When discussing a book that appeared at the beginning of the 1990s, it is necessary to recall the historical context of the time. The thematic areas of nationalism and racism had dramatically increased in significance at the time in Germany. At the very latest, when residential buildings housing East German contract labourers and refugees were attacked in the Saxon town of Hoyerswerda for several nights in a row. The town was one of the springboards for a month-long, ongoing wave of racist violence with later “flashpoints” in Rostock, Mölln, and Solingen.

In terms of their theoretical tools, especially the left and left-liberal milieu in the Federal Republic was absolutely unprepared for this intensification of racist articulations. Middle class civil society protested against “the violence” with silent “chains of lights”, but also shied away from referring to this violence as racist in orientation. Up to that point the term racism had been reserved for the Nazi period. As a result, racism could be routinely condemned without taking current manifestations into consideration. In regard to the Federal Republic, beginning in the 1970s people spoke of “Ausländerfeindlichkeit” (xenophobia or hostility to foreigners), and later of “Fremdenfeindlichkeit” (hostility to strangers). But these concepts never cast doubt upon whether the “foreigner” or the “stranger” truly existed in reality. Activists on the left, for example, had fought for socialism with “the Italians” and against dictatorship with “the Greeks”. Or people had come to the defence of “the Turks” or of refugees. But speaking of racism with regard to events in the Federal Republic remained taboo.

At the end of the 1980s, at least in small circles, the theme of racism began to be addressed. In Tübingen students organized a lecture series explicitly on the subject. The education researcher Rudolf Leiprecht used the term in an empirical study in 1990. Congresses were held, associations were built, and books on the subject were published. Even, in quite a short space of time, a whole series of translations appeared—of texts by Stuart Hall, George L. Mosse, Léon Poliakov, Ernest Gellner, Colette Guillaumin, and, likewise, Balibar and Wallerstein. These works were duly noted, but it also became clear how much the new concepts struggled within Germany.

Most amazing was the resistance with which—despite completely opposed analyses—the concept of “race” was clung to. In his Geschichte des Rassismus (1988), the historian Immanuel Geiss, for example, showed that the significance of the distinguishing feature of skin colour was ultimately the result of a praxis of appropriation, coerced division of labour, and tyranny. But he insisted that the “division of humanity into large groups according to outward features from Bernier to Kant” was initially “entirely sensible” and stated that, “The largest groups can be differentiated into Europid, Mongoloid, and Negroid”. (p. 15) Similar things could also be heard from professed representatives of the German left. At the fully attended congress of the magazine Konkret in 1993 an article by the philosopher Christoph Türcke caused downright revolts. In his presentation and also later in a written essay, Türcke had defended the existence of “human races” and stated that there were “human groups with black, white, yellow, or reddish skin colour”, which was no “invention of resentment-filled central Europeans”, but rather “simple fact”. (Christoph Türcke, „Die Inflation des Rassismus“, in: Konkret, no. 8, 1993, pp. 35–41)

Looking back at those debates today, the vehemence with which anti-racism was simultaneously repudiated in many essays on the subject of racism is also amazing. This is reminiscent of the furore with which many columnists soon thereafter polemicized against “political correctness”. The philosopher Fabian Kettner writes (in German): “Never is one more categorical, sophisticated, and subtle than when it is a matter of safeguarding racists from being designated as such.” There was in fact a tendency to condemn “racism from above” while the “masses”, the potential revolutionary subject, had merely been misled; racism was, believed philosopher Wolfgang Fritz Haug, “disaffected protest”. (Wolfgang Fritz Haug, „Zur Dialektik des Antirassismus. Erkundungen auf einem Feld voller Fallstricke“, in: Das Argument, no. 191/ 34, 1992. Pp. 27 – 52, here p. 33.) Views like these increasingly came into conflict with those that understood their main political thrust as explicitly anti-racist—for example the activists of the network Kanak Attak. In fact, the German discussion—the public one as well as that on the left—largely managed without a consideration of the subjectivity of those who had immigrated. Whether a question of saving “Germany’s face” in the world or saving the “revolutionary subject”, the debates remained within a space of the autochthonous “among themselves”. For persons with an immigration background any sympathizing view of the “masses” was out of the question, for the latter’s “disaffected protest” could have lethal consequences.

The aspect of Race, Nation, Class to which the most attention was paid by far was Étienne Balibar’s definition of “neo-racism” as a “racism without race” and “meta-racism”. But the German context was in fact entirely different than the one in which Balibar’s essays had been written. Balibar had pointed out that the revised form of racist discourse was due to concrete forms of resistance that made specific articulations appear increasingly illegitimate, in particular the discussion of biological “races”. These forms were the historical movement of decolonization, on the one hand, and, on the other, the massive anti-racist protests of the immigrants in France beginning in the early 1980s. In contrast, the Federal Republic of Germany—as legal successor to the German Empire—saw itself virtually as “post-colonial” already in 1919. In addition, until 2000, the Federal Republic of Germany adhered to the concept of ethnic homogeneity. Immigration was considered temporary, which also meant that the political activities of the immigrants were largely related to their countries of origin.

The anti-fascist and anti-racist activists of the early 1990s were thus not only occupied with the struggle against right-wing violence, but also with combating a new “centre”, which declared itself particularly enlightened—precisely in its neo-racist consensus—through its meta-racist explanation of violence by way of cultural delineation (for example from “fanatical” religions such as “Islam”). A great deal of attention was paid to Race, Nation, Class by the activists of the network Kanak Attak, a network that attempted to connect the theoretical work on racism to practical interventions through actions, revues, events, and media work (“Kanak TV”). Kanak Attak attacked not only the Conservatives, but also many of the “well intentioned”, who—equipped with a multiculturalist ethics—viewed anyone with an immigrant background as the representative of an ethnic culture and who, rather than acknowledging the normality of an immigrant society, steadfastly celebrated the “enrichment” by means of the “foreign”. At the same time, it was already clear by this point in time that the “open society” in the “centre” continued to draw sharp boundaries in which fanaticism, violence, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia were projected upon “others”.

Today, reference is made above all to Balibar’s thesis on “neo-racism”, which is quite amazing given that his text on a “neo” phenomenon is meanwhile already thirty years old. But in more recent racism criticism, the “postcolonial” and “critical whiteness” approaches, Balibar’s and Wallerstein’s thoughts play virtually no role any more. This also has to do with a general shifting of perception, in which the subjectivity of those affected dominates and the socio-political questions play a minor role. When in US colleges the concept of “micro-aggression”, based on the work of psychologist Derald Wing Sue, predominates, it is first and foremost about insults, injuries, and their effect on individuals. There, the structural side is invoked through the creation of a non-injurious, quasi “healthy” atmosphere.

It is by no means the intention here to play the subjective and structural perspectives off each other—nor would this be in keeping with Balibar and Wallerstein. But in many respects the institutional perspective is given short shrift today. Although in the universities racism-critical perspectives exist in some places, there is a lack of continuity in the research—a chair for racism research is not within sight. And the political questions of the “ethnicized” labour market, of citizenship as regulating participation in the national state, or the structural forms of favouritism of the hegemonic ethnic group identified with the national state are, meanwhile, under-represented in the anti-racism discussion. But the interwovenness of class affiliation and racism cannot be ignored when, in a democratic society like Germany, persons with an immigrant background have a risk of poverty that is more than twice as high as the population of German descent.