The recent clash in Charlottesville North Carolina between white supremacists and/or Neo Nazis who are opposed the removal of a statue/monument to Confederate General Robert E Lee and people supporting the removal of that same statue has really opened a window on a part of America that I had almost forgotten existed. As the conversation in the media and on social networks about this and other incidents has evolved I have been really surprised by how many Americans still struggle with the idea of racism in this country right now as opposed to being an artifact of the past.I thought a lot about it myself and my own views in this article is the result of that process.
I grew up in a tiny town in Pennsylvania where they’re simply weren’t any black people. My great-grandmother told me that all people were the same when I was little, we’re all just people, and I guess that’s what I ended up believing without ever really thinking much about it I assumed that everyone pretty much thought that way. I do that with a lot of topics, I assume just because I know something or think it then everyone else must be capable of doing or thinking the same thing. In high school there were a couple of mixed-race kids. Their mom was white and their dad was from Jamaica (I think) as they were the closest thing to black people I knew growing up.
After I graduated from high school I went out into the big wide world and of course met a lot of people of all races and, for me, it was always just a matter of whether I like the person or I don’t. It didn’t really matter to me where they came from or what they looked like. I thought that other races were new and fascinating but also thought that probably made me somehow likely to be naively offensive. I go to work with people of all different races every day and it seems to me that we all get along fine and I think that’s how the majority of America does it.
That said, I think it does deserve some attention and analysis simply due to the fact that so many people have such strong emotions about it. At first, when the issue came up, it seemed like it was just rhetoric being put out there by the left to try to discredit Donald Trump because he wanted to crack down on the illegal aliens. But now it’s gotten to the point where it is obvious that it is much more than that and something that is endemic to American culture at all levels.
I saw a meme on facebook the other day that was posted by several people that said “no white person alive today ever owned a slave and no black person alive today whoever was a slave”. Half-baked logic like this might sound as though it makes sense unless you take the time to actually think about it.
It really surprises me how deep the issue of racism runs in America today on both the black (as well as other non-white people) and the white sides of the aisle. Outside of the white supremacists and Nazis who make their beliefs obvious there seems to be a really large percentage of Americans who are very happy with any excuse that seems to diminish the importance of discussing racism or the way that we remember the Civil War era.
Apparently the creator of the above mentioned a meme has never heard of human trafficking and what a problem it is today not just in the third world but in America as well. The US Department of homeland security has a web page devoted to the issue. So slavery is not dead and there are people of many races alive today who do own slaves and not all of those slaves are black either.
Of course in the case of modern slavery is illegal, a criminal offense, and back in the early and middle years of our country it was not. Slavery was sanctioned by our national government and enforced through the rule of law (which is supposed to be one of the things that make us civilized). Every time I hear a politician who is backed into a corner on an issue claim that they are but upholding the “Rule of Law” I think of the many times that concept would have promoted some very bad things.
America is going on 300 years old now. I was alive when it turned 200 years old and even at that time the United States, land of the free, had been a slave owning nation nearly as long as it had been a free nation. I think we lose sight of that today, that for many of our ancestors we were not nearly as free as our constitution and bill of rights seemed to make us. Two hundred or even three hundred years is not that long of a time really. My great-grandmother lived to be nearly 102 years old. She was born in the late 1800’s and lived into the 1990’s. So the United States has only been in existence for three of those lifetimes.
I think we tend to forget what a really short period of time was involved between the founding of the United States in the Civil War. For example, one of the targets right now in terms of pulling down monuments is Robert E Lee. Lee’s father who is also a slave owner was one of the founding fathers of our country.
He was not the only founding father who owned slaves either. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin all owned slaves. I raised this point on the social networks and I was surprised by how many people who I know aren’t really racist at all are offended by the idea that the motives of the founding fathers could be called into question. Of course the same founding fathers that said all men are created equal obviously was not talking about women since women were treated as second-class citizens to so I supposed some allowance has to be made for the way people thought at the time but that does not excuse the fact that the United States was a slave owning nation for much of its history. If that is the case though, then why are the children of the founding fathers being held to a higher standard than their parents are?
The fact that the recent conflict in Charlottesville involved reported neo Nazi groups made me think about the similarities between the Jews in Nazi Germany and slaves in America. Granted, there are many differences. While the concentration camps in Europe were initially used as work camps where the Jews were slave labor before they were extermination camps the bottom line in the thing that is most remembered is the genocide of the Jews as the hand of the Nazis.
Conversely,l the purpose of slavery in America was not to kill the slaves (although the life of the slave was in the hands of their master) it was to have the ultimate cheap source of labor in a capitalist economy that competes to reduce the costs of manufacturing. The coal mining areas of the country and the creation of “company towns” and “company stores” was not much removed from slavery really. The black slaves in the south were unique though and did live and die without being able to avail themselves of the same freedoms that even the most poor Americans enjoyed.
I think that some interesting things can be drawn from a casual comparison between the Jews during and after the Nazi regime ruled Germany and the black slaves in America before and after the Civil War. I just tend to move from one point to another when considering something and I follow ideas where they lead and this is one example of this thought process.
At the end of World War II it wasn’t Germany who decided how their country would be rebuilt and what their political structure would be it was the allies who had defeated them. As a result Natzism and it’s symbols were outlawed in Germany.
Remember that, after the war not everyone who served in the Nazi army was punished. Most of the soldiers just went home to start rebuilding what was left of their country. Only the worst of the Nazi’s was tried and punished for their war crimes. So the allies made sure to make really restrictive laws regarding the Nazi party and it’s symbols lest these soldiers or others who may have been cheering the Nazi’s along during the war did not reignite the German people and keep the Reich going by building memorials to the Nazi “heroes” of the war, etc.
Because our Civil War was totally fought within the United States it was up to us to set our own Course after the war ended we didn’t go as far as to ban the symbols of the confederacy or the construction of monuments to Confederate leaders. Instead the Armistice that was signed between the North and the South said that Confederates should return to their homes and live their lives according to the law. It is true that a few were punished but not because of slavery.
Now for this point you will have to put yourself in the shoes of black people as best you can (I have tried and this is the best I can do so far). To me it seems like the North just letting most all of the Confederates go was pretty anticlimactic because there is no justice in that outcome. When monuments to Confederates were built in the South it had to kind of seem like the Germans building statues to commemorate the top Nazi’z after WWII. That is adding insult to injury.
In comparison, consider how the Jews (and others) relentlessly hunted down and brought to justice the surviving Nazi’s after WWII. It was not a short term effort either. It lasted for as long as there were Nazi’s alive and is probably still going on now even though nearly all of their Nazi quarry has long since died of old age. The Jews pursued and got justice after WWII for the crimes that had been perpetrated against them during the war.
After WWII the Jews were able to create their own country with the support of the United States, and Germany agreed to pay reparations to the Holocaust victims. The post civil war blacks on the other hand got nothing. No retraining, no financial compensation no resettlement unless they could do it themselves. I think this is the basis of understanding that would let us understand why things were handled badly after the Civil War in regard to the freed slaves. Freedom in and of itself was no guarantee of success or even survival for the former slaves. Of those who had been slaves all their lives I imagine the just basic skills of living like an American Citizen, the things we take for granted, was something new for them to learn and master.
Of course we didn’t fight in World War II just to rescue the Jews and we didn’t fight the Civil War just to free the slaves. In both cases those were kind of secondary reasons at best. The Jews in Germany were not slaves before the war and their persecution by the Nazi’s lasted from 1933 to 1945. Slavery was practiced in America (later the United States) right from the early colonial period until the end of the Civil War, a much longer period for the practice and the philosophies it involved on humanity to become entrenched into the psyche of the citizens of the country, especially where large scale slavery was common.
If you have ever been really wronged by someone and not ben able to seek justice for yourself through legal means or enact it yourself you know how that can eat at you. The fact that the other person got away scott free with what they did to you can really weigh on your mind over the years. I imagine the same could be true of a whole segment of society too and while the popular advice to crime victims is to “just forgive and let it go” the reality is that both of those things are hard to do, especially when the perpetrator of the wrong against you is readily available to be brought to justice but that ability is being denied you. It almost seems like the wrongdoer is being protected by that old friend, the “Rule of Law”, doesn’t it?
Another thing that the Jews got (and this long after WWII) is an ongoing memorial to the unjust persecution, suffering and genocide of their people by the Nazis in the form of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. This museum is a reminder to the world of the horrors suffered by the Jews under the Nazis and is a very popular destination for tourists in Washington.
Why is there no memorial to the slaves and all they suffered in the hundreds of years before America banned the practice of slavery? Remember the difference between a monument and a memorial. A monument glorifies something or someone and that is why people against racism are tearing down memorials to Civil War generals. Not to change history but to show that these people do not deserve to be glorified as heroes.
A memorial on the other hand is set up to remind us of something, often something bad or unfortunate. We set them up so that we remember and do not repeat our mistakes. So, I thought, why not set up memorials to the people wronged in the past instead of monuments to those who championed these wrongs? Why not create a Holocaust Museum as a memorial to American Slavery? I know many would say “too little, too late” but it would be better than nothing and nothing is what we have now.
As an end note; while writing this story and searching for pertinent links I opened the home page of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. At the top of their home page was the image you see above. IT is a photo from Charlotte NC during the recent confrontation which prompted me to write this story and with the Confederate and NAzi flags side by side in the image it is the perfect thing to end this story with as it embodies everything I have said in it.