Racism: It Is What It Is, Wherever It Is

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 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. Judi 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. My PC political science colleague Tom Weaver and I toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. English Professor Terry Barr and I team-taught The Holocaust the first time PC 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.” 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, 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. Times have changed, but racism still lives. 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 now welcome and work for a post-racial era. (Now retired and living in Charleston, David Gillespie and his wife Judi resided in Clinton from 1979 to 2006. At PC, David taught political science and Judi served as financial aid director.)

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