Racism: It Is What It Is, Wherever It Is

J. David Gillespie —

The Holocaust. In its scope, volume, and cold, cruel deliberateness, it may rank as the most heinous crime one people have ever carried out against another.

The world’s Jews were to be obliterated through a policy Hitler’s regime labeled “the final solution to the Jewish question.” Nazi policy declared Jews to be a race, though they are not. Dedicated to what Hitler praised as “the big lie,” the Third Reich propaganda machine drove home the fiction that the Jews had sold out Germany in World War I, were polluting the blood of the Aryan “master race,” and that they were engaged in a sinister plot to conquer the world.

Other Holocaust targets were Roma people (”Gypsies”), homosexuals, and Germans deemed to be mentally or physically defective and thus a blemish on the Aryan race.

I have long had a gut-wrenching, horrified interest in the Holocaust. My wife and I have visited Anne Frank’s hiding place, Dachau Concentration Camp, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum. In Berlin we saw the Memorial to the Murdered Jews.

A Presbyterian College political science colleague named Tom Weaver and I years ago toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. English Professor Terry Barr and I team-taught The Holocaust the first time Presbyterian College offered that course.

My interest took me to Poland in 2002. I visited the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, then took a train to Krakow and from there a bus to Auschwitz and the adjoining extermination camp the Nazis named Birkenau. Birkenau was the largest murder factory in the Holocaust network. Anyone walking there feels overwhelmed by competing sensations. It was the closest thing to hell on earth just one lifetime ago. But the grounds also seem holy. Although the bodies were burned, the graves unmarked, undifferentiated, it is in effect the biggest cemetery the world has ever known.

I have written about the Nuremberg Trial, read scores of books on the Holocaust, and have even interviewed American Nazis about that genocide. I am still transfixed by the topic. It may be because the more I learn about the “what” of this monumental crime, the less able I am to understand or explain the “why.”

I have a much better understanding of our own brand of racism, one that has been a feature of our history a lot longer than the Nazis and the Holocaust blemished Germany’s. It is found in accounts of the slave ships which arrived legally in Charleston and other American ports up through 1807. It was about an evil commercial practice for which John Newton, a former practitioner, repented and wrote his revered Christian hymn “Amazing Grace.”


Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by four white marshalls.
“The Problem We All Live With” by Norman Rockwell (Six year old Ruby Bridges being escorted to an all white school in New Orleans in 1960) Original Source: Look Magazine, January 14, 1964.

That was also the racism that for many decades sustained the enslavement of captive Africans and their descendants, human beings who were denied their most fundamental rights, to own property, learn to read and write, marry legally, be citizens, or to move. And it was the racism of the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs; of share cropper serfdom and prison chain gangs; of the grandfather clause, white primaries, and rigged “literacy tests”; and of segregated schools, jobs, neighborhoods, lunch counters, hotels, buses, theaters, churches, and cemeteries.

I understand this racism, as other native Southern seniors do.  Black or white, we experienced or saw it in its institutionalized forms. I often think that non-Southerners are too inclined to give themselves a pass, declaring that racism was just a Southern thing. Racism has been an American thing. Eradicating it will require a recognition of that fact.

“The arc of the moral universe” may “bend toward justice,” as Dr. King said, but racism hasn’t died yet. It appeared as a young white man who, welcomed in by Charleston church parishioners, sat through their Bible study and then pulled out his Glock and shot nine of them dead for their crime of being black. It is the racism of a state, Alabama, which passed a law requiring photo id’s for voting and then shut down license-issuing DMV’s in majority-black counties. It is the racism underlying the hesitation of a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, to repudiate the endorsement of bigot David Duke, who was an American Nazi before joining the KKK.

German and American histories, like those of other great nations, carry items of pride but also things to repudiate. No German born after World War II need carry the stain of the Nazi past. No American born after the main institutional structures of Jim Crow came down must bear the burden of that history. Unless, that is, it is carried in the hearts and souls of the new-era young.

State Sen. Paul Thurmond, Strom Thurmond’s youngest child, must be a very good parent. Just six days after the Charleston church shooting, Thurmond spoke to his Senate colleagues beseeching them to take down the Confederate flag. He told his colleagues that there were things in his heritage that he appreciated, but that racism, slavery and the Civil War in their defense were dead wrong. And, he said, “let me tell you. Times have changed!”

Let’s welcome and work for a post-racial era.

This article was originally published in the Clinton Chronicle, Clinton, South Carolina on March 16, 2016.

10 thoughts on “Racism: It Is What It Is, Wherever It Is

  1. David — I share your interest in the Holocaust and would add a few points about the comparison you make between Nazi Germany and the U.S. One is about the Nazi euthanasia program against people with disabilities. Here the Nazis represented the extremist wing of the Eugenics movement, which had a strong following in the U.S. that advocated the practice of forced sterilization, a policy the Nazis advanced before they started killing people. In fact, as early as 1923, in the pre-Nazi era, a prominent German medical director wrote to the Minister of Interior, “What we racial hygienists promote is not at all unheard of. In a cultured nation of first order, in the United States of America, that which we strive toward was introduced and tested long ago.”

    I’d also add that before the Nazi began killing Jews, they instituted a program of legislative discrimination that paralleled the Jim Crow laws that existed in the U.S. and lasted in some places until the 1960s. The more general point here is that the Nazi genocide did not began with systematic killing, but with legislative policies of exclusion that were not unique to Germany.

    Lastly I would note the way sociologist William Gamson characterizes the issue you describe more generally in terms of a continuum that ranges from “indirect” exclusion to “active” exclusion. To annihilate another group is the extreme example of active exclusion, whereas indirect exclusion involves the indifference to others’ suffering and oppression that is based on their difference. To have created a “don’t ask, don’t’ tell policy” regarding gays and lesbians in the U.S. military, for example, is to have accepted the indirect exclusion of others by forcing them to remain silent and unseen. Or to resist efforts to modify the physical structure and social organization of society to meet the needs of people with disabilities is to exclude them from full participation in the life of society.

    Gamson does not in any way equate indirect exclusion with active exclusion; the latter is obviously far worse. But he does point out that all “other-creating” processes share a common character that places some people outside our universe of moral obligation to care for and about our fellow human beings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Ron. What you have written is very informative and interesting to me. Charles has told me about your expertise and writing on the topic of the Holocaust, and I look forward to reading what you have produced. The connections between the U.S. and German racist programs that you present above are particularly poignant and thought-provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, David. As Charles may have told you, my father and uncle were both Holocaust survivors. Here is the book I wrote about them:

    And this is the book I wrote that syntheses a wide range of literature on the before, during, and after of the Holocaust:

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Charles did tell me about your dad being a survivor. And he mentioned the books you wrote but did not give the titles. Glad to have them, and I will get and read them for sure. Thanks.


  5. Excellent read! However, to be fair on the current political front, your reference to Trump might also be followed up by a reference to Hillary’s admiration of Margaret Sanger or perhaps her embracing of a KKK Member who filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Robert Byrd……just to be objective…..


  6. Interesting article, David. I would add that not only are the Jews not a race, but there really are no such things as genetically-determined races… that is a fiction derived from the intersection of past discrimination and early pseudoscience… purely a social construction.

    Liked by 1 person

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