Isabel Wilkerson: Facing up to a “Culture of Cruelty”

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Judges sitting in Nuremberg, from left to right: Volchkov, Nikitchenko, Birkett, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence, Biddle, Parker, Donnedieu de Vabres and Falco

American peddlers of the early 20th Century junk science of eugenics provided inspiration and guidance for Nazi Germany’s 12-year reign of terror that dehumanized Jews, Communists, Roma and others branded Untermenschen — the 6 million “underpeople” slaughtered in the Holocaust.

The deluded theories of eugenicists a century ago that immutable traits like skin color and ethnicity showed whites to be a superior race live on in the minds of millions of Americans today because the country has never faced up to its 250-year history of enslaving Africans or the racially motivated violence that persist 155 years after abolition.

In response to the Black Lives Matter protest movement, American historians and philosophers have been examining the tenacious roots of endemic racism in the United States and pointing to a potential model for a long-overdue reckoning: Germany’s recognition of the crimes of the Holocaust and atonement for its victims.

Unlike the states of the American South, where Confederate flags still fly with impunity and thousands of statues and public buildings stand in honor of pro-slavery leaders who waged war against the American Republic, in Germany it is a crime to display the Nazi swastika or to deny the Holocaust.

The U.S. history of racial stratification did not end with the abolition of slavery or the Confederacy’s Civil War defeat in 1865. New shackles were created to keep those freed from bondage in a perceived inferior caste through sharecropping, labor discrimination, housing and school segregation and Jim Crow laws against interracial relations. The last state law against interracial marriage fell in Alabama in 2000, in a referendum opposed by 40% of voters.

In “Caste,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s eloquent and damning reflection on racism has in the United States, she traces today’s unrelenting hostility toward Blacks to an innate desire of whites to see themselves as a class above others. 

Wilkerson chronicles the “culture of cruelty” that during and after slavery “made violence and mockery seem mundane and amusing.” That litany of abuse “built up the immune system against empathy,” relegating Blacks to an underclass. In a chilling example of whites’ callous disregard for the suffering of those seen as beneath them, Wilkerson recounts the gruesome turn-of-the-century practice of producing “lynching postcards” produced for spectators at scenes of mob murder. The grisly souvenirs eventually prompted the U.S. postmaster general to ban them in 1908, although the sickening images continued to be shared for years by those who mailed them in envelopes.

Wilkerson attributes the escalation of white supremacist rage in recent years to the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. The Harvard-educated Constitutional law professor posed an existential crisis for those in the dominant caste who see white privilege as endangered, a fear compounded by U.S. Census projections that whites will no longer be a majority by 2042. 

Americans need to embrace “radical empathy,” writes Wilkerson, with their Black countrymen who a century and a half after slavery still endure discrimination and hate.

“It is a danger to the species and to the planet to have this depth of unexamined grievance and discontent in the most powerful nation in the world,” she warns of the epidemic of police and vigilante violence against Blacks. 

To move along a path to ending America’s caste system, “we need only look at the history of Germany. It is living proof that if a caste system – the twelve-year reign of the Nazis – can be created, it can be dismantled.”

American philosopher Susan Neiman endorses the same model in “Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.” 

“No one in Germany denies there is more work to be done,” Neiman, who is Jewish, says of the country in which she has lived for years. She points to the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany political party that rejects the notion of modern Germany’s guilt over the wartime atrocities. 

But post-World War II Germans, Neiman writes, cleansed the landscape of Nazi-era symbols and tributes, built memorials to Holocaust victims, paid reparations to survivors of Nazi abuses and carried out widespread re-education of the population to instill collective responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich.

Charles King, whose “Gods of the Upper Air,” a 2019 biography of Franz Boas, Margaret Mead and other anthropologists who debunked their contemporaries’ theories of a superior white race, notes that American eugenicists were on the same racist wavelength as Hitler during the rise of the Third Reich.

“At the time, any right-thinking American took many of the basic ideas the Nazis espoused as natural and well proven, even if they weren’t accompanied by a swastika. The Germans had spent the 1930s not so much inventing a race-obsessed state as catching up with one. Most of the United States, not just the old Confederate South, had some form of mandatory segregation by race in schools, public offices, theaters, swimming pools, cemeteries and public transportation. Most had prohibitions on marriage between racial categories or treated mixed-race couples as having committed a crime.”

In the early years after the Nazi defeat, many Germans saw themselves as victims of Allied occupation and the exercise of “victors’ justice.” Vanquished Wehrmacht conscripts, the rank-and-file of the Nazi army, saw themselves as having been deceived by Hitler’s promise of a “Thousand-Year Reich” that would restore land and prosperity lost to World War I’s victors.

The Western Allies – the United States, Britain and France – moved swiftly to remove Nazi symbols from the sectors they occupied after the war, as did Soviet Communists who ordered destruction of Nazi vestiges with edicts and decrees against fascism. Both sides renamed streets and buildings that glorified Hitler and his henchmen. The Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46 prosecuted the most prominent Nazi war criminals. What remained of the Wehrmacht was disbanded in 1946, and a year later the state of Prussia was abolished to symbolize the reorientation of German political culture away from its militaristic past.

The U.S. Marshall Plan infused $1.5 billion into reconstruction of shattered industries and housing. The assistance allowed West Germany to prosper in the building boom of the 1950s, an economic lift that eased the defeated Germans’ feelings of having been the war’s victims. Three years after Germans recovered control of their own government, the West German parliament in 1952 launched the first of several waves of reparations to victims of the Nazi regime and their survivors.

Neiman and Wilkerson point to the power of reparations to make amends with the victims of racism, among other gestures of atonement the proved effective in post-war Germany.

Before Reunification in 1990, the East German government carried out denazification through top-down edits and curbs on freedom of expression and assembly. That reliance on authoritarian controls proved less effective, as seen in the re-emergence of far-right activism in the East since its reunion with the democratic West German state. 

The United States, by contrast with both post-war Germanys, paid scant attention to its racist history until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that culminated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An honest and comprehensive account of the abuses of Blacks since the first Africans were kidnapped and brought to this country in 1619 is absent from most public-school curricula. There is little reflection by whites on the barriers and prejudices they never had to overcome, and widespread conviction even among many liberals that they have never been part of the problem.

That habit of white self-absolving contributes to the anger and frustration of minorities in America who see little change in a societal deck that has always been stacked against them.

Other authors weighing in on America’s persistent racial divide are concluding that whites are incapable of solving a problem so long of their own making.

In “The Devil You Know – A Black Power Manifesto,” New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow calls for taking the battle against racism back to the Southern cities from which millions migrated decades ago to purportedly better opportunities in the North.

“Race, as we have come to understand it, is a fiction; but, racism, as we have come to live it, is a fact. The point here is not to impose a new racial hierarchy, but to remove an existing one. After centuries of waiting for white majorities to overturn white supremacy, it seems to me that it has fallen to Black people to do it themselves.”

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Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Marvelous book – a re-education, restoration of a past too often hidden and a present (its legacy) still vivid. Should be mandated reading, at least in our schools. The links to Nazi culture (or vice-versa) are chilling.
    Thanks.

  2. I never really got clear about the difference between caste and race (and class, for that matter). Interesting that for Bernie Sanders in 2016, the issue was class, but now it’s almost entirely about race. The advantage of class issues is that they are more inclusive and therefore have more political traction.

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