear data showing that racism is not downplayed any longer in the public and affects a lot of people in Germany in direct and indirect terms. Even more pronounced one could say: Racist realities structure everyday life of many people in Germany—this is at least what a majority of the population perceives.[7] So, one could say that the time when racism was denied and mainly perceived as something that happened ‘elsewhere’ is over. Only 35 percent of the population in Germany would say that they had not yet come into contact with racism in their lives.

Still, empirical data shows that inequalities in Germany disproportionately affect people with migration biographies, who have increasingly been victims of racist assaults and murders over the past decades. At the same time, the term racism has only recently been used for systematic analysis—for years we rather measured xenophobia or anti-immigrant sentiments. However, as long as the focus was on “the foreigner” or “the stranger,” the analysis mainly concentrated on border policies, regulation of immigration, or integration rather than on anti-discrimination policies, social inequalities, and structural racism. In my book The Post-Migrant Society, however, I argue that a dominant meta-narrative of migration has made underlying conflicts of race, class, or gender invisible.[8] A post-migrant perspective would allow us to understand what happens “after” migration has been acknowledged as a new marker of German identity, being now a country of immigration. Furthermore the “post” would allow us to look “behind” what has been covered by this grand narrative for decades and face new empirical approaches based on understanding racism in Germany.

[1] For more information on the racist murders of nine immigrants by the terroristic organization NSU (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund) read: Thomas Klikauer and Kathleen Webb Tunney, “Germany’s neo-Nazi death squad–the NSU network,” Ethnic and Racial Studies vol 43, no. 8 (2020), pp 1467-1475.

[2] Maria Alexopoulou, “Ignoring Racism in the History of the German Immigration Society: Some Reflections on Comparison as an Epistemic Practice,” Journal for the History of Knowledge, 2 no. 1 (2021).

Emilia Roig, “Uttering “race” in colorblind France and post-racial Germany,” in Rassismuskritik und Widerstandsformen (Springer VS, Wiesbaden, 2017), pp. 613-627.

[3] Thomas Faist, Isabell Diekmann, & Joanna Fröhlich, Culturalized Heterogeneities: Comparing Race and Religion in Germany and the U.S., COMCAD Working Papers no. 171 (2020).

[4] There is a debate about whether the colonial past should be considered along with the Holocaust or whether the Holocaust should be viewed as a unique historical atrocity that stands on its own and should not be read in continuity of a colonial legacy (see Michael Rothberg, “Lived multidirectionality: “Historikerstreit 2.0” and the politics of Holocaust memory,” Memory Studies 15 no. 6 (2022), p. 1316-1329.).

[5] Christopher A. Molnar, “‘Greetings from the Apocalypse’: Race, Migration, and Fear after German Reunification,” Central European History 54 no. 3 (2021), 491-515.

[6] See for example the books of Paul Mecheril, Fatima El-Tayeb, Maureen Eggers, Iman Attia, or Mark Terkessidis.

[7] The data was collected through a Computer Assisted Telephone Interviews of 5003 persons in Germany (field period: April-August 2021) with the German-speaking resident population aged 14 and over living in private households.

[8] Naika Foroutan, Die postmigrantische Gesellschaft. Das Versprechen der pluralen Demokratie (degruyter. transcript-Verlag, 2021).

Supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FF).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.