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'Other People's Indians' and Germany's Minority-Filled Prisons

In one of his essays from the 1976 book Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision, Czeslaw Milosz reminisces about the 19th-century American novelist Thomas Mayne Reid. Reid wrote Western novels which became popular after they were translated into Russian, and is probably still more famous in Eastern Europe than in the USA. Milosz noted a curious fact: Reid's novels contained matter-of-fact scenes in which European Americans slaughtered and multilated American Indians and vice-versa -- but when it came to the fate of Montezuma at the hands of the perfidious Papist conquistadores, Mayne penned a gushing tribute to the nobility of the hapless Aztecs. Milosz notes in an aside: 'as often happens, Reid loved Indians, but only “their” Indians.'

'Other peoples' Indians': The tendency to attribute poor integration of minorities in other countries exclusively to the majority's racism, but the poor integration of minorities in your country to deficiencies among the minorities. And the OPI effect is alive and well. Let's take an example. Here's a graph of the percentage of foreigners (adapted from statista) among the prison populations in a variety of European countries:


Switzerland tops the list with a whopping 74.2%. Yes, you read that right: 74.2% of the people in Swiss prisons are not Swiss. Germany is nowhere near as skewed; only 27.9% of its prisoners are foreigners. But keep in mind that German only counts foreign nationals in its prisons. If you are of Turkish or Moroccan ancestry but have a German passport, you are not included.

If you define an ethnic minority in Germany the way most legal systems do -- someone whose external appearance is different from the native population and who has been the victim of discrimination by the majority native population -- then the number of ethnic minorities in German prisons, I am sure, would be at least 50%. There are no reliable statistics I have yet seen to prove this, because Germany doesn't keep them (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil). But I've visited many German criminal courts, talked to cops, prosecutors and defense lawyers, and been to German prisons. Everybody recognizes the vast over-representation of ethnic minorities in German prisons as an everyday fact of life that only the most reality-resistant Green Party ideologue would ever contest. I am happy to be corrected on this, but nobody has so far succeeded.*

So, Germany's prisons are filled with a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities, just as America's prisons are. Now is where things get interesting. Why is that the case? Here is the explanation you will find in the average German newspaper:

  • Blacks and certain other minorities are over-represented in American prisons. It is inconceivable that this could be the product of higher rates of violent crime among American blacks. The reason for this over-representation must be discrimination in the American justice system. [Illogical but frequent further conclusion:] Therefore, America is an irredeemably racist society.
  • Ethnic minorities are over-represented in German prisons. Since there is no racial discrimination within the German criminal justice system, which is staffed by honorable professionals, these conviction rates reflect reality: minorities commit crimes that get you in prison more frequently than ethnic Germans commit them. This is because minorities tragically fail to adapt properly to German society, despite the noble efforts we Germans make to help them. [Illogical but frequent further conclusion:] The fact of their crime rates must be concealed and obfuscated as much as possible, since it could feed into right-wing stereotypes of 'criminal' immigrants.

I could find dozens of examples to back up these narratives, but since we all know that, I'll just skip it. I will point to an interesting counter-example, though, from Focus of all places: in an article about German prisons, the author notes (g) quotes an expert and a study showing that German judges gave noticeably longer sentences for the same crime when the offender had a Turkish name rather than a German one. But that's still the exception.

* To add an unnecessary caveat, the mere fact that minorities are over-represented in prisons does not mean that the average ethnic minority has criminal tendencies. In a blessedly low-crime society such as Germany, the fact that crime rates are higher among minority communities is consistent with the vast majority of those minorities being law-abiding citizens.