Death penalty statistics for African American men are equally distressing:
Add to all of this the burning reality of black Americans being regularly assassinated with impunity on the streets and in their homes by racist police officers, and you’ve got a world-class problem.
The Facile Justifications
The genteel mint-julep-sipping folks of the Old South justified their inhuman treatment of fellow human beings with passages from the Bible and a fabric of specious racial folklore. This rickety ideological underpinning permitted them to buy and sell black slaves, to flail and kill them, and to separate their families, something that many Americans considered unthinkable in those days, if not so much today. In the intervening centuries the Old South has exported its racist values along with its old-time religion to a large part of the rest of the country. Interestingly, miracle-based religion and racial inequality go hand in hand, perhaps because both are “faith based,” requiring no logical explanations and lacking validity in the fact-based world.
Today’s American racist and white-superiority denial sees “fine people on both sides,” anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrators on one, Nazis and white supremacists on the other. That sort of value twisting is not surprising to impartial observers from around the world. What shocks them are the American government’s efforts to have anti-fascism deemed terrorism, while posing no objections to fascism itself. This inverted ideology belongs to Alice’s Wonderland, not the real world. It might well be considered the definitive gauge of 21st-century American intellectual and moral degradation. Does anyone really believe that if the illegal immigrants were white people their children would be ripped from their arms and locked in wire cages to become victims of sexual abuse by white jailers? Meanwhile, United States government officials–from top to bottom–turn a blind eye. These bare facts are not lost on the rest of the world, most of which has lost all respect for the US.
Chronicle of One Country That Conquered Racism
Susan Neiman is an American philosopher, academic, cultural commentator, essayist and author of the 2019 book, Learning from the Germans, Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil. Born in the American south, she has taught philosophy at Yale and the Tel Aviv University and lived in the US, Israel and Germany. Neiman made extended visits to the southern US while preparing this book, spending time at unexpectedly enriching places like the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Jackson, Mississippi.
For the past 19 years she has been director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, a foundation created to “build intellectual and cultural institutions in the former East Germany, whose own institutions had been gutted through the removal of anyone considered close to the fallen communist regime.” (Learning from the Germans, p. 11) Neiman has some suggestions she thinks might be helpful to Americans struggling with their legacy of inequality and race hate.
What Might Be Done?
According to Neiman, the Germans have come to grips with their terrible history of a racism so virulent that it terminated in genocide. They have faced it squarely and honestly, both individually and as a society; sincerely repented, repaired and paid reparations.
Here’s what she says about the critical first step in the process:
What readmitted Germany to the family of civilized nations only decades after the Holocaust and allowed it to become the leading power in Europe was the recognition of its crimes. Having the will to face your shameful history can become a show of strength.Susan Neiman in “Learning from the Germans“
What might be done to atone for one of the gravest and longest-lasting human rights abuses in recorded history: American racism? What has to happen in order even to make it possible to try to rectify the hearts and minds of Americans, achieve authentic racial equality and fairly compensate black and brown people for their suffering and loss. We must begin from the ineffable fact that no compensation, however opulent, can ever be enough.
There’s another undeniable fact that complicates matters. One of the factors that permitted the Germans to address the problem of racism in their society was the cataclysmic humiliation they underwent at the hands of the Allies in World War II. From that they derived the humility that permitted them to turn their backs on past sins and start afresh from scratch. Had their country not been utterly leveled it is unlikely that they could have made such progress in so little time. Can the German experience be repeated elsewhere without that constructive devastation? It may be possible, but it’s not likely.
What is to be done in one of the world’s most sanctimoniously Christian country to neutralize its race hate and all the dystopia it engenders, especially in view of the fact that one of the greatest repositories of that hate is precisely the country’s largest Protestant denomination? If we follow the migration of the Southern Baptist Convention towards America’s north and west, we find that its racist ideology finds fertile ground there. Susan Neiman has an apt observation on the subjejct of Christianity and violence:
Christianity created Hell, where violence was eternal.“Learning from the Germans“
No progress can be made in racial reconciliation without humility on the part of the oppressors. Could that kind of humility occur in the United States on a large-enough scale to produce systemic change? It wouldn’t be easy considering that in 1964, 96% of Mississippi voters opposed the Civil Rights Act, and old beliefs die hard. Neiman cites this observation from Bryan Stevenson, the African American lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and wrote Just Mercy, a true story about a murder case re-opened–and won–by the Equal Justice Initiative, later adapted into a feature film:
The difference between the United States and Germany is leadership. In Germany there were people who said, “We can choose to be a Germany of the past or a Germany of the future. We cannot do it by trying to reconcile the Nazi era with what we want to be. Either we’re going to reject that and claim something better, or we’re going to be condemned by that for the rest of our existence. That was something that never happened in the United States.Bryan Stevenson, cited by Susan Neiman in “Learning from the Germans“
Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, academic and NY Times collaborator and author of the 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, said this on the subject:
“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
The No Hope Option
Looked at with some perspective, without the Americans’ penchant for exceptionalism and feckless optimism, it is entirely possible that nothing short of country-wide cataclysmic change can ever happen to render racism null and void. In the end, perhaps it’s America’s own wacky Evangelicals and Pentecostals (those who “speak in tongues”) who have the only answer: the Apocalypse. And I would add, a thousand years afterwards, a repopulation by Norwegians and New Zealanders.
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