|Jan/Feb 2020 Salon|
In the house I grew up in, the Great Famine was a living memory. The starvation of a million Irish a century before I was born was the Holocaust I lived with, not the one that had recently occurred in Europe. Europe was far away, Ireland was right there in my mother's kitchen. In those early years after a war that had engulfed the entire world, cost half a million American lives and ended with the destruction of two Japanese cities by atomic bombs, the Nazi concentration camps were only starting to enter public consciousness, never mind my six-year-old's. At the same time, a civil rights movement for African Americans was beginning to gain traction. But Jewish refugees were told by fellow Jews to forget what had happened to them or their relatives in the old country and to get on with their lives. And African Americans were warned by their leaders and sympathetic Whites not to go "too fast" in their quest for equality.
But, for me the Great Hunger of the 1840s was settled history: a mass murder the trauma of which had been passed on to my American-born mother by her immigrant mother and to her by her own mother and grandmother. The Famine was why my mother would break into tears if food went bad or was wasted. Just as Jewish American children would grow up vicariously traumatized by what happened to their kin in the 1930s and '40s, the memory of what the English did to the Irish in the 1840s while the world stood idly by was passed on to a new generation in me. Before I entered kindergarten, I had images stamped in my memory of emaciated corpses lying by a rural roadside with grass in their mouths. I knew the British were responsible for those deaths, and I hated them for it well into my adulthood.
Later, as Robert Novick documents in his book The Holocaust in American Life, the Nazi death camps became as familiar to US schoolchildren as almost anything in the history of their own nation. And the Civil Rights Movement blossomed into a struggle that finally guaranteed African Americans the same rights as their fellow citizens—at least in law. My sons, and now my grandchildren, have learned both histories in school. They read Frederick Douglass's biography along with first-person accounts of Jewish life, and death, in Nazi Europe. In my own generation we read neither, not even in college. Jim Crow, though it happened both in North and South, was hardly mentioned.
Today, most adult Americans have heard of Krystal Nacht, the night in pre-war Germany when bands of Nazi thugs trashed Jewish businesses, burned down synagogues, and killed dozens of Jews. Fewer have heard of the Nuremberg Laws which in 1935 laid out proscriptions under which German Jews would have to live until the Final Solution attempted to exterminate them entirely in the 1940s. Few Americans are aware, though, that the framers of those Laws looked to America as the template for their restrictions on Jews, as is documented in James Q. Whitman's Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. German legal scholars were sent to the South to study how our system worked. From the very first meetings of the Nuremberg commission, it looked to the United States for a model it could use to disenfranchise and expel their Jewish population. But as much as they admired the efficiency of the US system, they recognized that the social circumstances of Jews in 1930s Germany were different from that of "Negroes" in America. Segregation, for instance, was not an option. Jewish Germans were already too much a part of their society for that to work. They also considered the American "one drop" rule that defines as Negro someone who has any African ancestry no matter how remote as too harsh and decided instead on a multi-tiered definition of who was and who wasn't a true German. As a result many full-blooded "Aryans" had Jewish great-grandparents. To this day, no American can claim to be White if they are found to have any African ancestry.
The Nuremberg Laws were promulgated in September, 1935. But Germans and other Europeans had been following closely how America was dealing with its "race problem" during the late 19th and early decades of the 20th centuries. The open-door policy proclaimed on the Statue of Liberty had given way to exclusionary laws aimed first at the Chinese, then at the "lesser races" of eastern and southern Europe. That policy culminated in a 1924 immigration act that restricted those undesirables to a small percentage of total intake. The law remained in effect until the 1960s, effectively condemning hundreds of thousands of would-be refugees to Nazi gas chambers.
Underpinning the 1924 act was solid scientific evidence—or so it was believed to be. The foremost and most vocal spokespeople for that evidence were progressives and liberals, people like Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, and even W. E. B. Dubois, founder of the NAACP. The evidence for the necessity of protecting the purity of the White (and in DuBois's case black) race was provided by the science underpinning the eugenics movement. Using the newly developed tool of statistical analysis, some of the most respected scientific minds in the nation argued that the superior Nordic races were threatened with extinction by inferior races of the south and east of Europe. They testified before respectful committees of Congress that drafted the 1924 legislation. Only the most orthodox religious groups—Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and Orthodox Jews—opposed the law.
Not just Germans but all of Europe watched carefully what was going on in the United States in those 40 or 50 years prior to the rise of Nazism. Watched and learned.
Meanwhile, there was one group for whom no new law was required: American Negroes, as they were then called. After the Union army was withdrawn from the defeated South in 1870s, Americans of African descent's place in American society became fixed and unquestioned. They were to remain outside society, pariahs, a class unto themselves like the so-called Untouchables of India. Amendments to the Constitution passed after the Civil War to guarantee their rights as full citizens were ignored, a legal sleight of hand much admired by German and other legal scholars.
In the course of the half century between the end of Reconstruction and the 1930s, several African American cities were burned down, Tulsa, Oklahoma, among the most notable, known in its day as the Black Wall Street. Throughout the South, thousands of American citizens were "lynched," a practice that typically involved the public torture of a Negro during which his ears, nose, lips, fingers, toes, and/or ears were cut off before he was flayed alive and what was left of him burned, after which the corpse was hung from a tree. This was not a ritual that took place in the woods in the dark of night. It occurred in a public space like the town square and was attended in some cases by hundreds of townspeople with their children. They packed picnic baskets for the show and had their pictures taken to be made into postcards they could send to their relatives. During the week after the lynching the victim's body parts were offered for sale in local stores as souvenirs.
At around the same time the Nuremberg Laws were being hammered out in Germany, an act of Congress was devised to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression on US home owners. The federal government afforded cash-strapped Americans the opportunity to refinance their mortgages at affordable rates so they could keep the houses they were living in—as long as they were "white." Then, over the next three decades the Federal Housing Administration underwrote tens of millions of new-home mortgages, with a baldly stated proviso that no such mortgage be granted or resold to a Negro. Home ownership was then and still is the bedrock of middle-class wealth in America. By denying African Americans access to affordable mortgages, the government of the United States deliberately and openly created an economic and social apartheid for an eighth of its population, the consequences of which are still being felt. (See Richard Rothstein's The Color or Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America for a full and very readable account of this policy.)
Within a year of each other, the Nuremberg Laws and the laws and policies of the New Deal and later the Veterans Administration expelled entire segments of the population from a share in the national economy and body politic: The Germans promulgated legislation that disenfranchised and/or de-nationalized other Germans they classified as Jews. In the US the federal government denied Americans they classified as Negros the best chance they had of becoming part of the middle-class, with all that word entails in terms of educational, employment, and other opportunity. The Nazis eventually decided on lethal measures to deal with Jews. But even if they hadn't, that population would have been reduced to a form of Jim Crow for as long as any Nazi regime lasted.
Four of my uncles fought in the second world war. Two of them, like myself, had ancestors who survived the Great Famine. Their immigrant parents, like the Irish who came to America in the 1840s and afterward, were told as were all other non-English immigrants that no matter how low on the social ladder they may be, at least they were not "niggers." No one but those of Anglo-Saxon ancestry were white-White, but the decision by the FDR administration not to exclude any non-Negroes from residential and other economic opportunities in effect granted honorary Whiteness not only to Irish but to dozens of other immigrant groups American courts had previously ruled to be separate "races." My mother became White thanks to the New Deal, as did tens of millions of other Americans, by making her not-Black. Excluding African Americans from the benefits of being accorded honorary Whiteness ensured that they would remain outside the mainstream of American society. And long-standing employment discrimination made sure African American income would never equal White earnings. (For a history of "white-on-white" racism, see David Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; it dovetails nicely with Rothstein's book.)
In effect, we Americans have accomplished for several decades what the Nazis in Europe were only able to sustain for 12 years. African American wealth, largely dependent as is all middle-class wealth on home ownership, is between 5% and 10% percent of White wealth. And, lest we kid ourselves that most of the disabilities African Americans have suffered are things of the past, 40% of the little part of the wealth African Americans did accumulate over those decades was wiped out by the recession of 2008-2009. And we have only to turn on our TVs to see what decades of residential segregation, preceded by decades of Jim Crow and centuries of slavery, has wrought. For it is residential segregation that created the de facto apartheid state we live in more than any other racial discrimination, more than school or public-accomodations discrimination, more, it can be argued, than slavery itself.
Only residential integration can afford African Americans the benefits required to take full advantage of the basics society has to offer: good schools, public libraries and other cultural and public amenities, equal protection by law enforcement, mastery of standard English—not to mention the nest egg a home affords its owners. Thurgood Marshall, who labored on school integration from the early 1930s until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, realized this belatedly when he said if he had to do it all over again, he would have put his efforts into residential integration, not education. Separate even when equal is never really equal and never can be. And integrated schools only really happen when African Americans live in the same neighborhoods as everyone else.
America is as segregated today as it has ever been. That seems counter-intuitive given the obvious presence of African Americans in media, entertainment, political, and other public venues. The government, including the Supreme Court, has decided this segregation is a matter of de facto, not de jure discrimination. In other words, it's not the government's fault, it's the result of private prejudice. But that's not true.
I eventually learned there were other genocides besides the one the English perpetrated on my ancestors in Ireland. Besides Nazi death camps, there was the decimation of the indigenous peoples of the American continents, like the history of African Americans, our own American responsibility, unlike genocides that occurred in foreign lands. I also learned there was an Armenian genocide in 1919—"Who remembers the Armenians?" Hitler famously quipped—refused official recognition by our government until very recently, though Americans of Armenian descent have been asking for that recognition for decades. In the 1890s an estimated 9 million Congolese were killed by the Belgians. There was a genocide in Rwanda in 1996 and millions more died in the Congo wars in just the last decade. Not to mention Cambodia in the 1980s, Bosnia in the '90s...
But only the extermination of American Indians and the enslavement of Africans and the condemnation of their descendants to pariah status are narratives we as Americans are obliged to answer for directly. My mother, an intelligent woman with an eighth-grade education, eventually learned the history of mass murder didn't end with the Irish Famine. She resisted all forms of discrimination and contributed what she could to alleviate the suffering of people in other parts of the world. But like most Americans whose school textbooks to this day do not mention it, she never realized that her own modest prosperity was contingent on legislation passed under the New Deal and continued by Democratic and Republican administrations alike at the expense of tens of millions of her fellow citizens. She knew her nation had fought a war to defeat the Nazis, though she continued to hear from the pulpit of the church she attended and from the mouths of her fellow Christians slurs against Jews. Had she been taught the true history of her own country in school or confronted it in print media, in movies or on television, she would have been outraged.
There was a time when Americans encouraged one another to use their own ethnic or religious group's persecution as a way of identifying with the oppression suffered by others. African Americans have a long tradition of such identification despite being the object of their own oppression for so long. Today, though, each group vies with the others to achieve victimhood status and get their own museum to commemorate it. Gone is the spirit of "Any man's death diminishes me," as in John Dunne's poem. Today it's "our genocide"... especially if it happened outside the borders of the United States.
None of us likes to confront our sins, especially when we are being encouraged to pay more attention to atrocities committed elsewhere. The destruction of scores of indigenous peoples over four centuries of American history and the enslavement for 300 years of African Americans, their subsequent oppression, and then—perhaps most important for present times—their economic disenfranchisement, which occurred in living memory, remain absent from our history books except as "de facto," individual acts of discrimination.
It's time we started facing squarely and fully our real history. Nor should that day of reckoning only fall on the perpetrators and their beneficiaries, so-called White America. Americans of all ethnic and religious descent should accept the parts played by fellow residents of the lands from which their ancestors came. It does not diminish one bit the horror of American slavery to include in its history the essential part played by Africans in that trade, so much so that when the importation of slaves to the New World ended in the 19th century, it caused an economic depression in the parts of Africa where that trade had been carried on. It is bitter medicine to acknowledge such history when so much degradation for so long was its consequence. Hannah Arendt was pilloried in this country for including in her account of Adolph Eichmann's trial in Israel in 1961 the cooperation of some of the German Jewish establishment with the Nazi death machine. Being asked to suffer so much at the hands of interlopers on your land as our indigenous peoples have had to do, or to have lived under the lash for generations as did Americans of African descent, is bad enough without being asked to acknowledge there has never been a golden place or time, no Motherland or Fatherland when human beings, including those we might want to think of as all and always blameless victims, did not behave as selfishly as other human beings have in the course of history.
When I visited Ireland in 1972, it was a priest-ridden place where, we know now, the Catholic Church was engaging in heinous sexual and other abuses of its most vulnerable members. Yet, for my mother, identification with that Church was identical with being Irish. Along with her received memories of starved peasants were tales of "hedgerow priests" who heroically continued to say mass for the faithful at mortal risk to themselves. Happily, my mother did not live to hear about the mass graves of illegitimate newborns discovered on church property or the innumerable lives destroyed by pedophile clergy. But if she had heard such reports, she would not have allowed herself the luxury of turning a blind eye or minimize those atrocities, however disturbing they may have been.
Our day of reckoning should start in our schools, where children are being taught that African Americans just woke up one day and found themselves living in segregated neighborhoods. The truth is liberating as long as that truth demands and gets a rectification of past and present wrongs. Teach children real history, that our nation is not segregated because of personal prejudice but because our government deliberately made it so, destroying long-integrated communities such as the one Langston Hughes grew up in Cleveland, common in most American cities, forcing African Americans into Black ghettos. Teach them about the mandate of the Federal Housing and Veterans administrations that explicitly excluded African Americans from access to affordable mortgages. And teach them how those laws and policies could not help but produce Fergusons and other ghettos, the all-too-frequent killings of African Americans by our police, the disproportionate percentage of African Americans in the world's largest prison system, and the mortality of women giving birth being triple what it is among Whites. Teach them that the same fate would have befallen any other group, no matter what their "race" or religion, if they had been oppressed and then marginalized the same way.
We live like fish in a sea of which we are unaware, though in place of water, ours is an ocean of ignorance. But we didn't end up here by accident. It takes a lot of deliberate planning, execution, and disinformation over many decades to create a narrative that eliminates mention of crimes as blatant and heinous as those left out of the narrative we are fed by our schools and media. It need not take as many years to correct, if we have the will to do so.