"....whites in the South began to resurrect the caste system founded under slavery. Nursing the wounds of defeat and seeking a scapegoat, much like Germany in the years leading up to Nazism, they began to undo the opportunities accorded freed slaves during Reconstruction and to refine the language of white supremacy. They would create a caste system based....solely on race, and which, by law, disallowed any movement of the lowest caste into the mainstream."
Note the reference to Germany. Wilkerson goes a bit further with the comparison.
Given her wording in the last sentence, it is not clear, given that there is a scale to evil, exactly where the southern racists and the Nazis would fall relative to each other. While it is impossible to provide too harsh an assessment of the Nazis, it is possible to let the southerners off too lightly.
Pursuing such analogies further was not Wilkerson’s intent. However, other authors have commented on the two political systems and suggested that the American South provided the paradigm Hitler was looking for when he began his campaign to marginalize, isolate, and ultimately, eliminate the Jews.
David Runciman describes the admiration the Nazis had for the southern system in an article in the London Review of Books.
Political control was insured in both situations, but by different means.
Of particular value to the Nazis were the South’s race-based laws and the total prohibition of intermarriage between the races.
The Nazis and the southerners walked the same walk and talked the same talk.
There was even a touch of anti-Semitism that could be shared.
The South’s ability to murder any black person for any reason also provided a model for the Nazis to follow. Wilkerson provides this bit of insight:
"....violence had become so much a part of the landscape that ‘perhaps most of the southern black population had witnessed a lynching in their own communities or knew people who had,’ wrote the historian Herbert Shapiro. ‘All blacks lived with the reality that no black individual was completely safe from lynching’."
What must be noted is the cruelty associated with these "illegal" killings. Practices involved methods that the coldly efficient Nazis could neither match nor stomach.
"Fifteen thousand men, women, and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas in May 1916. The crowd chanted ‘Burn, burn, burn!’ as Washington was lowered into the flames. One father holding his son on his shoulders wanted to make sure his toddler saw it.
‘My son can’t learn too young,’ the father said."
To make sure that the reader is aware that this was not a practice of the dark, distant past, Runciman points out that lynching was still taking place in the era of Roosevelt and Hitler, and the rest of the country had not summoned the will to declare it a federal crime.
Both the Nazis and the South treated their targeted citizens as economic assets. The Jews had property that could be confiscated, after which they were no longer of any value. The blacks were required as a quasi-slave labor force. The Nazis’ ultimate crime was genocide. That of the South was to impose a form of slavery on blacks that extended into the middle of the twentieth century.
It was not economical for southerners to practice genocide, but it was effective to threaten it. Wilkerson provides this example.
While the institution of slavery disappeared, new mechanisms were devised to keep the blacks in a subservient state that closely approximated slavery.
Instead of working the field as a slave for a landowner, blacks became sharecroppers. In principle the blacks were independent laborers who gave a share of their earnings to the owner as compensation for use of the land. In practice, the sharecropper had to borrow from the owner to cover expenses until the crop came in. Only the landowners were able to market the produce. This left the sharecroppers totally at the mercy of the landowner when the time came to settle accounts. The results were small earnings at best, or more likely, no earnings or a loss. And one could be killed for accusing an owner of cheating. The result was that most sharecroppers were tied to the landowner in much same way as when they were slaves.
Under various guises, blacks could be assessed monetary fines which they could not pay. For this they could be sent to prison and assigned to work gangs that were then rented out by the state to those who needed the workers. This, again, was slavery by another name.
This practice, known as debt peonage was widespread. During the war in the 1940s black labor was particularly valuable because of the manpower shortage. Rather than pay increased wages the whites preferred to utilize forms of slavery.
"It was an illegal form of contemporary slavery called debt peonage, which persisted in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and other parts of the Deep South well into the 1940s. Federal investigations into neoslavery in Florida uncovered numerous abuses of kidnapping and enslavement...."
Forms of slavery existed in the United States until the middle of the twentieth century. Yet we refer to our nation as the "land of the free."
Germany bears the burden of its history. The United States deserves no less.