The Distorted Image of the “Other”: Why Racism Threatens Democratic Legitimacy

When members of a society encounter systematic discrimination and marginalization in their everyday lives and in the political system, this jeopardizes democratic legitimacy. From a democratic theory perspective, the extent to which a political system succeeds in guaranteeing the freedom, equality, physical integrity, and self-determination of all of its citizens is a valuable measure of its democratic legitimacy. For this reason, the prevalence and normalization of racist attitudes within a society do not just endanger the rights and well-being of those affected by them. Indeed, by undermining liberal democracy’s key promises, racism poses a serious threat to democratic legitimacy. This threat concerns all members of a given society and therefore requires a political response.

In Germany today, a large majority of people agree that racism is fundamentally at odds with the values of a liberal, tolerant, and open society. However, there is some uncertainty as to what the term “racism” actually encompasses: In the German public debate, until a few years ago, racism was primarily associated with Nazism and the Holocaust, the South African apartheid regime, and the discrimination against Black people in the United States. For this reason, some people take offense when nowadays others call out their behavior as racist for inquiring about someone’s origin or for expressing concern because their daughter’s new boyfriend appears to be Muslim. Surely these harmless remarks can’t be considered racist…?

The Amadeu Antonio foundation, a German non-profit organization, defines racism as an ideology that divides people into supposedly homogeneous groups based on their appearance, name, (presumed) culture, origin, or religion, and ranks some groups as inferior to others. Biological racism, which informed, among other things, the pseudo-scientific racial doctrine of the Nazis, sought to categorize people into “races” based on purported biological or genetic differences. As biology has since ruled out the existence of separate human “races,” modernized forms of racism do not utilize an explicit concept of biological or genetic race. This modern racism attributes certain characteristics and traits to people based on their (assumed) origin, culture, or religion. For this reason, modern racism is also referred to as cultural racism. Attributing generalized characteristics to a person because they are (thought to be) Muslim therefore constitutes an instance of anti-Muslim racism—even if the person who associates being Muslim with these characteristics does not assume that Muslims belong to a distinct biological “race.”

Racism thus operates by means of othering: the dominant group within a society projects socially undesirable traits—such as savageness, laziness, propensity to use violence, or promiscuity—onto a group of “others,” while desirable traits—such as kindness, diligence, punctuality, and liberal-mindedness—are declared essential to one’s own cultural or national identity. In this way, othering enables a society to create its own identity in demarcation from the distorted image it constructs of the undesirable “other.”

Historically, images constructed of racialized “others” have served as a basis for justifying oppression, slavery, and colonialism. Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian philosopher, argues that the very creation and consolidation of Western liberal democracies was only possible because Western colonial powers banished violence, chaos, and enmity to their colonies and plantations. By projecting violence—both metaphorically and literally—onto colonized and enslaved people, European states succeeded in creating and perpetuating self-images of peaceful, prospering, civilized, and rights-oriented political communities. The fact that, in today’s migration debate, male refugees continue to be portrayed as potential rapists, and migrants at large are still being accused of exploiting social welfare systems, illustrates the continuity of the prejudices that emerged in this period and shows that they have since become firmly consolidated. Germany’s continued failure to confront its colonial history has contributed to the persistence of racist images, most notably, of Muslim and Black people.

Sociology has drawn a distinction between interpersonal and structural forms of racism. Interpersonal racism occurs in encounters between individuals—for example, when a young woman is insulted or attacked for wearing a hijab. Structural racism occurs when a group is generally and systematically discriminated against based on social, political, and legal norms within a given society. This includes institutionalized forms of discrimination, such as racial profiling, where a person is targeted by police or security guards based on racist stereotypes, rather than on individual suspicion. Furthermore, it encompasses systematic discrimination against certain groups in housing and labor markets. Structural racism implies that individual cases of interpersonal racism are trivialized or perceived as “normal” by mainstream society. For those who are not affected by structural racism, it is therefore often difficult to recognize it as such.

In Germany, structural racism affects people who are regarded as non-white. The notion of whiteness and the privileges associated with it have evolved over the course of history: Like all imagined “races,” whiteness is a social construct. It is important to stress that white people are never subject to structural racism anywhere, because there has never been a dominant and coherent social norm or ideology marking them as inferior or normalizing discrimination against them.

Non-white people’s belonging to German society—their actual “German-ness”—is frequently challenged by many white Germans. One way in which this happens is through repeated inquiries about where they are “really” from. As a result, racism in Germany does not only affect new immigrants but also individuals who have always been Germans and have never lived in any country other than Germany. This explains why it is important to distinguish racism from xenophobia, which, by definition, is directed only against foreigners, i.e., people who are not citizens of the country in question.

Over the past year, many Germans have acquired a new awareness of the repercussions of racism. However, this new awareness is by no means the result of a critical reflection on home-made racism in Germany. Indeed, many Germans still consider racist terror—such as the NSU murders, the “hunt” for racialized people in Chemnitz, the murder of Kassel’s pro-refugee district president Walter Lübcke, the shooting of an Eritrean man from a passing car in Hesse, the terrorist attack on a synagogue and a kebab snack bar in Halle, and, just a year ago, the racially motivated terror attack in Hanau—to be a series of regrettable but isolated incidents. Instead, the new awareness regarding racism was prompted by the outrage over the murder of George Floyd in the United States, which extended to Germany. However, statistical evidence contradicts the view that racist terror is a matter of isolated incidents in Germany: The Amadeu Antonio foundation has compiled a list of almost 200 victims of extreme right-wing attacks since Germany’s reunification and criticizes the fact that the federal government has only recognized half of these attacks as such. The federal government’s response to a parliamentary inquiry by the leftist party DIE LINKE also revealed that the year 2019 statistically saw an Islamophobic attack against a person perceived to be Muslim, a Muslim establishment, or a mosque every other day in Germany. The response to the inquiry also showed that women wearing hijabs are particularly at risk of becoming victims of such attacks.

While racist terror undoubtedly poses the greatest danger to the life and well-being of those affected by it, it is in fact fueled by the increasing prevalence of and tolerance for racist attitudes among the German population. Since 2006, the Friedrich Ebert foundation, a German political party foundation close to the social democratic party SPD, has published the so-called “Mitte-Studien” every other year. These show that racist attitudes are deeply rooted in German society and have even been normalized over the last couple of years. In this context, the authors point out that subtle forms of exclusion in particular have become more widespread. As one example, the study shows that “long-established” German citizens unjustifiably insist on privileges vis-à-vis new immigrants. The authors of the study point out that this insistence on privileges is a gateway to more overt racist tendencies. In line with this, Demokratiemonitor 2019, a survey published jointly by the WZB and Bertelsmann Stiftung, showed that more than one in three Germans are unwilling to grant immigrants the same rights as everyone else (cf. Wintermantel 2020).

Yet liberal democracies derive their legitimacy from granting and guaranteeing the same rights to all citizens. The effectiveness of such a guarantee, however, is contingent on citizens’ mutual recognition of each other as free and equal members of a given society. After all, democratic legitimacy means more than just implementing the will of the majority: It depends on a state’s capacity to ensure the physical integrity, freedom, equality, and participation of all members of society—especially vulnerable minorities. The spread and condoning of racism—both in the form of violent attacks and in subtle attempts of exclusion—denies racialized individuals the right to equal concern and respect and thereby the opportunity to live their lives in a self-determined way and as free and equal citizens. In this way, racism undermines an essential foundation of democratic legitimacy.

To ensure that racist attitudes do not cause lasting damage to Germany’s democratic legitimacy, it is necessary to take consistent action against their spread and normalization. To this end, it is not sufficient for policymakers and the wider public to express their principled opposition to these tendencies. A genuine commitment to combatting racism means that every single incident—be it in a sports club, in public transport, at work or at school—needs to be countered and, if possible, legally prosecuted. It is only through such commitment that German democracy will be able to deliver on its promises of freedom, equality, self-determination, and physical integrity for all members of society. For this to succeed, those affected by racism must be heard and taken seriously; and all members of society must be prepared to reflect on their own contribution to the perpetuation and reproduction of racist stereotypes. Furthermore, for the liberal democratic state to assert its claim to democratic legitimacy, it needs to monitor its own institutions for racist structures and dismantle them.


Attia, Iman. 2014. Rassismus (nicht) beim Namen nennen. In: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (64), pp. 8-14.

Dworkin, Ronald. 1977. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Eddo-Lodge, Reni. 2017. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.

Mbembe, Achille. 2016. Politiques de l’inimitié. Paris: La Découverte.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

Wintermantel, Vanessa. 2020. Der Wert der Vielfalt. Gesellschaftliche Pluralität, Meinungsvielfalt und demokratische Legitimität. In: Sascha Kneip/Wolfgang Merkel/Bernhard Weßels (eds.): Legitimitätskrise der Demokratie in Deutschland? Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 255-286.

Zick, Andreas, B. Küpper, und W. Berghan. 2019. Verlorene Mitte – Feindselige Zustände. Rechtsextreme Einstellungen in Deutschland 2018/2019. Bonn: Verlag J.H.W. Dietz.

This text is a translated and revised version of Vanessa Wintermantel’s article “Das imaginierte Fremde. Rassismus als Legitimitätsproblem für die Demokratie”. It originally appeared in WZB-Mitteilungen Nr. 167 (03/2020), pp. 27-29 and is available here.

Written by

Vanessa Wintermantel is Research Fellow at the WZB Center for Global Constitutionalism.
Website at the WZB

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