Sports

Facing High Profile Racism, Jerome Boateng Stands for the Best of Germany

The backlash against a German politician's racist comments about Jerome Boateng has again turned the national team into a powerful symbol of inclusion.
June 3, 2016, 5:14pm
Lukas Schulze/EPA

Last Sunday, I witnessed something in Germany that I'd long anticipated but had yet to see firsthand: a real, live, and in-person racist attack on some refugees.

It happened as I was riding my bike to the local supermarket. About a block from the store, I passed two men. They were black, which, at the moment and in this place, is noteworthy. I don't have statistics on hand, but Heidelberg, the city I live in, is extremely white—so white that when my mom, a white woman raised in Minnesota, visited in 2012, she looked around and said, "My God, there are so many white people here." Starting about two years ago, though, that began to change.

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Last year alone, Germany accepted more than a million refugees, mostly from Syria but also from other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. A few thousand of them were relocated to Heidelberg last summer, where they live in old U.S. Army barracks on the outskirts of the city. (The U.S. Army's European Command was once headquartered in Heidelberg, but the military left in 2012.) Judging by the sandals, the ill-fitting clothes, and the accents, these men appeared to be part of that group.

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As I approached the next corner, a fat white man in a suit appeared, red faced and angry. "What?" he yelled in German at the two men. "You think you're so tough, why don't you come back here and prove it?" As he labored to remove his suit coat, the two men giggled and kept walking.

"You fucking n****s," the man yelled, now in English.

The store was just around the corner, past the angry man, and when I arrived I found a small group of people watching the drama. With the exception of two scared-looking adolescent boys, all of them were white women, and they were upset. But not at the refugees. They were angry at the man in the suit.

It turned out the two men had been in the store but hadn't bought anything. When they left, the man in the suit—who did not work at the store—assumed they shoplifted. The crowd of women told him he was an asshole and a racist, and that it's not illegal to leave a store without buying anything.

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It obviously sucks that a guy felt like he could walk down the street in broad daylight hurling slurs and threats at a couple of African refugees. And I can't imagine it gave those two men a warm and fuzzy feeling about Germany. But as a bystander, I left the store heartened. In Germany, the news is so often about the threat refugees and refugees might pose to the nation, or the threat of the right-wing radicals opposed to their arrival. Yet here was a group of women, strangers to all involved, who were not afraid to confront ignorance when they saw it.

Sometimes, people surprise you.

At the same time the supermarket vigilante was threatening refugees in the street, a German politician named Alexander Gauland, a deputy with the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party (Alternative for Germany), was busy picking another fight. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Sunday, Gauland brought up Jerome Boateng, a member of the German national soccer team whose mother is German and whose father is a Ghanaian immigrant.

"People think he's a good defender, but they don't want him as a neighbor," Gauland said.

Interesting. Why is that, Mr. Gauland?

His comment dominated the German news cycle in a way that is usually reserved for natural disasters and, well, soccer. Actually, even soccer took a back seat. Germany lost to Slovakia 3-1 at home in a Euro Cup warm-up match a couple days later—normally not something you want to happen right before a major tournament in which you're a favorite to win. Rather than dissect what went wrong and worry about whether the team could set it right in time for the start of the tournament, however, people were talking about Gauland and Boateng.

Boateng celebrating his recent Bundesliga win with club team Bayern Munich. Credit: ALEXANDER HASSENSTEIN, EPA

On the one hand, Gauland's comments, and the fact that he felt comfortable making them in one of the largest newspapers in Germany—much like the Heidelberg man's willingness to be an open racist in the street—is a scary indicator of the rise of anti-immigrant, right-wing sentiment in Germany. People see this behavior, think about Nazis, and, well, worry.

But in the days that followed, that feeling of worry lessened—that dark cloud on the horizon became less ominous. Since the story ran on Sunday, Gauland he has been criticized by damn near everybody else in the country. Boateng's teammates criticized the politician, as did his actual neighbors, and the head of the German soccer federation. Even Gauland's AfD boss distanced himself from the comments.

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Wenn du für Deutschland Titel gewinnen willst, brauchst du Nachbarn wie ihn. — Benedikt Höwedes (@BeneHoewedes)May 29, 2016

Gauland went from emboldened racist to pariah in a matter of seconds. It must have been quite a surprise, because when it comes to his own political ends, the backlash couldn't have happened at a worse time. The Euro Cup kicks off next week, and Boateng will feature prominently on every TV in the country.

The German national team has long been a symbol and a mirror of Germany's changing demographics, with a roster that includes players from a wide mix of immigrant backgrounds as well as a guy named Müller. Boateng, as the most successful black athlete in the history of German soccer, is an important part of that story.

Rather than garner support and stoke fear, things that would give Gauland more political power, he restarted a national conversation about inclusion and diversity as strength, and the importance of combating racism and intolerance.

By opening his mouth, Gauland succeeded in turning Germany's most beloved institution—its national soccer team—into a symbol of everything he and the AfD oppose. When Boateng takes the field, he won't just be playing for Germany, he'll be playing for those African refugees who were slandered in my neighborhood, too, and for the million-plus other refugees spread out across this country.

Gauland, meanwhile, has doubled down. He said on Friday that the German national team "is no longer German." And yet he and my neighborhood racist will probably be at home tomorrow, watching the game with the rest of the country

I wonder how they will feel when Germany wins.

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