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“We shouldn’t have such nonsense in the German Constitution”

Modern research is unanimous that there are no such thing as human ‘races’ – so why does the notion persist?

Freiburg, Jun 29, 2020

“We shouldn’t have such nonsense in the German Constitution”

Photo: Monika/

In response to the recent demonstrations against racism in the USA and many European countries and increasingly vocal right-wing populism in Germany, one formulation in Article 3 of the German Constitution has come into focus. This states: “No person shall be favored or disfavored because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith or religious or political opinions. No person shall be disfavored because of disability.” But modern research declares that there’s no such thing as race, so should the word be struck out? Jürgen Reuß asked Freiburg science historian Prof. Dr. Veronika Lipphardt, who studies current research and forensics with a particular interest in genetic classifications in history.

Distribution of genetic diversity is complex – assuming that someone’s skin color indicates their origins is deeply misleading. Photo: Monika/

Professor Lipphardt, you’re in favor of deleting the term ‘Rasse’ [race] from the Constitution. Why?

Veronika Lipphardt: Because set amongst all the other terms it sounds as if there really are races. But there aren’t. The distribution of genetic variations is very complex, very varied and can’t be classified in the way that the term ‘race’ suggests. Science has known this since at least the 1990s. But despite scientists knowing this for a long time and the public even being aware, the concept that division into races was possible in principle has still clung on. Even today there are still scientists who think that criticism of the notion of ‘race’ is merely about political correctness, and that races are obvious.

But I can see racial differences.

Externally what can be seen is only a tiny part of our genetic variation, because very few of the variations encode something that affects appearance. Apart from that by far the largest part of the genome is identical in everyone. What you see and think you recognize are only those cases that appear distinctive. So you’ve clearly overlooked all the others that aren’t so distinctive. Every day we encounter a vast number of people that we simply can’t categorize or that we’re absolutely convinced about but would be completely wrong.

So how did such a meaningless term end up in the German Constitution at all?

The history of this term and its classification stretches way back to the Enlightenment. Since then both have been deeply anchored in European culture. Around 1945 it was still beyond doubt for many scientists worldwide, even those who tended to be antiracist, that there were three or four races. People only felt able to start hesitantly to talk about this differently in the late 20th Century. But today other terms are available to us – such as genetic diversity or genetic variations.

Then the continents don’t offer a good guideline for classification?

Where’s the dividing line between Asia and Europe, for example? Geographically there is none. And interaction in the Mediterranean area was so great that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish those who lived around the Mediterranean genetically from one another. Or think of South America. So billions of people can’t be classified according to the conventional pattern.

Science historian Veronika Lipphardt is calling for the term ‘Rasse’ or race in the German Constitution to be replaced by the word ‘Aussehen’ or appearance. Photo: Klaus Polkowski

In the period when the German Constitution was written though, wasn’t it wise to address the common racial theory and explicitly exclude it as an influential factor on jurisdiction?

The aim of the German Constitution was antiracist, I don’t doubt that. But today the term suggests that those writing the law still believed that there actually were distinct races. That was already disputed then. There are two interesting UNESCO statements about this. The first from 1950, predominantly formulated by humanities and social science experts, says that ‘races’ and allegedly associated intellectual differences are simply a myth. A strong statement against racism. In 1951 scientists published a second statement that insisted on the notion of race. In their view the crucial question was simply how to deal with it in order to put an end to racism. Today however scientific knowledge justifies us in saying that dividing humanity into races is nonsense. So it’s clear: we shouldn’t have such nonsense in the German Constitution.

People like simple world views: I can see that she’s black, he’s white.

Because apparently it’s that obvious. But let’s take a look at the rainbow. What are its colors? Most of us say blue, green, yellow, red. But that’s only true if you take a sample precisely from the center of each of these bands of color. If I take 20 samples, strategically distributed, I get 20 colors. And the distribution of genetic variation in humans is far more complex than the color structure of the rainbow. The next argument is always: but there are breeds in animals too. A British colleague once asked me in confusion why a dog parlor in Berlin said: “Alle Rassen”. In English no one uses the term ‘race’ for dog breeds. There, the term is reserved for humans. In animals it’s called ‘breed’ because it involves the process of breeding.

So without breeding there’d be no pedigree dog ‘breeds’ either?

Exactly. Every dog breeder knows that what is called a breed is only possible by deliberate avoidance of varieties. Among wild animals you find exactly this, a mixture of varieties without pedigree. Equating the American term ‘race’ with the German term ‘Rasse’ frequently leads to misunderstandings. But they are two completely different terms. In North America the term is used to define social groups that suffer similar patterns of discrimination. Translation with ‘minorities’ is often called for.

Another variation is the use of the term ‘Ethnie’ [ethnicity]. What do you think about that?

If you simply take ‘Ethnie’ as a substitute term for ‘Rasse’ and the concept remains the same, that’s pure smoke and mirrors. Sadly that’s often the case in genetics of all things. However if, like in the English-speaking region, you’re trying to express something more complex, that can’t be boiled down to a shared ancestry, then the term is worthy of consideration. The key point is self-attribution. In the USA the terms ethnicity and race are used to assign oneself to a group. In Germany there isn’t this kind of self-assignation.

Is there an alternative to race that you would accept?

You mean for the German Constitution? You could for example simply write ‘appearance’. The many proposals for alternative terms should be examined thoroughly and interdisciplinarily, including in the context of the other terms. This would benefit the text of the constitution.