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Konrad Werner: Racism is built into Germany’s school system

German schools have a racism problem – and because of that, so does German society.

Image for Konrad Werner: Racism is built into Germany's school system
Photo by Bernd Schwabe (Wikimedia Commons)

Dosteyevsky once said something about how you can tell a lot about a society from its prisons. You can tell even more from its schools. Nothing reflects a country’s national values more than its education system. Here are some stories from parents and pupils at Berlin schools:

“I picked up my daughter from school and she told me about the song: ‘C-o-f-f-e-e, don’t drink so much coffee! The Turkish drink is not for kids, it weakens the nerves, makes you pale and sick. Don’t be like Muslim men who can’t stop drinking coffee!'”

“Once I gave a wrong answer in physics class and the teacher said, ‘That may be so in your desert, but not here in Germany.'”

“My daughter came home from school and told us they’d been singing that song – ‘Drei Chinesen mit dem Kontrabass’. And that while they were singing, the teacher had called upon the students to pull the corners of their eyes into that ‘slant-eye’ face.”

These stories were collected by an international NGO called the Open Society Foundation. Of course, they’re just anecdotes. Lots of people, you might have noticed, have similar anecdotes about German schools. In fact, it seems like every non-German parent you meet knows at least one. Maybe after a while, the stories accumulate like sediment in your brain and pile up and you have a vague idea that there might be a bigger problem. But it’s only when an NGO comes along and collects them, and you realize that literally – actually, in fact, literally – everyone of “migration background” who has ever sent their child to a German school can tell you a story like this, that you start to get an idea that the problem is not just racist teachers and administrators – there’s actually something wrong in the system itself.

The report makes clear that racism is caused directly by the tiered structure of the school system. Seeing that so little (not nothing, but very little) is being done about segregation in Berlin – and the new report was basically ignored by the German press this week – the OSF has taken time off from pointing out human rights abuses in less wealthy, more troubled countries to stick a finger into the shameful sore of the German school system.

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

If you haven’t got anything to do today, there’s a symposium going on at Rathaus Schöneberg all about it.