Racism refers to an ideological theory, now scientifically rejected, according to which people – based mostly on external characteristics such as skin color – could be divided into races. This racial theory goes hand in hand with the fundamental idea that some people are in some way “better” than other people (groups) and for this reason have the right to rule over others. In this way, various actions can and could be legitimized in the course of history in order to establish a certain world order and to establish hierarchies.

Racism is thus a historically grown and effective system of oppression with political, social and economic dimensions, which can come to bear in all areas of life. The hierarchization and categorization of people into groups enshrined in it was attempted to be justified on various levels: On the one hand, through supposed scientific findings that divided people – like plants or animals – into species and thus, in the sense of essentialism, attributed to them an inner being through the determination of external characteristics. On the other hand, one looked for justifications in written sources and found them in the Bible and in various philosophical writings, which one sometimes decontextualized or misinterpreted and thus instrumentalized. In this context, special attention should be drawn to the fact that the concept of racism is an invention of the 20th century. The excerpts from textual sources cited below date from a time when this theory did not yet exist as we understand it today. Not every racist statement automatically comes from a racist. Here it is especially important to examine the individual case and to consider the prevailing zeitgeist. Nevertheless, racist theories – in the case of Europe and the USA – assume white supremacy. In terms of colorism, this was mostly followed by People of Color, while Black people were at the bottom of this hierarchy. This is also one of the reasons for colonialism, the trade with enslaved people and the Maafa.

– Justifications for racism

In the course of the trade with enslaved people, which gained strength from the 17th century onwards, reference was made, for example, to the ancient scholar Aristotle, who understood slavery as a natural given. However, Aristotle did not choose race as a criterion for the legitimate enslavement of people, but rather the distinction between Greeks and non-Greeks. Only the latter were allowed to be traded as commodities. The Bible was also used to justify racism: Genesis 9:18-27 is about Noah and his three sons Ham, Japheth and Shem. Noah, drunk on wine and lying naked in his tent, was discovered by Ham, who, amused by the situation, called his brothers over. Japheth and Shem, however, covered their father and did not mock him – unlike Ham. When Noah awoke and heard of this, he cursed Ham and all his descendants: They were to serve Japheth and Shem and their descendants as “servant of all servants” (Genesis, 9, 25). Because according to biblical conception all people can be traced back to one progenitor, the reason for legitimate enslavement resulted from this passage. According to this conception, after the biblical Flood, the world population was formed from the descendants of Noah’s sons. From the Renaissance onwards, the question of where the descendants of the individual brothers might have settled was addressed. It was considered that Jafet’s descendants could be found in Europe. Shem’s descendants lived in Asia and those of Ham settled on the African continent. Accordingly – so one believed – Africans could be enslaved.

Philosophers, too, were repeatedly concerned with deriving reasons for racism that would justify individual and collective action. Among them was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the most important representative of the German Enlightenment, who divided the world’s population into races – in line with the prevailing zeitgeist, which wanted to categorize and explain everything. In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764), he writes: “The [N-word] of Africa have no feeling from nature that rises above the lappish.” It should be noted that this publication fell into Kant’s pre-critical phase. If we consider his statements in the years 1781 to 1790, that is, the period in which his main works were also written, the philosopher continued to deal with racial theory, as in his essay Bestimmung des Begriffs der Menschenrasse (Determination of the Concept of the Human Race), published in 1785, in which he divides people into four races according to skin color and attributes certain character traits to them. A few years later, in 1788, in On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy, he again emphasizes the importance of the racial doctrine. He illustrates this with the example of the indigenous population groups of North America, whom he describes as “incapable of all culture” and places them at the lower end of a racist scale of values. This attitude of Kant’s is all the more surprising because he also penned the formula “Act in such a way that you use humanity, both in your person and in the person of everyone else, at all times as an end, never merely as a means” (Kant, AA IV, 429). Kant’s categorical imperative is thus also valid for non-white people. The philosopher thus moves in an open contradiction to himself when he denies BIPoC the gift of reason and, along with it, their autonomy – both essential components of being human. On the other hand, from the 1790s on, Kant turns against the trade with enslaved people as well as colonialism, which he still considered legitimate in the years before. How these statements and writings are to be evaluated and how they are to be understood with the rest of the philosopher’s work in terms of the spirit of the times is currently being researched.

– Dealing with racism in Germany

A frequently unnoticed problem in dealing with racism is that it is usually only considered racism if a statement or action was also intentionally meant to be racist by an individual. Thus, particularly positive racism, that is, a prejudice with a positive connotation, is rarely recognized as a racist statement. For example, “Latinxs are spirited and dance well.” Racism masquerades as a compliment here. The invocation of categorized people (in this case because of a person’s origin) as a collective subject is a racist statement, because the individual and specific talents are no longer considered, but as a representative of a group, the individual loses all individuality and is no longer perceived as an individual.

Another problem – especially common in Germany – is that racism is rarely discussed in a social dimension. This is because the concept of racism is still closely tied to the Nazi regime and has subsequently been largely banned. Ignoring structural racism, however, is the wrong approach: racism does not only take place in the form of police violence in the United States. Racism is also a problem in Germany, through which BIPoC are discriminated against, disadvantaged, threatened, insulted and attacked. The Federal Criminal Police Office recorded a total of 8,585 cases of hate crime against race and religion, specifically in the form of racism and anti-Semitism, in 2019.

To this day, racism is based on various justifications, most of which are unified by the idea of establishing the domination of white Europeans* over non-white persons. On the one hand, the naming of skin colors and the categorization of people according to them serve as characteristics for a racial-ideological scale of values – in the sense of colorism. On the other hand, certain characteristics, such as morality, intellect, autonomy and educability, were attributed to or denied to these groups. This sometimes still happens today, albeit in a modified form. Those who strive for an anti-racist social structure should recognize this historical structural dimension of racism and strive, among other things, not to perpetuate it. For the more realities of life an individual has in view, the more diverse the perspective on one’s own environment becomes and the more likely it is to be able to recognize and name imbalances.

Racism takes different forms. These include, for example, antiziganism and anti-Semitism or colorism. Racism is one of the most common forms of discrimination, along with rejectionism, sexism, classism and homophobia, among others.

Learn more about your own racism: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/germany/takeatest.html