What the lack of racial data means in Germany during the pandemic

“What are you doing do you think the rate of Covid-19 is for us?” This is a question I was asked by many black people living in Berlin at the beginning of March 2020. Answer: We don’t know. Unlike other countries, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, the German government does not record racial identity information in official documents and statistics. Because of the country’s history with the Holocaust, calling Races (the race) has long been contested by its name.

To some, data that focus on race without considering intersecting factors such as class, neighborhood, environment, or genetics ring a veiled deception, as they may fail to capture the multitude of elements that influence well-being. Similarly, some information makes it difficult to categorize a person into a single identity: a multiracial person may not want to choose a single racial group, one of the many conundrums that complicate labeling demographics. There is also an element of trust. If there are reliable statistics documenting racial data and health in Germany, what will be done about it and what does it mean for the government to potentially access, collect or use this information? As with the history of AI, the figures often misrepresent the black experience or are often misused. Would people trust the German government to prioritize the interests of ethnic or racial minorities and other marginalized groups, especially in health and medicine?

However, the absence of data collection on racial identity can mask how certain groups may be disproportionately affected by the disease. Racial self-identities can be a marker for scientists and public health officials to understand disease rates or trends, whether it’s breast cancer or Covid-19. Data on race have been helpful for understanding inequality in many contexts. In the US, maternal mortality statistics and race served as a beacon to expose how African-Americans were disproportionately affected, and have since been a compelling basis for changing birthing behaviors, resources, and policies.

In 2020, the educational association Every One Teach One, in partnership with Citizens for Europe, launched The Afrozensus, the first large-scale sociological study of black people living in Germany, asking questions about employment, housing and health – part of a deepening insight into the ethnic composition of this group and the institutional discrimination they might face. Of the 5,000 people who participated in the survey, just over 70 percent were born in Germany, with the other four largest being the United States, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. Germany’s Afro-German population is heterogeneous, a reflection of the African diaspora originating from various migrations, be it the Fulani from Senegal or the descendants of slaves from America. “Black”, as an identity, does not and cannot understand the cultural and linguistic richness that exists among people who fit into this category, but it can be part of the table for gathering common experiences or systematic inequality. “I don’t think the Afrozensus revealed anything that Black people didn’t already know,” said Jeff Kwasi Klein, manager of the Every One Teach project. “Yes, there is discrimination in all walks of life.” The results of this first attempt at race-based data collection show that ignoring Races did not allow racial minorities to remove prejudice in Germany.

The idea that Europeans might use the term “Rasse” was not uncommon in the 18th century. In fact, some of the most famous scientists of the time not only used the term, but created a pseudoscientific rubric to codify people. German physician and naturalist Johann Blumenbach coined the term “Caucasian” in his 1775 publication. About the natural varieties of humanity, in which he classified humans into five races. His colleague, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, followed suit, constructing a taxonomy for humans in four distinct varieties: Europeans, Americans, Africans, and Asians. Zoé Samudzi notes that under the cover of colonialism, German scholars such as Eugen Fischer resorted to using color and texture charts of mixed-race people in German African colonies to justify anti-miscegenation and eugenics claims. Fischer’s work would later inform the Nazi system of racial classification and the Nuremberg Laws, which argued that German identity was based on jus sanguinis rather than place of birth. The exclusion of people of Jewish and African descent from German ancestry also meant that the Nazi state discouraged interracial marriage. U Superior: The Return of the Science of RaceAngela Saini has shown that the misperception that some racial categories are superior to others is not a relic of the pseudoscientific past, but a phenomenon that Euro-American societies have struggled with throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Instead of fixating on strict, formulaic racial categories, many contemporary scholars are trying to understand human movement and human ecosystems. Evolutionary biologists have shown that cultural adaptations are more important than phenotype. Skin color, which refers to the distribution of melanin in the skin, is associated with early human settlements relative to the equator. Not surprisingly, the closer people were to the equator, the more melanin there was in their skin, and the farther from the equator, the fairer the skin. If we look at another factor also based on environment, we find that skin color—which only sometimes correlates with race—is an arbitrary category for defining human difference. One condition, sickle cell anemia, is a mutation that occurs in people affected by malaria, which is more pronounced in climates with high rainfall. This leads people to believe that individuals with sickle cell trait are descended from ancestors who had to deal with the malaria parasite themselves in places like central India, eastern Saudi Arabia and equatorial Africa. If we grouped people together with traits that deal with environmental conditions, such as sickle cell trait, would our categories for racializing people change? Science is a bricolage in which no single gene or characteristic can explain human evolution. Whether to use the term “Rasse” in the German constitution – regardless of the issue of data collection – is a lively debate that tries to complicate history with lived reality.

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