Monday, June 21, 2010

American Racism and Nazi Anti-Semitism

Niall Ferguson has written an exceptionally interesting history of the twentieth century, The War of the World. It is a long and detailed book crammed with fascinating details. I suspect it will be the source of several more posts. What I was struck by here was his contention that our legal system had built-in racial biases, based both on racial hatred and on what we would consider today to be bizarre scientific theories, that Hitler would use as a "template" in assembling his campaign to isolate and vilify Jews and other minorities. While our country and Germany were on different paths, it is disconcerting to realize that we had similar starting points and that the Nazis looked to us for inspiration.

"It was the Southern states whose legal prohibitions on interracial sex and marriage provided the Nazis with templates when they sought to ban relationships between ‘Aryans’ and Jews."While the Southern states were the worst offenders, they were not alone.

"In any case, the United States could hardly claim to be a model of racial tolerance in the 1930s. As late as 1945, thirty states retained constitutional or legal bans on interracial marriage and many of these had recently extended or tightened their rules. In 1924, for example, the state of Virginia redefined the term ‘white person’ to mean a ‘person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian’ or ‘one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian other non-Caucasian blood.’ Henceforth even a single ‘negro’ great-grandparent made a person black. It was not only African-Americans and American Indians who were affected; some states also discriminated against Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, ‘Malays’ (Filipinos) and ‘Hindus’ (Indians). How profound were the differences between a case of ‘racial defilement’ in 1930s Hamburg and a case of miscegenation in 1930s Montgomery? Not very. Was it so very different to be in a mixed marriage in Dresden and to be in one in Dixie? Not really. Moreover the influence of eugenics in the United States had added a new tier of discriminatory legislation that was not only similar to that introduced in Germany in the 1930s, but was also the inspiration for some Nazi legislation. No fewer than forty-one states used eugenic categories to restrict marriages of the mentally ill, while twenty-seven states passed laws mandating sterilization for certain categories of people. In 1933 alone California forcibly sterilized 1278 people. The Third Reich, in short, was very far from the world’s only racial state in the 1930s. Hitler openly acknowledged his debt to US eugenicists."The United States was the first major country to introduce immigration quotas in the 1920s. This legislation was aimed at keeping out "inferior stock."

"Symptomatically, a bill to admit 20,000 Jewish children to the United States was rejected by the Senate in 1939 and again in 1940."More on the United States’ love affair with Eugenics and its fear of "dysgenics" can be found here. It makes for interesting and unsettling reading.

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