“You can’t say we don’t have a racism problem in Germany. One has to name it,” Diaby said, serving up homegrown cherries and strawberries on a trestle table in his community-garden plot in the eastern city of Halle. He said racism needs to be recognized as an “all-encompassing problem,” permeating institutions from schools to the police.
Some in Germany have been reluctant to accept that.
When Saskia Esken, one of the leaders of Diaby’s center-left Social Democratic Party, last week suggested that there might be “latent racism” in the police force, the backlash was fierce.
“Incomprehensible,” said Horst Seehofer, the country’s interior minister.
There was similar outrage from conservative politicians and police unions after Berlin passed a state-level anti-discrimination law the previous week, the first of its kind in Germany. Some argued that by making it easier to sue state institutions such as the police for discrimination, the law puts staffers under suspicion.
“Nonsense,” Diaby said. He’d like to see other states pass similar bills.
Debate on racism in Germany is often diluted to discussion of discrimination against “foreigners,” implying that those from other ethnic backgrounds are not truly German, Diaby said.
“I’m not a foreigner,” he said. “I’ve lived in this town for 35 years. I’ve never left it for longer than four weeks.”
Diaby, 58, was born in Senegal and moved here in 1985, after getting a scholarship to study in what was then East Germany. He stayed on to complete his doctorate in geoecology in Halle and became a German citizen 19 years ago. He was elected to the Bundestag in 2013 — one of only two black lawmakers then and now the only African-born black member in the 709-seat legislative body.
On his first day, a cafeteria worker called out to him, “No, not you!” — apparently deciding by his appearance that he must have been in the wrong place.
Diaby said he went into politics with a particular interest in creating equal opportunities in education. He laments that he doesn’t get asked more about that area of expertise. Being asked about racial issues is a “good thing,” he said. “I just wonder why I’m only asked about that.”
He said it has grown harder to be a minority person in Germany in recent years, amid a far-right resurgence. In 2017, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the first far-right party to win seats in the national parliament in more than a half-century.
Diaby’s constituency has also been particularly scarred by xenophobic violence.
Just a few miles from his garden patch of newly planted okra and tomatoes, bullet holes still puncture the door of Halle’s synagogue. In October, a man professing far-right, anti-immigrant views tried to shoot his way in on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Failing to do so, he shot a woman on the street and a man in a nearby kebab shop.
Although Germany has a particular history with right-wing extremism, Diaby notes that the rise of the right is not a singularly German problem.
He said he has been concerned watching President Trump’s reaction to Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the United States. “The current president has not shown empathy in this situation, at least not to the extent one would wish from a government leader. Instead, the messages that are being sent by him are mostly dividing society,” he said. “That’s my critique. And I think the division of American society is very palpable, and that worries us all.”
In Germany, Diaby is hopeful that the outpouring over Floyd’s death can lay the groundwork for legislative change.
Last week, Germany’s Justice and Interior ministries said they would launch a probe into racial profiling by police — despite the interior minister’s declaration that there is no systemic issue. Profiling is something Diaby said he has experienced personally.
Recent weeks have also renewed discussions about whether German minorities should be counted, literally. There are approximately 1 million black Germans, but exact numbers are unclear. Germany doesn’t ask questions related to ethnicity on its census because of the legacy of the Holocaust. Some activists are pushing for that to change, saying it covers up issues of inequality. Diaby said such information is important for research purposes.
At the same time, he is backing a campaign for the word “race” to be removed from the German constitution. It is not compatible with the times, he said, and it is a particularly charged term in Germany.
“If you hold that firmly, that there are different human races, then you suggest there are good and bad races,” he said.
He stressed that Germany’s racism problem is not comparable to that of the United States. And the vast majority of people in Germany respect those from different ethnic backgrounds, he said. After the attack on his office, there was an outpouring of support. One constituent placed a rose in one of the holes in his window.
“We are not living in an age of anger, but one of solidarity and compassion,” he said in a speech in the Bundestag.
Still, he said, the office incident hasn’t left him.
“You can’t just transition back to your day-to-day,” he said. The police investigation is ongoing. “Essentially, it was terrible,” he added.
In his garden plot, he said, he is able to “forget all the stress of the world.”
Gardening is clearly a passion, and he peppers his conversation with gardening references. Everything would be better if the constitution was followed like the laws governing the country’s planting allotments, he suggested. With respect for your neighbors, everything runs smoothly.
“I always appeal to the right-wing populist and say, ‘Before you go anywhere, you should read the Federal Small Garden Allotment Law,’ ” he said.
This story has been updated to clarify that Diaby is currently the only African-born black member of Germany’s federal parliament.
William Glucroft in Halle and Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.