Immigrant Violence: Not ethnicity but social class is the issue
One of the biggest media frenzies in Germany last year was created by the populist re-election campaign of conservative state governor Roland Koch. Back then, Koch said Germany was facing the problem of too many “criminal young foreigners.” He made his central campaign statement that “foreigners who don’t stick to our rules don’t belong here.”
In the campaign, Koch tapped into longstanding xenophobic sentiments in Germany. He used latently racist language, using the word “Ausländer” (foreigner) as term generally referring to immigrants, and he argued that ethnic minorities need to accept and assimilate into the country’s predominant “Christian-Occidental culture.” (find an overview of the debate here)
While Koch was not successful with his campaign because he put off moderate conservatives with his overly right-wing tone, he did achieve one thing: for months, the issue of “violent young foreigners” made headlines and it became a truism in the public debate that “foreigner” or immigrant youths are more criminal than non-immigrant youths.
In a recent interview with the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Bernd Holzhausen from the German Youth Institute puts the debate into wider perspective, not only looking at the immediately visible aspect of race/ethnicity, but also taking gender and social class into account.
Holzhausen rejects the racial distinction between white non-immigrant youth and “foreigners” as useless. In a more differentiated analysis of ethnic background, male youths with a Turkish background are more prone to be involved in violent acts than others. This, according to Holzhausen, is due to masculine gender roles in Turkish immigrant families that legitimize violence.
Yet: The predominant finding is that most perpetrators have a low level of education and come from low-income families. Taking this factor into account, the level of violent offences levels out between “Germans” and “foreigners.”
This is not to deny that there is youth criminality and violence (on a steady level; not rising dramatically as suggested by the popular media in Germany). But looking at it from a wider angle relativises the “ethnic content” of the issue, and it fundamentally questions conclusions that demand cultural assertion, such as ‘being tough on immigration’, ‘asserting Christian-Orthodox German values’ or ‘deporting perpetrators’ (whereto anyway?).
Instead it points to issues such as spatial segregation, social status of immigrants and the three-tiered school system that reinforces these divisions.