Ed’s posts got me thinking. From them, we learn that Germans are still required to include a photograph with their job applications, and that German employers freely admit to choosing new employees based in part on their physical attractiveness. Based, of course, on the picture.
My prediction: this will be rare in Germany in 10 years. Why? Because it’s now unheard-of and (essentially) illegal in the United States.
Marx, cheekily amending Hegel, once said that all facts and personages of history appear twice; the time first as tragedy, next as farce. Let me adapt this quotation to fit American public-policy initiatives: they appear in the European media first as farce, then as policy. Fifteen years ago, most Europeans were snorting with patronizing glee over those pleasure-hating American puritans who were banning cigarettes in public gathering places. Now, most of them live in countries with identical laws.
The same thing is true of racial discrimination. Europe is years behind North America in taking strong government action against discrimination and fostering public stigma against overt racial discrimination and stereotyping. Here’s a recent post to a forum for English-speaking expats in Germany that reflects how an someone of Asian descent sees the situation in Germany:
I am Asian living in a small city in provincial southern Germany… All over Germany…I have encountered a lot of stereotyping, good and bad, and it gets tiring. For example, "all Chinese, Japanese, oh and Koreans study so hard and therefore you have learned German so quickly and well" — a lot of comments which make my American PC sensibilities cringe and roll my eyes. This comes from mostly university-educated people too. I do get tired of it and of playing the educator/ambassador role because I can’t always just accept that stereotypes, even if they are "positive" are good. You have to have a tough skin, take it in stride and know that it’s part of your intercultural/study abroad experience. Having come from the US and London, I would say that attitudes here are generally about 25 years behind. I see this in general attitudes towards other foreigners especially towards the Turkish, for instance, which again, I find shocking because of the overt generalising and stereotyping.
This woman sees Germany as lagging behind North America here not because Germany’s swarming with racists, but because old-fashioned attitudes still prevail, and discrimination is still not seen as a major public-policy issue.
This last point’s important: the task of eliminating open racial discrimination and stereotyping from society is still seen by many Germans as either (1) not worth undertaking (either because discrimination doesn’t exist or, much more rarely, because it’s actually a good thing); or (2) some special concern of left-wingers. The mere fact that you take exception to racist jokes or discrimination in hiring, or that they listen to non-Western music, is considered enough to place you on the left wing of the political spectrum, among the "Greens" and "multi-kultis."
Another example: I once gave a presentation on American anti-discrimination law to which a few German lawyers showed up — all white, all male. They were somewhat shocked by how extensive U.S. anti-discrimination law was. They were all of the opinion that Germany did not need similar laws, for one reason: there was no racial discrimination in Germany. Ever diplomatic (note the irony), I bit my tongue and refrained from asking them whether they’d ever asked someone of Turkish descent whether he thought there was discrimination in Germany. Nor did I ask them how they might feel about an age-discrimination law if they knew they would be fired after they reached age 55 (unemployment is 20% in this age group). These lawyers were at the very first, "crude" stage of conservative opposition to anti-discrimination laws — the stage in which they hadn’t even thought of these obvious criticisms of their position. (Here is a more sophisticated argument.)
I don’t mean to take the piss out of these poor lawyers too much; they’d just never given any serious thought to these issues. But society is changing around them. The riots in the Paris suburbs last year have led French commentators to wonder whether anonymous, picture-free job applications should be introduced. Discrimination in French society is beginning to be seen by broader sectors of the public as a matter for general concern: here (F), for example, a recent poll conducted on the French version of Monster.com listed the three most common grounds of discrimination against French job applicants: first is physical handicap, the next is age, the next skin color. Doubtless, even in France, it will not pass completely unremarked that the United States has had laws against exactly these forms of discrimination for decades: The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Germany recently passed the Allgemeine Gleichbehandlungsgesetz ("General Law Regarding Equal Treatment"), which came into effect on 18 August 2006. The law enacts EC guidelines, and significantly strengthens German law against discrimination (although the word "anti-discrimination" had to be struck from its title to secure passage!). A leading German weekly newspaper recently advised Germany to "learn from America" and adopt a program of affirmative action ("When one takes a look at German institutions, the media, public school teachers, universities, ministries, and courts, the immigration Germany has experienced in the last 50 years is invisible.").
That last article, written by two scholars who have spent time studying both in the USA and in Germany, openly acknowledges the possibility that the American experience could serve as a model: "’Affirmative Action’ in the USA is based on the assumption that there are inequalities which cannot be resolved on the basis of individual good will, but which rather require specific political solutions." They stress the American experience with affirmative action in education; the earlier people interact with people from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, the earlier they learn to discard stereotypes and react to difference in a relaxed manner. The authors wonder how attitudes might change if it became normal for German newscasters and judges to be Turkish.
This is not to say that the United States is not the paradise of racial harmony that America-boosters make it out to be. Segregation and discrimination are, of course, still serious problems in the U.S., and racial minorities are disproportionately represented among society’s lower depths. And those lower depths, in turn, are much nastier and more dangerous in the U.S. than they are in Germany. And yes, anti-discrimination laws and the unspoken boundaries of public discourse on race issues give rise to petty hypocrisies and excesses. However, most Americans agree these small hypocrisies are an acceptable sacrifice to prevent the far worse ugliness of open discrimination (G).
My point is this: no society will be able to completely eliminate discrimination, especially against visible minorities. About the most that can be accomplished is to acknowledge the problem, take concrete and effective government action to counter it, and to establish a strong set of social norms that discourage the open expression of racist sentiments. The U.S. has achieved some notable advances here that deserve to be evaluated without condescension.