Racism on buses and trains: the silence after the standard sentence

Again and again, passengers are racially insulted by public transport employees. Companies rely on the narrative of the individual case.

Non-white Deutsche Bahn customers in particular receive second-class treatment Photo: Thomas Rabsch/laif

He actually just wanted to get from A to B. Benjamin Vorholter, 34, an editor with the German Armed Forces Reserves Association, was sitting on the RB26 regional train on his way to Cologne Central Station in mid-January when he overheard an argument between a group of young black men and a train attendant. The passengers do not have a ticket, and between Bonn and Cologne they are asked to leave the train.

As the train doors close behind the men, he hears the train attendant shouting racist abuse. Vorholter cannot remember the exact wording – in his letter of complaint to the private Mittelrheinbahn of January 12, which he also forwards to the taz, he quotes the train attendant as saying: "You’d need a Kalashnikov for them" and "You’d need a bazooka for them.

Vorholter says he has also already expressed his displeasure on the train, which the conductor overheard. "I don’t want to ride in a train again and have the feeling of first having to consider whether to intervene now or not," he writes. He demands that the incident be clarified and that the company initiate measures to raise awareness.

What Vorholter brought to the complaint as a witness, those affected also regularly complain about in social media. The spectrum of insults of BIPoCs on the part of railroad employees ranges from subtle comments to open insults. Every now and then, an incident makes it into the media when well-known personalities go public with it. This was the case last December, when ARD presenter Shary Reeves reported on Twitter and later to the press how a conductor in the ICE train from Frankfurt to Cologne had pointed out to her in the aisle that Reeves was in first class – and that there was no second class behind her.

Just don’t say "racism

Deutsche Bahn’s press team reacted quickly: under Reeves’ tweet, five minutes later, it said, "The choice of words is perhaps a bit unfortunate, the colleague on the train certainly didn’t mean it that way." Reeves insisted: The colleague had meant it exactly that way. "Inadequate handling on her part," she wrote. "Unfortunately, my worst example in ‘coming up’ talk shows in the future." Deutsche Bahn followed up with the standard sentence that can regularly be found under online complaints: "Cultural diversity, openness, tolerance and respect are core values of Deutsche Bahn. Discriminatory statements contradict these corporate values."

Benjamin Vorholter has to wait longer for an answer than he does for Deutsche Bahn Photo: Julian Huckelheim

Benjamin Vorholter, on the other hand, only receives a response from Transregio, operator of the Mittelrheinbahn, after some delay. They are taking the incident seriously, a spokesperson assures him. However, it will take time to clarify the case internally and, if necessary, to initiate consequences under labor law. Both companies avoid the term racism. Asked about this by the taz, standard sentence number two follows: "DB is a mirror of society." With 200,000 employees from over 150 nations, the company is as colorful as the 7.3 million passengers who travel with DB every day.

Training too expensive?

In other words, racism can happen anywhere. But a little bit also comes through: As diverse as the company is, there can be no problem with racism. DB writes that the training it offers amounts to 48 hours of de-escalation training a year, in which employees learn how to correctly assess and defuse situations. "That’s risk management," says Anne-Gela Oppermann, a board member of the advisory association "Eine Welt der Vielfalt" and diversity trainer.

Since the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG) came into force in 2006, companies – whether within the company or in contact with customers – have avoided buzzwords such as racism in order to prevent lawsuits. This does not only apply to passenger transport: The law is the only binding basis for dealing with discrimination in the private sector. Oppermann says those responsible resist any further form of government regulation.

" ‘Skeptical’ is the wrong word," she comments on the corporations’ view of diversity. "But when it comes to resources, diversity is just not at the top of the agenda." In her view, in-person training is still the best way to bring about cultural change – but it’s also expensive and an intrusion into the corporate structure.

"A World of Diversity" or even the Phoenix association therefore rarely receive requests from companies. Much more frequently, they serve non-profit organizations or administrative authorities, since legislation in the public sector is a good deal stricter than in the private sector. Instead of a legal obligation, a list of companies – also in 2006 – set their own standards with the so-called "Diversity Charter," a state-sponsored initiative under the patronage of Angela Merkel.

Deutsche Bahn has also signed this charter – and invokes it when asked about measures against racism. But no one checks whether the companies adhere to their standards, not even the association behind the charter. Upon request, DB sends a list of offers against discrimination: qualification programs for refugees, an image film for tolerance together with the Hertha BSC soccer club, a "DB Award" for employees who are socially engaged.

The spectrum of insults ranges from subtle comments to open insults

"People are already aware of the problem," says Eberhard Podzuweit from the EVA Academy, education and consulting company of the transport union EVG. It’s just that the right means have not yet been found, he adds. Podzuweit organizes several memorial trips to former concentration camps for railroad trainees every year and knows from experience that it takes time and committed people in the right positions before such political education measures can be implemented.

Demand for the voluntary trips is high, and the available places are nowhere near enough. Representatives of Deutsche Bahn and the EVG are aware of the problem. However, it remains unclear what exactly this problem involves, who it affects and, above all, how it should be named. There is agreement on only one point: these are individual cases.

"99.9 percent of colleagues have a healthy, i.e. humane, attitude to the issue," says Marco Rafolt of the EVG. "And the remaining 0.1 percent then bring us negative headlines." He says DB needs to take better care of these exceptions. Rafolt himself was a train conductor for a long time; today he is the specialist coordinator for education and digitization and also sits on the supervisory board of DB Security.

The trade unionist has almost nothing but positive words for Deutsche Bahn’s stance. "The Group is positioning itself clearly," he says. When incidents occur, the relevant employees are quickly "taken aside. Nevertheless, he admits that training in intercultural understanding would do the railroad good. But he is less concerned with racist ideas than with insecurities in dealing with foreign cultures. And that affects train attendants just as much as refugees, for example, who are overwhelmed by the rules of conduct on German trains. "There needs to be more exchange," Rafolt sums up.

A different understanding

What becomes clear during the talks is that "risk management" doesn’t just have something to do with AGG lawsuits. Where the term racism can be avoided, topics such as intercultural understanding, migration and nationality replace it – sometimes more, sometimes less consciously. This also becomes clear in contact with Deutsche Bahn: For example, a spokeswoman for the company repeatedly refers to "non-Germans" who are affected by racist insults. The conversation was about attacks on people because of the color of their skin.

"The legal understanding of racism is different from what many BIPoCs experience as everyday racism," says diversity trainer Oppermann. So it fits the picture when the DB press team talks about misunderstandings where it’s testimony against testimony. And it explains why it rarely comes to clarification in individual cases.

"With legal sanctions, we are only approaching the issue from one end," says Oppermann. Which brings us full circle to awareness-raising work to spare passengers racist comments and insults in the future. For the railroad as a "mirror of society," this should apply all the more.