In German Schools, a Quiet but Deep Discrimination Problem

“I could understand this happening to me when I was in school. We were the first ones. But not to my child. This can’t still be an issue for the next generation.”

Just over a month ago, an administrative judge in Berlin considered a complaint filed by three young German students over alleged racial discrimination at school. All three were from what Germans call a “migrant background”; their families were first generation immigrants. The three did not get a sympathetic hearing. The judge rejected the complaint, which the local district mayor had already dismissed in a local newspaper as the “year’s craziest law suit.” Conservative media reports were equally disparaging; for them, apparently, this was a case of three migrant children trying to play the racism card to excuse their own academic failure.

The three students and their families are, of course, not alone—although distinguished by having the courage to take a stand over their experiences.

Testimonies of students, parents and teachers, recounted in a new photo report by the Open Society Justice Initiative, paint a bleak picture of the challenges facing children from “migration background” in Berlin who want to have the same opportunities for education as everyone else.

“Berlin schools have a racism problem. But the word ‘racism’ triggers such strong emotional reactions that these kinds of problems are rarely discussed, let alone resolved,” says Sharon Otoo, a black author and mother of four. According to Gülten Alagöz, a teacher and member of district council in Tempelhof, “people are quite aware of [discrimination in Berlin schools]. The problem is that no one talks about it in public.”

It is always a challenge for individuals who experience discrimination to prove that what happened to them was not just personal, something that happened because they were somehow not good enough. There is a challenge for those in the majority too: no one, or at least almost no one, likes to be accused of discrimination or racism. But sometimes discrimination or racism can be ingrained in an ostensibly merit-based system which maintains longstanding implicit practices, in which the system doesn’t recognize that minorities need support to level the playing field with the established majority.

How do we know then that discrimination exists? We look at the data.

The first official indications of a systemic problem in the German education system emerged as early as 2001 when an influential PISA study highlighted that at-risk students—including those of “migration or migrant backgrounds”—performed worse in Germany than in other comparable countries. They were more often segregated into lower level classes and schools, effectively depriving them of the opportunity to pass the Abitur examination needed for university-level education.

Even though a number of reforms have been undertaken since, the facts show there is a long way to go. As recently as in 2010, a federal Ministry of Education report noted that children with a “migration background” were twice as likely to attend a vocational secondary school (that leads to no Abitur) as children without a “migration background”—even within the same socio-economic class. In Berlin itself, for students who come from families whose original language is not German, less than a third leave with a university entrance qualification (compared to half of the state’s native German students), and in 2012 the government of Berlin reported that twice as many children with a “migrant background” were relegated from the city’s elite Gymnasium schools to the lower level Sekundarschule as native German children.

Unfortunately, reforms in themselves will not make much of a difference when school administrators and parents can still remain wedded to practices that effectively consign the majority of students with a “migrant background” to a second-class education. Based on the testimonies of teachers, including majority German teachers, German language skills and religious instruction in school are often used as a proxy to segregate migrant children into separate classes and enable school officials to lure native German parents with “German language Guarantee classes.” A recommendation for higher education in the case of students from “migration background” will often be put in doubt against the premise: “The child comes from a family not invested in education”—a peculiar observation in a meritocracy.

The German government’s failure to secure equal educational opportunity for students with a “migration background” is a violation of international and federal law, and it should be challenged. But it is always hard for parents and students to challenge a school system, which retains control over their future. Any kind of formal protest risks making your children stand out from the crowd as trouble makers; it takes time to secure remedies, by which time the child has grown up or moved on to another school.

It is time for a fundamental change in the way children are educated and supported in the classroom in Berlin in particular and in Germany as a whole. That change, among other things, requires a meaningful avenue for families to challenge the discrimination they experience in schools. That change begins with listening.

Listening to parents like Didem Yüksel talking about the experiences of her family: “I could understand this happening to me when I was in school. We were the first ones. But not to my child. This can’t still be an issue for the next generation.”

23 Comments

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Our NGO: ADET( Amis des étrangers au Togo) is fighting against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia in Togo, Africa and in the world. So we never appove this racism behavior in German schools.
Minorities has to be include in the development process.
Thank you

I agree this kind of racism is not acceptable and has to be fought.

But this also applies to the anti-Semitism which is wide spread within the community of migrant families from Turkey and Arabic countries. There was a recent article in the Spiegel magazine on this issue, which is just as alarming.

Imanuel Marcus

Aha! Huge difference my friend...racism us a battle ti be fought in all societies but ut should never be systematic and be practiced by the same people who should teach you otherwise and the precise government who should protect you and ensure you have equal rights....

discrimination also exists in Uganda too. I think we need very stringent laws which are not only kept in the statutes but also in put in practice

I think that discrimination impediment to learning that we have to prevent all forms of discrimination among students and working to create a stimulating environment for learners.

There is no doubt that the education system in developed and developing countries is losing its original idea and purpose. Under the veil of norms, values and procedural criteria many schools produce stratified citizens which further are easily destined for exploitation and control. The problem I realize is that we’ve been relying too much on impartiality of science and academia, which in last few decades became enormously commercial. We forgot that teachers, professors and scientist are human beings and as such they are also inclined to error-proneness. They hold our respect and trust which is wrongly used as a privilege and discretion to shape the knowledge of the next generations. After my experience with Jeszensky case I definitely started to encourage students to not take for granted the lectures and readings, including professors that holds any ground of bias against their culture and identity beliefs. They are paid by public money and should be knowledgeable how to treat and behave with the knowledge consumers, same as the market oriented companies. There is a long way to go in making the schools and universities work for every single pupil and student. We are trapped in debates about the cognitive problems and intellectual disorders of children, naively forgetting that teachers and professors are responsible to bring the quality and excellence in the schools. Most conservative are the universities and national academia for sciences, mostly those who have monopoly and political support. The issue of migrants and minorities is just one of the indicators that something goes wrong with the education system in the countries that pretend to be open societies. If we scratch deeper under the mainstream surface we’ll find inflation of degrees, which in theory are overqualified but in practice they are under skilled.

Thank you for posting your comment - It is nice to discover my own words spoken by somebody else, for that means I am not alone in my thinking, and thus there is hope...

It is such a shame that we still live in a world of such outright discrimination. Silent discrimination is worse than open discrimination because of the current already instituted laws that have relatively lessened it to some extended in some places. The major challenge with silent discrimination is proving it that is why haters are using that strategy to hurt many. When women in Africa are psychologically abused by their husbands silently in their homes, the norms and values are about not openly sharing with outsiders. This eats her up by the day and many ask why she looks so frail yet the man doesn’t beat her, or deny buying her food but little do they know about the bedroom challenges. The same thing goes for these poor innocent students to get what everybody strives for and that is education.

It is a pity we still hear about such stories in 2013.I feel sorry for the German authorities who do their utmost to prove that Germany is Land of Democracy and trying to export it to other countries.Racism no matter its color,its type or its way can't be overcome all over the world because of today's world political leader who claim they know everything in sociology,economics,history...and so forth.While our world today suffers crisis of all sorts .
In Germany we have been able to ban smoking in public areas while racist offends are openly practiced in the same public places.Smoking in public areas is related to the German pubic health but racism acts is not taken into account because the victims are not the German citizens.
Last but never the least,the west in general wants to sell the cow and at the same drink its milk.Its companies,investors and citizens should enjoy other people resources but at the same time it rejects people who come from the land where those investors make money,the natural resources come from and where the citizens from what we call first world enjoy suny days,clean air and respect from humble people like me!!!!

shame on you!!!!

The article on discrimination of non-native German Children makes my heart to bleed, and is unthinkable in the new mellenium! In fact, discrimination in all its' form is a transgression of fundamental human rights and has no place in the human community!

I need not provide a justification here on why is discrimination of Man by Man is an insult to our democratic state but also to our morden civilisation-many thoughts and theories have sufficiently been talked to in this regard.

Like the writer rightly alludes, it is our individual resistance to change that renders us to bury our heads in the sand, so as to not see the reality that our individual streotypes are largely to blame for this shamelessly continued practice!

The type of informal Education that we provide to our children about notions of superiority and minority, in our households, flood over to infect the very institutions that are meant to protect fellow humans from such gross believes!

Discrimination is deeply rooted at an individual level and runs through families in the civilised world-where we consciously fuel fires promoting superiority of Man over Man!

It is not until we have liberated our minds from the leprosy of discrimination that we shall ever realise the just societies we so much aspire for!

In Europe, USA, Asia, Australia and Africa, the world is sick from this leprosy that needs to be cured at an individual level prior to curing our institutions!

There is a premise in child psychology is goes something like this
"Always Hold unconditional positive regard for the child"
Perhaps some educators have forgotten where they are ?

Ron Richard is right! In Germany critique is positive regard. Reading this article, symptomatically not published on a german platform, was satisfying and sad. I got through this all, too. Writing very good essays i primary school, making teachers angry "This can't be! An asylum child is better than german children!". I could tell hundreds of examples, which proove this engrained racism. If you haven't got a german name, a non-european face or an accent, then you're a foreigner, out, second class or not here to stay. I hope that some changes will happen and I will do my best, that my son will not be confronted with such problems.
Finally I would like to share an article about a study upon the german education system, where Berlin is the last one:
http://www.morgenpost.de/berlin-aktuell/article121124401/Berlin-ist-bei-...
Thanks for reading!

This is no news to me. I "grew up" (explanation follows) in "Germany"; being considered "ethnically pure", I always observed that those not so considered were at the mercy of teachers' personal prejudices. But discrimination goes further than this. Germany has enormous rates of child-ab"use" (i.e. children being terrorized by their "parents"; one does not "use" children, therefore my use of Inverted commas). These children too are being left behind, due to no-one taking a stand to protect them. Any child being terrorized will inevitably suffer developmental difficulties, due to trauma (i.e. PTSD). The ideology of a "pure" race, as well as the notion that children are to be used/controlled etc feeds into this climate of discrimination, where only those deemed "fit" (racially and ideologically) are "allowed" to "prosper". Having suffered ab"use" myself, I found myself always siding with the "outsiders" ("Aus"-laender). Unless there are more and more lawsuits, and this is backed by organisations such as yours, as well as the eradication of ab"use", the prevalent forms of oppression(s) will not be defeated. Germany still subscribes to the "MIGHT IS RIGHT!" ideology. This shows in how they treat their "own", as well as "foreign" children. Both are intrinsically linked. Both must be fought and rooted out.

I lived as foreigner in Germany and it is evident that discrimination in german schools against children with immigration background has taken deeply root.And nobody want to tackle the issue for fear they may be considered as non patriotic;unless the victims take action, the issue will remain ignored.And since the germans hail still hail the motto: MIGHT IS RIGHT,the only way for foreign people to tacle this issue is to be organised as registered association( eingetragenes Verein).And often as the history of discrimination shows it, courts often take seriously charges backed by organisation simple individuals.You need not however be an organisation to win a case at a court.I need but to master their law to some extent so as to detect whether your own lawyer is passively working against you.Some lawyers fear social retaliation when they back immigrants on the discrimination.Another aspect ,which,many in my opinion neglect,is prosecuting the case before filing the complain to the court.A consistent collection evidenced by proofs force judges to acknowledge the reality.This means for the immigrant victim to master to some extent the german language and their fundamental law and the related case at court.And as everybody knows, knowledge is equivalent to power, it is not surprising that discrimination prosper in their schools,the goal being obvious :keep immigrants in the darkness as to their rights and manipulate them.
And let s say, if none is ready to teach you, do it yourself.Fortunately there are some organisations which are ready to assist.

I find that including “migrant background” teachers, which is by no means easy, helps. I taught at a French high school, which does not have this problem at all. But here comes the dilemma of the chicken and the egg! Teachers must be well educated to begin with, and today's students are tomorrows educators. Employing guest teachers from ethnically different backgrounds is perhaps a good start. This may easy the “migrant background” stereotype!

Stretching the eyes is not racist everywhere. I wouldn't consider racist the people who pretented to be white like me in Congo by covering their face with the palm of their hands.

In Spain there is also much to be done to eliminate Rasismo. Personally I reported segregation he suffered a group of Roma students and in the end who has paid the consequences have been me, as I have been laid off from work and the report prepared by objective evidence on the segregation and discrimination of Roma students, has not yet received a reply from the Government. It's been over a year since I registered the Report and anything try washing hands and continue their discriminatory practices.

To frame this problem as a problem of multiculturalism shows the obsession of our society with culture and race and how this prevents us from seeing the real problem, the problem of poverty and the failure of the state.

The real problem is that Berlins public schools are massively and chronically underfunded to fulfil the function people expect of them, a function that might be unrealistic from the beginning. Teachers are very often underpaid and under-qualified especially to work in troubled neighbourhoods with a high migrant percentage. How are they supposed to fix a problem that is much bigger than the schools? How are they supposed to succeed where parents, state and civil society have failed?

Parents also of immigrant kids have to make sure that their kids qualify themselves, learn the language adequately and perform according to not just the academic but also the cultural standards of the system they live in. To cry about discrimination in this situation as in this case is truly ridiculous and they were rightly scorned. The word "entitlement mentality" comes to mind reading their interviews.

Nonetheless there really is discrimination and has not much to do with race or culture, but it is on a different level: Germany is a harsh class society and if you depend on the state to solve your problems you indeed have a problem. It's time for citizens to realize that and help themselves and develop their skills instead of whining and waiting for the government taking care of their lives.

I know exactly how it is, because i had been a student in the 90s, in the Munich's University, when i was studying Archaeology. I had always the feeling, me and some other mates of mine, as foreighners there, that we were students of a second class. After two years of studying there and not studying that any longer i was forced to apply for registry to a greek university where i graduated some years ago. But the problem is not only in education , primary, secondary or tertiary one. Take a look at what is happening in the labour market nowadays in Germany. For high work positions are preferred almost only Germans than migrants of third generation, although they have grown up there and speak the language very well and have, of course, rich qualifications for those vacancies. Why?

I have the feeling that many people dont even realize that they are rasist. The example: I think many poeple give compliments about language skills. I dont think that people think lower of you while complimenting the language skills. Also looking at persons who look different is quite natural. I was in india and had to hide to get some peace because everybody was staring at the white person. They were just curious. Of course its a huge problem, when people dont like you because you or your parents are from somewhere else. My boyfriend is from the states and he also had some not so pleasent encounters. But sometimes people are not aware that they might hurt others. discussion is allways very important.

"Ich-komme-von-vater-und-mutter", is a common answer i give when patronising, educated, liberal, leftist and privileged ( usually) white germans confront me with their "stupid-reflex" questions and "schubladisierung"/branding. White Germans never openly discuss or admit whether they have a Jewish ancestor, or a Red-Army-Grandfather (Stalin`s Rapists), or a Slavic grandmother. . . . . Even Lisicki, Podolski, Ballack, politician Ms.Angela Mer__-el and soooooooo many more have East-of-the-border-blood in their veins, in their facial features and in their names!!! However the moment your melanin-density / hair-colour / nose / accent / non-Aryan name / deviates from the NORM you are under fire!!! Even MIGRANTS is used for the "others" to indirectly assume you are more likely to have Aids/crime/domestic-violence/poverty/German language deficits/primitive ancestors etc etc . . . . . BUT when White westerners or nordic Europeans are described/mentioned they are suddenly upgraded to Ex-Pats or Anglos. This is a very disturbing form of racism and the media ( especially Taz, BZ, Tsp, etc ) do nothing about it! A lot of readers and writers HERE have fallen into this trap! A migrant ( geographically-speaking ) is a person who moves or travels to a place to work or escape some sort of hardship or weather. Just like nomads. An immigrant,settler, visitor, or tourist are something else! So many Germans work as seasonal workers in the alpine countries ( AU,CH ) or even in Namibia, S.A., yet even after months or years or even generations.... they as non-locals are NEVER labelled as MIGRANTS! Even in the U.S. Dukakis, Agassi, Sidney Marree, Tiger Woods and so many more are not labelled as "Non-Nordics-" or Migrants.... This has to stop, because Gringos, Ayrans, Krauts are names we also do not want to be using to show how the locals should be called. Racism was there long before the 3rd Reich bloomed! and all white honest and responsible Germans need to startresearching into their colonial past! Genocide and gas experiments were first carried out in the Atlas mts. and Namibian desert, long before the rise of the 3rd Reich. Even worse, the "Völkerschauen" were visited and applauded by all members of the society! Even Marx, Kant, Karl May and others preached and wrote about these racist ideas..... And all this is never "taught" in German schools,films, media, universities. . . no wonder most of you are not aware of the true background and factors!

Recent remark of a teacher at my son's School here in Berlin ( a class with only students with migrant background) : " The way you guys are behaving, no wonder we Germans don't like you!"

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