Many years ago I was sitting in a college cafeteria at a table with an older woman who I shared a class with. She was German, and a good twenty years my senior. She had come to this country some years after the end of the war.
I asked her what it had been like living in Germany during the war years under Hitler. She responded, “we knew nothing of any of that political stuff. We were merely trying to survive, spending our days looking for food.” She changed the subject.
Little did I know in my naiveté that this was the “answer” all Germans who lived in Germany during the war years would automatically reply with. It was the mantra of “I didn’t know about all that awful stuff done to the Jews. Don’t blame me.”
Why do I bring up this story in a post about racism? Because we are still in our own mantras regarding race in America, at least some of us are.
If you talk to people on the far right, what was once denoted as the “moral majority”, and today is surely the Tea Party, more or less, you almost invariably get this: “There is no racism in America today. Everyone has equal rights under the law. I have never personally done anything to a black person. That’s behind us. I don’t have any share of what was done ‘back then’. The only reason black people keep bringing it up is because they want to get something for free. I judge a person by the content of their character like King said we should. He was a REPUBLICAN too, or did you forget that? And it was Republicans who freed the slaves. It was the DEMOCRATS who didn’t want civil rights.”
My, such a collection of truths, half-truths and outright lies.
Racism is just not the province of those who did the actual acts that we judge as evil. And that brings us to Germany and what we can learn from a country that has intimately struggled with the evils of Nazism and all that that entailed. Germany has had to come to grips with those that bear the burden of actual guilt–Nazi and Nazi sympathizers–plus the millions who chose to look the other way, and pretend that they “didn’t know.”
Germany has had to work through the difference between actual guilt and responsibility. And it continues, no doubt to struggle. It has passed through the stages of children who must face and confront their parents and elders direct guilt, and how that impacts them as the next generation. The next generation must then confront how well that was attended to, what more and how to structure the country going forward.
Certain elements (the far right) wish to avoid all that. To be sure, it is in large part not motivated by an intellectual determination that “that was not my fault”. It is, I would argue, more motivated by the desire to eliminate all sorts of programs that they imagine costs them tax monies. It certainly motivates their desire to eliminate affirmative action which they see as impinging upon their ability to get the plum jobs that would otherwise come their way were it not for the “less qualified black” that steps in front of them, demanding the job to “atone for the past”.
That is as they see it, or choose to see it. Affirmative action is quite something else, but that’s another story.
There is a certain irony in their argument that guilt dies with the operative generation. Given that most of them are card-carrying members of the fundamentalist religious right as well, it is ironic indeed. If indeed the bible is the ACTUAL word of God, then of course, they seem to have neglected those times when “God” told them that the sins of the fathers would be visited upon up to the third or fourth generation. (If you propose that that all ended with Jesus, who fulfilled the “old testament”, then perchance you can quit citing Leviticus for the proposition that God hates gays!)
There is in fact a thing called “collective responsibility” and it is something not so easily swept away with cries of “not my problem.”
If we are Americans and that means something, then surely our responsibility for wrongs done in the past that have proven to have a lasting impact on a great number of others, does not end and did not end with those who wielded the whips, raped the house servants, denied the vote, and threw the hangman’s noose over the tree.
And we, or they (the hard right) do think that being American means something. They dare not deny that as they scream about how exceptional we are, and how God is specially favored toward us as that beacon on the hill. No you can’t have it both ways here. In for a penny, in for a pound.
To say that everyone has equal rights, is a nice legalistic phrase, holding almost no truth of course. Not when a Rand Paul, championing his white, right-wing version of libertarianism says he’s not quite sure that the individual business owner doesn’t have the right to serve whom he pleases, meaning that all those diner sit-ins would have been illegal in his world.
What exactly constitutes discharging one’s responsibilities for the past is of course the rub. We can and should argue about that. Germany certainly has. But Germany, lo these many years later, erected the Holocaust memorial, smack dab in the center of the city, reminding every one of what responsibility means.
More inspiring may be the “Stumbling stones” placed in towns and cities throughout Germany by the artist Gunter Demning. These paving stones, with the names and dates of deportation of Jews, placed in the pavement in front of the places they lived, are stark, and gut-wrenching.
Do we have anything comparable to this in the US to remind us of our past? Toward the slaves? Toward the Native Americans, victimized by white genocide? Toward the Japanese?
Our list might indeed by very long.
Does a watching of the TV-movie mini-series Roots, amount to a proper “confrontation” with our past?
It seems accurate to conclude that we avoid really confronting our past in the ways that might lead to deep reflection, and thus result in actions that might be aimed at insuring that such never happens again.
Philosopher Stanley Clavell tells us:
if we are to acknowledge, and not merely know, the extent of our nation’s crimes, some degree of traumatisation must take place. Facts are insufficient, and numbers often make them worse.
We wish to “move on”. We wish to bury our heads in “it wasn’t me” mentality, because it conflicts with our current agenda. It’s not “productive” we are told. Ironically, the mere mention of race by our very own president, elicits cries of “I hate him because he has divided us by race”. How acutely warped a remark, let alone the idea that someone actually believes it. It is testimony to the fact that deeply imbedded within the psyche of so many remains such seeded “other” hatred, that a African-American man cannot mention the word race without screams of “cease and desist” and worse, “he’s only half-black”. What that means is almost too frightening to imagine, and not a single person who has said it that I have confronted has been willing to tell me what they mean by that.
We are and remain a deeply racist society. That discomfort for many, and outright hatred by some extends to all the “not white” among us, whether they be Native American, Hispanic, Black, Asian. It extends to gays, and yes, still women who have the temerity to stand up and demand the right to determine their own physical future. To deny it is merely to announce something ugly within yourself.
Do read History and Guilt in Aeon. This site is simply amazing. Some of the best articles I’ve seen in a long while. If you read it you will see how much I drew from this for this post. Read it!