‘Other People’s Indians’ and Germany’s Minority-Filled Prisons

In one of his essays from the 1976 book Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision, Czeslaw Milosz reminisces about the 19th-century American novelist Thomas Mayne Reid. Reid wrote Western novels which became popular after they were translated into Russian, and is probably still more famous in Eastern Europe than in the USA. Milosz noted a curious fact: Reid's novels contained matter-of-fact scenes in which European Americans slaughtered and multilated American Indians and vice-versa — but when it came to the fate of Montezuma at the hands of the perfidious Papist conquistadores, Mayne penned a gushing tribute to the nobility of the hapless Aztecs. Milosz notes in an aside: 'as often happens, Reid loved Indians, but only “their” Indians.'

'Other peoples' Indians': The tendency to attribute poor integration of minorities in other countries exclusively to the majority's racism, but the poor integration of minorities in your country to deficiencies among the minorities. And the OPI effect is alive and well. Let's take an example. Here's a graph of the percentage of foreigners (adapted from statista) among the prison populations in a variety of European countries:


Switzerland tops the list with a whopping 74.2%. Yes, you read that right: 74.2% of the people in Swiss prisons are not Swiss. Germany is nowhere near as skewed; only 27.9% of its prisoners are foreigners. But keep in mind that German only counts foreign nationals in its prisons. If you are of Turkish or Moroccan ancestry but have a German passport, you are not included.

If you define an ethnic minority in Germany the way most legal systems do — someone whose external appearance is different from the native population and who has been the victim of discrimination by the majority native population — then the number of ethnic minorities in German prisons, I am sure, would be at least 50%. There are no reliable statistics I have yet seen to prove this, because Germany doesn't keep them (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil). But I've visited many German criminal courts, talked to cops, prosecutors and defense lawyers, and been to German prisons. Everybody recognizes the vast over-representation of ethnic minorities in German prisons as an everyday fact of life that only the most reality-resistant Green Party ideologue would ever contest. I am happy to be corrected on this, but nobody has so far succeeded.*

So, Germany's prisons are filled with a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities, just as America's prisons are. Now is where things get interesting. Why is that the case? Here is the explanation you will find in the average German newspaper:

  • Blacks and certain other minorities are over-represented in American prisons. It is inconceivable that this could be the product of higher rates of violent crime among American blacks. The reason for this over-representation must be discrimination in the American justice system. [Illogical but frequent further conclusion:] Therefore, America is an irredeemably racist society.
  • Ethnic minorities are over-represented in German prisons. Since there is no racial discrimination within the German criminal justice system, which is staffed by honorable professionals, these conviction rates reflect reality: minorities commit crimes that get you in prison more frequently than ethnic Germans commit them. This is because minorities tragically fail to adapt properly to German society, despite the noble efforts we Germans make to help them. [Illogical but frequent further conclusion:] The fact of their crime rates must be concealed and obfuscated as much as possible, since it could feed into right-wing stereotypes of 'criminal' immigrants.

I could find dozens of examples to back up these narratives, but since we all know that, I'll just skip it. I will point to an interesting counter-example, though, from Focus of all places: in an article about German prisons, the author notes (g) quotes an expert and a study showing that German judges gave noticeably longer sentences for the same crime when the offender had a Turkish name rather than a German one. But that's still the exception.

* To add an unnecessary caveat, the mere fact that minorities are over-represented in prisons does not mean that the average ethnic minority has criminal tendencies. In a blessedly low-crime society such as Germany, the fact that crime rates are higher among minority communities is consistent with the vast majority of those minorities being law-abiding citizens.

3 thoughts on “‘Other People’s Indians’ and Germany’s Minority-Filled Prisons

  1. I think you have a valid point when it comes to the difference when discussing ‘their indians’ vs ‘our indians’
    I would still argue that, if the point is to demonstrate institutionalized racism/segregation towards ‘our indians’, ‘the fact of the crime rates’ is less interesting to study than the other ‘facts of rates’ showing more directly the segregation itself.
    Furthermore, crime rates, as you saw it, require some ‘unnecessary caveats’. On the other hand, you don’t really need these caveats when you study a rate that directly shows segregation processes (experiments in anonymous/non-anonymous CV, ‘ghettoisation’…).
    I think I’m amongst the ones that are a bit uncomfortable with ‘ethnic stats’. I would genuinely like to know if these stats
    (Where they are legal):
    – are used as often to study life standards / discrimination than to study prison population and crime rates
    – seem to have contributed to better anti-discrimination laws in the long term


  2. @Marcello: I agree, the issue of different crime rates should be considered in context, but to do that, you have to get beyond the question of whether those differential crime rates exist at all. The issue is whether they reflect a reality in the real world, or are merely the product of discriminatory enforcement by police. But only if you acknowledge they exist do you get to the deeper question.

    In the US, there is no taboo on keeping statistics segregated by race, in fact it is considered important to do so. Only by gathering reliable statistics can you get an understanding of how government policies affect people of different minority communities. And in the US, these statistics are often used to change policy. Housing discrimination, employment discrimination, and policing policies are affected and often changed by differential statistics. Just look at New York City: evidence that the police ‘stop and frisk’ policy was targeting black and hispanic people much more than white people led the current liberal Mayor of New York City to ban the practice and switch to other crime-control tactics. The US Congress passed a law in the 1980s making the prison sentences for possessing crack cocaine (more common among blacks) than powder cocaine (more common among whites). This resulted in many more black people being kept in prison much longer. So the policy was changed under Obama.

    If you want an accurate view of whether a country’s criminal justice system discriminates against ethnic minorities, you have to first determine the base rates of crime in different communities, then see whether those rates are reflected neutrally, without bias, in imprisonment and conviction rates. Without that knowledge, you can’t make an effective case against discrimination.

    France, by the way, is just beginning to confront this issue:



  3. I would not say France is ‘just beginning confronting’ with this : what we call ‘testing’ (actually ‘situation testing used to demonstrate discrimination’) has been heavily used for 30+ years by NGOs (esp. SOS racisme) and is accepted as evidence in trial (don’t know the ‘legal wording’ for this). So both awareness and legal action based upon ‘figures’ exist, albeit in à different flavor…
    Of course this does not enable legal fine-tuning the same way as what you describe, though. And it cannot easily be applied to discrimination in school or justice system…


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