In 1938, Germany experienced a collective horror that's shaped and shaken the very core of modern history. The so-called Kristallnacht - the Night of Broken Glass - was an in-your-face realization of violence against Jews that had been engineered in the preceding decade. The atrocities of the Holocaust have been documented a thousand times before, and with that in mind, I feel no need to provide a full history in this space. No brief history would be complete, though, without a recollection of the human toll of terror. People pulled out of their homes at night. Men, women, and children brutally murdered. An entire class of people forced to live in constant fear.
What's more shocking, though, is when you read for the first time some of the terror inflicted on one race of Americans by another. And that's because we've whitewashed our history. Unwilling to own our own crimes, we've refused to take the German approach - an honorable and honest attempt to distance our institutions from the disastrous racial history that will always be among this country's lowest of legacies.
The development of Germany in the post-Holocaust era is an interesting historical case study. In the years just after the conclusion of World War II, there was some effort to forgive and move on - a movement in which tired Germans just wanted a new identity. As time has passed, Germany has shown much more of a willingness to deal with the realities of the things perpetrated by some of its leaders. The enormity of Germany's legacy has led the country, its leaders, and many of its citizens to trend toward wholesale blame acceptance. It's a country quick to recognize and shout down antisemitism.
As Heather Horn of The Atlantic wrote:
This is an extremely sensitive topic for many Germans. Despite the immediate post-war effort to forgive and forget as quickly as possible, in the past few decades Germany has been extremely anxious to take full responsibility for the Holocaust. That means not just shutting down anti-Semitism wherever it pops up, but being very, very careful about criticizing other parties in any way that might seem to minimize German crimes.Germany has at once nestled close to the memory of its admitted wrongdoing and distanced itself from policies that carry the unmistakable stench of inhumanity from its past. Take the German position on the death penalty, which the country abolished in 1949. A leader in the international effort to do away with death, Germany acknowledged an inseverable link between its past use of death and its future credibility in dolling out government-sanctioned death.
To this, Andrew Hammel wrote:
It's common knowledge in Germany that the inclusion of Article 102 of the Grundgesetz (Basic Law), which abolishes the death penalty, was motivated by disgust at the excessive use of the death penalty in Germany by the National Socialist regime. During the twelve years of Nazi dictatorship, over 30,000 death sentences were handed down -- in addition to the mass extermination directed at 'undesirable' populations.Imagine a world where Germany still used the death penalty, and then imagine a year in which the German Jewish population received a disproportionate number of death sentences. That scenario would shock the conscience, and the Germans rightly recognized that fact. A country aware of the brutalities burned into the history of its soul, the German people require that their government makes decisions that prevent such atrocities in the future.
Here in America, we do the exact opposite. In thought, we use selective dissonance to conveniently create our own version of reality. As a result, our policies find themselves dangerously close to those policies that allowed our worst moments to take place. In short, our inability to accept and acknowledge the failures of the past leave America vulnerable to inhumanity in the future.
I only learned one week ago about the murder of Emmett Till, the young black boy from Chicago who was tortured and killed in Mississippi for the crime of flirting with a white woman. Despite a degree in history that included multiple courses in civil rights, and despite a record of writing extensively on modern-day civil rights developments, I spent almost 27 years on this planet with no knowledge of a history so atrocious that it could easily hold a seat at a 1940s German table.
Like many of the Jews in places like Poland and Romania, Emmett Till was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. He was kidnapped under the cover of a Mississippi moon, driven many miles, and executed. His killers performed torture on his body, and they disposed of it in a watery grave. Think of the terror he must have felt. Though reports indicate that Emmett Till retained his confidence and spirit through it all, he must have been quaking on the inside. Grown men, acting under the implied authority granted by a legal system with no consequences for such crimes, removed him from his family and stole his life. And what they did was never condemned by the legal apparatus in that small Mississippi town.
Unfortunately Emmett Till's story is not particularly unique. It is estimated that thousands of black men and women were lynched in the United States during the time between emancipation and the provision of basic civil rights. An attempted anti-lynching law was stopped cold by racist southern politicians in the early 1920s. The terror encouraged a movement known as the Great Migration, where more than six million black Americans moved from southern towns to safer and more prosperous areas. While many of these individuals fled for a proper opportunity at work, others fled so that their families wouldn't be hung or shot like Emmett Till. What do we make of George Stinney, the 14-year old black boy murdered by the state of South Carolina for the crime of being the last person to speak to a missing white girl? Killed in an electric chair with a Bible for a booster seat, he never met his family again, as they were forced to move under fear of lynching.
Many states employ a death penalty machinery that puts to death a disproportionately larger number of black offenders. Though we've moved away from hangings as a mode of execution, modern-day gurneys provide no moral superiority to the trees used by old-world Southern racists. We employ a system where prosecutors are regularly able to obtain all-white juries that instinctively value white victims over victims of color. We allow brutal laws in places like Florida, where assailants can gun down young black boys with impunity, hiding behind a "stand your ground" legal justification that leaves just the shooter to tell a story of self-defense. We live in a country where a homeless black man in Chicago can be murdered, on tape, for the crime of stealing a tube of toothpaste. He can be murdered without charges touching the assailant, because a homeless black man in Chicago just isn't a value-rich target for a district attorney who needs votes. Our system enforces and prosecutes laws selectively, focusing on those areas and those crimes where the poor and where minorities are likely targets.
Our system has adapted though it hasn't evolved. Evolution suggests a movement forward toward a better system. Our system is like the frog that's grown an extra foot out of its ear.
If we were like the Germans, we'd be acutely aware of how our policies provide de-facto cover for the racism we are so intimately ashamed of. If we were like the Germans, we'd default toward anti-racism, even if it meant a sort of guilt-ridden sensitivity.
But we aren't like Germany. The possibility exists that we aren't at all ashamed of our history. A less cynical view suggests that perhaps we've just not been forced to confront our own history in the dramatic way the Germans were made to swallow theirs. Whatever the case, the result is the same. Our policies don't tend away from the racism that mars our history. Instead, they suggest a nation less concerned with progressive evolution and more concerned with an undetectable and affective means of executing the racism of our past.