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Germany

Germany Asks: Can We Even Use The Word "Race"?

One of the most controversial words in the German language is the focus of a conference in Dresden, a city that itself is filled with highly charged meaning, past and present.

Modern mosaic
Modern mosaic
Ulli Kulke

DRESDEN — "The theme of the conference could not be more relevant," says Klaus Vogel, director of the museum. But he says it without pride, without pleasure, since the most current source of that relevance are the desperate waves of refugees fleeing to Germany.

Beyond the hardships of those arriving, are of course the fears that their arrival can give rise to the resurfacing racism, to prejudice towards the "other." Those who are of another faith, of another culture, of another race.

"Race" is a term that many researchers by now reject, but that is still part of society's perceptions of other people. Are social scientists right to consider the word "race" as a taboo? Can its very usage lead to more racism?

The choosing of the German Museum of Hygiene in Dresden as the venue for last week's conference was neither an oversight, nor was it left to chance. It was, as museum director Vogel says, a way of coming to terms with the history of the museum, which the Nazis used to produce material promoting their racial ideology and eugenics. An exhibition on the subject of "race" is planned in three years.

"This was the center where the term race was coined, where lecture materials on the different human races were created, which were then used to differentiate between the "worthiness" or "unworthiness" of life between races," Vogel said. "The museum was the sick mind behind the racial hatred of Germany."

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An "Information Poster" from the exhibition wonders of life in Berlin in 1935

Most of the speakers at the conference were historians, many who asked if the concept of race is possible without it leading to racism? Is there biological diversity without discrimination?

Most agreed that race without racism is possible, seeing as this is anchored in the constitution, in paragraph 3, "no one is to be discriminated or favored due to their race." It is also anchored in Federal State legislation across Germany.

Conference organiser Christian Geulen rejects the idea of banning the term or to make it taboo, which would leave the always controversial term "racism," whose definition is fought over by experts, the public and politicians.

Many would prefer the usage of "ethnic group" instead of "race," but this is problematic as well as cultures or nations are just as difficult to scientifically define as "race."

Biological questions

Veronika Lipphardt, a historian of science who teaches at the University of Freiburg, whose expertise is in the history of anthropology, has analysed the various ways that population genetics is still applied. There are countless active databases, from medical research over pharmaceutical research to criminology and historical human migration, that rely on population genetics. Humanities scholars, according to Lipphardt, have been blind to the fact that the term "race", although deemed socially taboo, has been resurfacing due to scientific research on population genetics.

Some evolutionary biologists state that racial differences such as skin and hair color, hair structure and nose shapes are adaptions to the climate and diet of the specific regions that these people find themselves in, and are only controlled by a very small number of genes and can therefore not be taken as a clear dividing line between races.

[rebelmouse-image 27089536 alt="""" original_size="256x188" expand=1]

A positive view on the word. Thule Seminar

Other scientists noted that to only focus on genes that control outer appearance does not yield the clear results of a broader genetic analysis. This broader approach demonstrates that there are clear genetic markers between Europeans, East Asians, Africans, Americans and Australasians.

It becomes evident that any attempt to prove that there are distinct races is bound to fail, although evidence to the contrary cannot be provided either. The reason for this is the fact that the term race was never clearly defined. When it was introduced by ethnologists in the 18th century, the scientific terminology to provide clear criteria for the term did not yet exist. But now that that the human genome has been decoded, no one is ready to rectify this gap.

Doctors and pharmacologists have, for a long time now, been able to distinguish specific resistance or susceptibility to diseases within specific populations, and to develop various medical therapies based on that information. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has even gone as far as registering a vascular medication specifically for African-Americans. Scientists at Stanford University have already produced guidelines as to the correct ethical treatment of medical differences between diverse population groups.

Different in America

Even the Criminal Investigation Department is taking advantage of scientific developments. Forensics teams are now able to provide information that limit the range of possible suspects. Lutz Roewer of the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the Berlin Charité stated years ago that "if the correct genomes are isolated, you can discover to which ethnic group the perpetrator belongs." So you could speak of "racial medicine," but it might be better not to.

Still, many controversial topics were tiptoed around at the conference. In the United States, the term "race" gets a completely different reception as was pointed out numerous times at the conference. Cornel West, an African-American professor at Princeton University, has written several books with the term "race" in the title. The most famous of them is entitled "Race Matters." But conference organiser Geulen says such a title could never be published in Germany.

It becomes difficult to picture a public exhibition on the topic in Germany, particularly at the Hygiene Museum. The questions remains: Does the search for insight on matters of race have to be subordinated to political intentions? And is it bound to end with the banning of the word itself from the German language?

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