Racism in German Public Institutions – Interview with Matthias Middell

Matthias Middell. Photo by Swen Reichhold.

The Research Institute for Social Cohesion (FGZ) is investigating racism in German public institutions on behalf of the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) in a project titled “Rassismus als Gefährdung des gesellschaftlichen Zusammenhalts im Kontext ausgewählter gesellschaftlich-institutioneller Bereiche.” Researchers will analyze racism in authorities at the federal, state, and local levels and its potential threat to social cohesion in 23 individual projects at nine locations in Germany until 2024. We discussed the goals of this research with Prof. Matthias Middell (University of Leipzig), spokesperson of the FGZ and co-principal investigator of this study, which he leads together with Prof. Gert Pickel (University of Leipzig).

Your project on racism in public institutions, funded by the BMI, recently started in October 2021 at the FGZ. Six of the 23 subprojects will be hosted at ReCentGlobe at Leipzig University. How did the idea for such a project come about and what are its goals?

Numerous atrocious events in recent years have severely shaken the image that Germany has of itself and that it would like to see reflected by others. The long series of murders by the National Socialist Underground and the inability of the police and other security agencies to identify the perpetrators, the murder of the Kassel district president Walter Lübcke in June 2019, the attack on the synagogue in Halle and the related murder in a kebab bistro on 9 October of the same year, and the series of murders in Hanau in February 2020 have startled German politics. These events led to a cabinet resolution at the federal level to support and fund a series of measures against right-wing extremism, racism, and anti-Semitism. Research is only one part of this package; at least as important is the strengthening of civil society initiatives and activities intended to outlaw and if possible completely ban all forms of racist discrimination. To do this, however, we first need to take stock of everywhere where such discrimination occurs and ask who decides what is an insult and discrimination or not: the people affected or the perpetrators. One of the 89 measures in this package is aimed at the question of whether and to what extent systematic or occasional discrimination based on origin and racial attributions occurs in public institutions.

The FGZ has only existed since 2020, but it is already known as an institution of interdisciplinary research spread over 11 locations across the Federal Republic on the question of what actually endangers or promotes social cohesion. So it was obvious to ask the FGZ whether it could coordinate research into such a topic, assuming that racist discrimination is indeed a threat to social cohesion.

In the context of the Leipzig Research Centre Global Dynamics, we have already been working for some time on the relationship between nationally conceived social cohesion and the transnational circulation of ideas about solidarities, so it was the somehow obvious place for the coordination of the project.

What state of the art have you relied on in designing and organizing this project?

The question of racist discrimination in institutions is highly controversial. Some refer to diverse anecdotal reports of personal experiences, others to the fact that what is already outlawed cannot exist. It is of course correct to say that the German constitution clearly states that no one may be discriminated against on the basis of their origin or “race,” but it cannot be denied that the number of reports of such discrimination is increasing. However, we face a double research gap. The first is data collection that allows us to assess whether such reports relate to individual cases or whether they are evidence of some kind of institutional discrimination. For this purpose, it is not enough to focus on individual authorities, which is why our project envisages a broad survey using different methods across a large number and variety of public institutions. In this way, if our expectations of the research design are fulfilled and the undeniable difficulties of field access are solved, we will be able to make more reliable statements about the frequency of occurrence of discriminatory acts in the years to come.

A second problem arises, however, because it is not always clear what is meant if someone speaks of racist discrimination. We already know that not everything that is reported under this category is legally actionable. We also know that racism is not a static concept. Society’s perception of racism is subject to cultural changes. We therefore expect that the social science surveys will bring to light a multitude of situations in which peoples’ assessments differ – where some see a clear case of racist discrimination, others see a grey area or point to the fact that no one had been disciplined or even prosecuted as evidence that discrimination has not occurred. In the best case, our project thus not only achieves the measurement of a phenomenon that everyone agrees on but also serves to clarify how differently one can interpret racism and how to deal with these differences. This may not satisfy everyone’s need for unambiguity, but it may help society to deal with the ambiguities present in cases of discrimination in a more tolerant way.

Your subproject in particular investigates transnational and transregional circulations of perceptions of racism. Why is this important when it comes to understanding racism in German public institutions?

Racism has many facets and many histories. In a globally interconnected world, there are multiple appropriations of ideas of and experiences with racism that exceed the borders of societies where some of these ideas originated, as the example of the Black Lives Matter movement very impressively demonstrated. Little research has been done so far on the transnational and transregional interconnectedness of ideas about racism and how to fight it, which institutional representatives must consider if they want to and must deal with racism in a culturally competent way.

The conflict over the invitation of the Cameroonian postcolonial scholar, Achille Mbembe, to the Ruhr Festival 2020 has made it clear, as if through a magnifying glass, that there is by no means a clear consensus in the Federal Republic of Germany on how to behave towards conflicting interpretations of racism. This debate led to fierce controversy about the cultural leeway that should exist for a productive confrontation between the different understandings of racism, but the conflict goes far beyond cultural institutions. The debate has raised awareness about what research on collective and cultural memory has shown for some time: references societies integrate into their own cultural repertoire can no longer be determined only within a national framework, even if, as in the case of Germany, there were very good reasons for creating clear public policy (based on its national history).

What is understood by racism and how to react to it is on the one hand negotiated in the context of individual societies, and on the other hand these negotiations are increasingly closely connected to struggles against racism in other societies. In this context, confronting racism is a worldwide task, yet lacks the basis of shared historical experiences with racism and its consequences. Cross-border, transnational, and transregional interconnections through mobility, digital media and the resulting intensified circulation of cultural patterns mean that people within a given territory no longer feel exclusively bound to the repertoire for defining racism conveyed in the national education system, in the laws and norms of the country, as well as in the national media. Members of society are becoming aware of more globally oriented conceptions of history, questions of colonialism, imperialism, and also post-colonial configurations of resource control. These lasting power asymmetries are also partly connected to questions about the relationship between the (North-)West and the (South-)East in the enlargement of the European Union. There is now increasing pressure to direct societal debates about Germany as an immigration society and the related question of integration not only towards the ability of immigrants to adapt to German society, but also to clarify how this integration of people with different experiences of racism and colonialism impacts the historical culture of our country. It is clear that these negotiations have effects on peoples’ encounters with one another, including in public institutions.

At times you use the word racism, other times discrimination. How does the study deal with intersectionality and the role of other forms of discrimination in public institutions relating to disability, sexual orientation, or gender?

We must of course recognize that various forms of discrimination can be mutually reinforced, as the studies on intersectionality highlight and have already empirically demonstrated with numerous examples. In this respect, acknowledging intersectionality is an inspiring standard that our study must meet. At the same time, we are not interested in creating categories, degrees, or rankings of different forms of discriminations and their impacts. Instead, the subprojects should have a clear focus and context and be motivated by the social need for knowledge about potential racism in institutions. They may however show precisely how every type of discrimination is anchored in similar socio-psychological dispositions and scrutinize their mutual reinforcement.

The public debate in Germany appears polarized, either arguing for the existence of racism in public institutions or denying or minimizing racism altogether (not to mention debates on social cohesion in German society). Your project instead asks about racisms in the plural, cultures of racism, and various understandings of racism that change overtime and across societies. How do you plan to communicate the nuanced goals of your research and your results to the public?

In the last two years we have learned a lot about how differentiated results of scientific research – which is in a state of flux and necessarily produces provisional results that are designed to be critically revised again in subsequent research – can be exacerbated in the public sphere, thereby contributing to the very polarization that the research had intended to ameliorate with its nuanced portrait of the many reasons behind certain phenomena. Science is about differentiation. The work of the media sometimes consists in keeping this differentiation manageably small in order to maximize public attention (and profits). We have therefore been careful in the design of this project to allocate resources not only to the research itself, but also to its communication. We don’t only want to hold conferences where we present our results and argue scientifically, but we also want to train ourselves to determine our place in the social production and circulation of knowledge. We can communicate self-confidently, but perhaps not in the belief that we can reach a non-academic audience directly by circumventing the media entirely.

At the FGZ, we have a whole series of projects that deal analytically and empirically with the role of media and knowledge circulation for social cohesion. There is certainly something to be learned here. That science communication has received a lot of attention in recent years is certainly welcome, but the next step is a critical examination of experiences during the pandemic regarding the relationship between science and the media. I do not want to claim that this protects us from mistakes and misunderstandings, but the more reflectively we deal with the possibility for misunderstandings, the sooner we may come up with not only a plausible but also an effective answer to this question.

And let me add, we are by no means alone as a research project. We work very closely and cooperatively with many other initiatives that have been introduced by the same government decision. We are already receiving feedback from many people who have experienced racist discrimination and are formulating their own expectations for our results. We also have a clear responsibility to the victims of discrimination to make our results publicly recognizable because these results are supposed to help change conditions – conditions that no one who has even a modicum of empathy for the victims of discrimination wants to see continue.

German universities aren’t explicitly mentioned as being central to one of the subprojects, though these are the public institutions where this research will be carried out. Do you plan to address universities and if so, how?

We actually did not dedicate a separate sub-project to universities, even though universities are large institutions where there is a lot of contact between individuals of many different backgrounds and the administration (the face of which for students and the public is often the researchers, lecturers, and professors). However, the researchers for this network come from various academic institutions in eight German states, and their research questions and project designs naturally incorporate experiences with their own professional environments. When we examine authorities that deal with residence permits, job placements, health services, housing placements, or public safety, we necessarily also have dimensions of academic life in mind because neither students nor lecturers remain isolated in the so-called ivory tower. And when, on the basis of our research, we formulate advice on how to deal with racializing prejudices and racist discrimination in and by public authorities, we naturally also have our own institutions in mind.

It would be quite astonishing if researchers emerged unchanged from research like this that gets under your skin without any consequences for or effects on their environment. This includes not only avoiding discrimination going forward, but also its thematization as a prominent subject of academic research and teaching. The topic of racism is unfortunately not yet the subject of numerous chairs and courses of study. On the contrary, we do have some centers of relevant research. But racism is a deeply interdisciplinary issue and its study has so far been spread across many subject areas. I hope we succeed in bundling the various interdisciplinary facets of the study of racism in one place to make this important research more visible to students. One can probably already predict that this task will become much more apparent at the end of our three years of research than it already is today.

This interview was conducted by Megan Maruschke


Matthias Middell, professor of cultural history at Leipzig University, earned his PhD in 1989 with a study on French counter-revolution at the end of the 18th century. His habilitation (2002) dealt with World History writing during the 20th century.  He is director of both the Global and European Studies Institute and the Research Centre Global Dynamics at Leipzig University.  Since 1991 he serves as editor of Comparativ. Journal of Global History. His main research interests include global and transregional histories with an emphasis on spatial configurations; the history of revolutions and the history of intercultural transfers as well as the history of historiography in the 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent publications include: The Routledge Companion to the French Revolution in World History (London, 2015, with Alan Forrest); Handbuch der Transnationalen Geschichte Ostmitteleuropas, vol. 1: 1750-1918 (Göttingen, 2017, with Frank Hadler); The Routledge Handbook of Transregional Studies (London, 2019).


Citation: Racism in German Public Institutions – Interview with Matthias Middell, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.02.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/32286


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