What exactly is/was racism, anyway?

I don’t think many people actually remember what racism used to be like here in the US (and elsewhere).

They don’t recall the open denigration of others as “inferior”. Hmm – even the word ‘denigration’ is itself prejudicial: it’s the assumption that this other group is untrustworthy, immoral, lazy, dishonest, stupid, and basically sub-human, by calling them black.

Today as I was taking my Sunday afternoon nap, I began remembering actual, personal experiences and personal interactions that I lived through in the 1950s and 1960s – as a white kid in DC and the MD  countryside. These memories put clearly into relief  just how bad it really was, right here in DC and in other parts of the US, and I was able to relate this to the many unhappy events in central Europe in the middle of the 20th century, if you get my drift.

Many of my white playmates from then-rural Clarksburg, Md openly used the n-word, in addition to “darkies”, “coons”, and, more neutrally, “colored”. Using the word “Negro” implied some recognition of their basic humanity and possible equality. However, if you insisted that you wouldn’t really mind if your sister married a black man (“black” was very rarely used back then), and if you made the apparently outrageous claim that there were some African-Americans who were nice and honest and hardworking and so on, then you had to then defend yourself against the charge of being a “nigger-lover”. From kids who were your classmates and whom you played with or against or ignored every day on the playground at school or in each other’s fields and woods.

Yeah.

And these kids also said it’s really too bad that the Confederacy lost, and that the best solution was simply to kill or re-enslave all the n—-s, or else send them back to Africa.

[No, I didn't march on Washington with Dr. King in 1963. I was only 13, and I spent the afternoon playing some board game at a friend's house, where we watched it on TV -- or at least so I remember. I know my dad went, and I think my oldest brother went, but I could be conflating this march and another one. I don't recall whether my mom went, but my other brother (15 at the time) and my sister (7 at the time) didn't go either - she pointed out that there was a lot of anxiety that the march would be violent -- though it turned out to be utterly peaceful. Later on, I did march and protest and wrote leaflets or something against South African apartheid, and went to debate the racist engineer William Shockley and ended up mock-applauding him -- every time he started to open his mouth. It was a brilliant maneuver by members of the black student union who had come up with this way of shutting him up. You could look it up: I'm attacked by name in a crappy book called "Hollow Men"...]

The words are clearly offensive.

But it’s much more than the words: it’s the attitude that this other group of people is utterly subhuman. Any facts that contradicted this attitude were instantly dismissed; if you advocated otherwise, you were at times subjecting yourself to violence. It’s also the idea that EQUALITY ITSELF with those people is intolerable – it was an affront that needed to be met with pitiless, immediate brutality.

The connection to central Europe may not be obvious at first, but I assure you that it’s there. I recently read or re-read William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich after it was re-isssued on its 50th publication anniversary. Disgusted by the hideous ideas and criminal practices of Hitler and the Nazis, I decided to read some of Mein Kampf, which Shirer had repeatedly quoted from in his analysis of that criminal regime’s meteoric rise and satanic demise.

You see, Hitler was born not in Germany proper (neither republican or imperial), but in Austria, directly south-east of Germany itself. It helps to have studied European history, and I did: I helped my dad do historical research (he was a history prof at American U who specialized in European/American/agricultural history particularly in the 1700s and 1800s) and did translations from French into English and lived and went to school in France and had family friends who had just made it out of Nazi-controlled sections of Europe just in time, while the rest of their families perished…

So the Austro-Hungarian empire was sort of the continuation of one section of the Hapsburg empires that used to control huge sections of the lowlands (eg BeNeLux), Spain, Portugal, Latin America, the Philippines, northern Italy, parts of today’s Germany, a good fraction of the Balkan peninsula, and spent hundreds of years fighting against or on the same side of the Turks, Romanians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Hungarians, Bulgars, Russians, and everybody else. In addition to all of those nationalities, the Austro-Hungarian empire also contained Poles, Jews, Gypsies, Byelorussians, Tatars, and a whole bunch of other peoples that you and I probably couldn’t tell apart if they were all dressed alike and had the same haircuts and so on.

Obviously, they all speak different languages and with different accents, and have long histories involving many wars.

Hitler’s book makes it clear that he was obsessed with proving that all of the other peoples of Vienna — all the Czechs, Slovaks, Jews, Magyars, Gypsies, Italians, and so on were utterly inferior, untrustworthy, immoral, and lazy people that needed to be forced to submit to the German race. And that anybody — like the Socialists or Communists — who advocated and practiced multi-racial unity of the working-class against the capitalists and aristocracy, deserved to be killed as soon as he and his gang had enough followers to do so.

It’s also clear from Shirer’s analysis of the history of the 3rd Reich that Hitler’s gang of Nazis was bankrollled, armed, outfitted, staffed, and given weapons and training by the German Army itself and its general staff, which operated in very close ranks with the aristocracy and the heads of the largest corporations. Hitler’s particular genius consisted of two things which many other psychopaths also excel at:

(1) He was an excellent speaker, very good at reading his audience and bringing them around to his point of view by telling them the lies they wanted to hear. (Kind of like Mitt Romney)

(2) He was a ruthless and utterly immoral maneuverer, able to form alliances and then to double-cross his former allies and humiliate them in a highly successful manner.

But his ultimate goal was to enslave all of the rest of the world, starting with Eastern Europeans (Slavs and Jews first of all), with Hitler as its murderous Fuehrer (leader, chief…).

The really sad thing is that so many Germans fell for it. Real resistance among Germans was very tiny, except for those who went into exile, like the Communists in the International Brigades in Spain or the Jews who got out just in time.  But those two groups were, obviously, no longer in Germany fighting back. Kibbutzniks I knew in Israel in the early 1970s described to me how disillusioned they were when, during the 1930′s still living in Germany, they saw that a given apartment building housing workers (and no managers) in, say, Berlin, one day stopped flying the Red Flag out of all of the windows on occasions that called for that sort of thing, and the next day, flew the Nazi Swastika instead.

Over the past 40 years, I’ve often wondered how that change occurred. Was it the result of plain, out-and-out intimidation, i.e., “fly this Nazi flag or you die”?

Or was it persuasion?

I don’t know.

However, two other books on Germany called “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”  and “Hitler’s Beneficiaries” indicated that the line that Germans had no choice and would be killed if they objected to genocide and so on, is just a line. Or, should I say, a lie. A German soldier could always refuse to kill Jewish,  Polish and Russian civilians. Few refused, and many volunteered. And until the very end of the war, Hitler managed to insulate most Germans from the consequences of World War 2, giving them new apartments and furniture if they got bombed out — apartments and furnishings looted from all those who were not ethnically German, starting, of course, with Jews. Even the exchange rates were diabolically manipulated so that German soldiers could go to conquered France and buy up everything for a song (including good food, girls, fine fashions, wine, and so on) while the non-Germans often were starved to death. (The French were treated much better than the Eastern Europeans.)

Here in the US, let us remember that non-landowning whites in the South also felt that they personally benefited from slavery. There were certain jobs that they would not have to work at, or at least not in the same degrading conditions and lack of remuneration. And, they could make a fairly decent (if somewhat precarious) living as a slave-driver, a foreman, a chain-gang sheriff, or a slave-catcher; none of which are nearly as unpleasant and as deadly as being a slave or a forced laborer under Jim Crow.

This attitude of contempt by whites, against blacks, often simply served to divide the working class in America. Blacks were often brought in by the capitalists to break totally JUSTIFIED strikes by white workers who previously refused to allow blacks to work alongside them. In a memorable textile strike in Gastonia, NC, the white workers who were on strike utterly refused to sit alongside black workers who were on strike along with them against textile manufacturers who were exploiting them. In a few other cases, working-class organizations such as the IWW and the CIO were successful in getting white and black and other colors to unite, correctly, against a common enemy and earn a better livelihood, safer conditions, and better pay by uniting.

But a lot of strikes were broken via racism.

Let us remember how vicious these racists really were.

And let’s not pretend that hypocrites like Strom Thurmond, Newt Gingrich, and even Thomas Jefferson were really about equality and freedom for all.

Published in: on October 14, 2012 at 3:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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