When Nana Addison pitched a business to help black people in Germany find styling services tailored to their hair and skin type, she knew from personal experience there was a market, but couldn’t prove it.
Since Germany hasn’t collected information on the ethnic or racial background of its residents since the end of World War II, she had no way of showing how big the potential customer base could be. The fallout was investors rejected her funding pitch in 2018, forcing her to take the long way and finance the startup herself.
“Data is the baseline of everything,” said Addison, who successfully launched the beauty fair CURL CON and is now using the profits toward her initial startup idea Styleindi. “Black people are one of the youngest and fastest growing segment of Germany’s population — one should assume that this valuable consumer group is worth understanding.”
The government’s rationale has long been that after the Holocaust authorities should never again be able to identify communities at risk of persecution. While the intent may be well-meaning, the resulting lack of data has effectively allowed racism to be swept under the rug by making it nearly impossible to track.
Germany’s black population — estimated at more than 1 million people — is now seeking to emerge from the country’s statistical blindspots and help authorities identify systemic hurdles. The first wide-scale effort to survey the community is due to launch in June after being delayed by interruptions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
‘Couscous in the Cafeteria’
The online survey known as Afrozensus will ask people of African descent about topics including their employment situation, socioeconomic status and experiences with racism. It’s organized by a Berlin-based community group to avoid concerns about the data being handled by the government, but is supported by Germany’s Anti-Discrimination Agency.
“The things you don’t count usually don’t count,” said Daniel Gyamerah, one of the leaders of Each One Teach One, the community group organizing the project. “When nothing is officially recorded, you end up with the international day of diversity, couscous in the cafeteria, and the ‘we embrace diversity’ slogans. But nothing really changes.”
The findings could carry implications for a broad range of issues. Economists are expecting inequality to widen as the pandemic-driven global slump exacerbates existing gaps, and data from other countries show that low-paid and minorities are hit hardest. Addressing structural inequalities and racism would also help Germany remain an attractive place for future immigrants as its existing population ages and exits the workforce.
The country’s racial makeup is more complex than what’s reflected in official statistics, which divides people into two categories: Germans and those with a migration background. Even that level of detail is relatively new, with the distinction arising in 2005 after an OECD study found that children of immigrants were disadvantaged compared with ethnic German peers.
The approach lumps together diverse communities, according to Joshua Kwesi Aikins, a political scientist at the University of Kassel and senior researcher at Citizens for Europe, a partner in the upcoming survey. A child of a Swedish parent is statistically the same as the offspring of first-generation Turkish migrants. The categorization also doesn’t account for the descendants of second- or third-generation immigrants.
“A very basic problem is the idea that people who experience racism in Germany are here as a result of migration,” Aikins said. “Sinti, Roma, and black communities in Germany are examples that go back many centuries, so they aren’t always affected by migration, but certainly experience racism.”
Protests in Minneapolis over the death of a handcuffed African American underscore the danger faced by marginalized communities even in countries where racism is more openly talked about.
Millions of Germans today are descendants of former “guest workers” from countries including Turkey, Vietnam and Angola. As the term implies, they were expected to help fuel the country’s economy and then go back home. Others have ancestors who came to Germany from its former colonies, such as Namibia, Cameroon and Tanzania.
A “serious lack” of data and an “incomplete understanding of history” obscure the magnitude of structural and institutional racism in Germany, according to a 2017 report from the United Nations.
The gap presents problems for a number of policy areas, from the justice system to economics. The U.S. Federal Reserve under Chair Janet Yellen, for instance, began to focus on what higher joblessness among black workers said about slack in the economy. Inability to perform such analyses could result in disadvantaged communities missing out on economic upswings while feeling the brunt of downturns.
Given the sensitive nature of the data, Afrozensus organizers have involved communities affected by discrimination to help design the survey and are taking pains to show that the information can’t be traced back to individuals. The goal is to repeat the exercise in coming years to develop a clearer picture over time.
“No matter what topic you look at, whether it’s racial profiling or racism on the housing market or in education, it’s never possible to really grasp the contours of the phenomenon in Germany because there is no data,” said Aikins. “For activists like us, that quickly brings us to the limit.”
— With assistance by Aggi Cantrill, Craig Torres, and Hayley Warren
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