The deep roots of respectable racism in America

The 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings earlier this month was an occasion for solemn reflections on the bravery and sacrifice of the D-Day veterans. It is timely to consider a largely forgotten episode of that particular conflict – the plight of the African American D-Day veterans, who gave of themselves fighting Nazism in Europe, only to face the institutionalised white racism of Jim Crow legislation when they returned home to the United States.

In an article published by Voice of America news, the experiences of black D-Day veterans were recounted by the remaining survivors. While the American military at that time remained segregated, the dangers and horrors of warfare were faced equally by all US soldiers. The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, a unit composed of African American soldiers, had the job of making and launching explosive-laden balloons to protect Allied troops from attack by Nazi aircraft.

A number of the black American veterans recounted their experiences of heavy fighting, the dead bodies, trauma and tensions of that invasion. Many struggled with nightmares and PTSD after the war was over. Haunted by their harrowing ordeal, they survived, only to return home to a nation unwilling to accept them as equals.

They risked their lives fighting violent white supremacy in German-occupied Europe, only to be forced to sit at the back of the bus upon their arrival home. One black veteran recalled that he could not sit with the very same soldiers he had served with on the battlefield. This juxtaposition of Nazi white supremacy and legalised white racism in America is not my invention, nor is it meant to be malicious.

Creating a whites-only homeland

It is instructive, when looking at the intellectual precursors to German fascism, how the United States and its system of racial segregation inspired the Nazi party and its co-thinkers. The Nazi objective of a pure white race, purging the undesirable elements from the society, conquering much-needed land from the interior races, and cultivating the land for the preservation of said race, found its best expression in the policies and history of the United States.

Adam Serwer, writing in The Atlantic magazine, states that these ideas – preserving the white race against the migratory influx of blacks, Jews and other ‘inferior’ stock – were considered mainstream and respectable by the ruling class of American society. Denounced as extreme today, these notions of racial purity – and its corresponding eugenic goal of restricting the numbers of ‘lesser stock’ – were advocated by influential and scholarly circles in the early part of the 20th century.

The book that Adolf Hitler called his ‘bible’ was authored by an American – The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant. The book, published in 1916, provides a scholarly, respectable veneer to pseudoscientific racism, advocating a racialised interpretation of European and American history. Grant, a lawyer, amateur anthropologist and eugenics advocate, stated that the intellectually superior white race was being diluted by intermixing with racially inferior stock.

Grant never used the word ‘genocide’, because that term was coined after World War Two. However, his warnings about the white race being swamped by black, Jewish and other inferior breeds finds resonance today in the mythical ‘white genocide’ allegation recycled by the conspiratorially xenophobia Alternative Right.

It is noteworthy that Grant deliberately classified humans into distinct ‘races’ – fixed biologically-determined categories, and from there drew firm conclusions about their social and intellectual characteristics. He lamented the fact that America continued to allow people from poorer nations entry into the United States. He condemned, for instance, the presence of swarms of Eastern European Jews as exerting a deleterious effect on the country.

He advocated the increased immigration of white ‘Nordic’ types to sustain the purity and intellectual growth of the white race. He denounced the darker, swarthy and Mediterranean peoples, and proposed tough legislative immigration restrictions against those he considered inferior breeds. Notice that while never used the word ‘genes’ in his work, he deliberately drew conclusions about the intelligence capacities of different hereditarily-fixed races – a debate that also has modern implications.

Grant was certainly not the first person to advocate ‘race science’, however, his theories found a receptive audience among American political and economic elites. Politicians of various stripes proposed strict eugenics legislation to reduce the numbers of people they deemed to be ‘feeble-minded’ – and they based themselves on the works of Grant and his co-thinkers.

Willing co-thinkers in Europe

Doctrines of white supremacy found a willing audience not only in the United States, but also across the Atlantic – in Germany. To be sure, Germany had its own tradition of volkisch nationalism – a racist and populistic appeal to a mythical German past of racial purity and sturdy agrarian connection with German soil. However, German ultra-rightists and white supremacists found inspiration in the legalised racial discrimination, and whites-only doctrines, of the United States.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in The Atlantic, elaborates that Hitler and the Nazi party used the United States as an example of how to successfully construct a white supremacist economic and legal edifice. When the Nazi theorists were planning their eastward expansion, the depopulation of the Eastern European Slavic cities and their replacement with German settlers, we can see the striking analogues with the white American experience of settling indigenous lands and transatlantic racial slavery.

When the Nazi authorities were considering implementing eugenics legislation to reduce the numbers of the ‘feeble-minded’, they were drawing from the American experience. When Nazi race theorists were debating how to enact racial-exclusion legislation – which they did for instance, with the 1935 Nuremberg Laws – they were inspired by similar American models of legalised racial discrimination. James Whitman, a law professor at Yale University, made a detailed study of the similarities between the race laws implemented by the Nazis, and the American precursors which inspired them.

None of this is to suggest that America was responsible for the rise of Hitler. After the horrors of the Second World War were exposed to the world, the likes of Grant and his white Nordic idolatry were forgotten. Indeed, American economic and industrial support for Germany in the 1930s was also quickly forgotten. American racism, having found a monstrous reflection of itself in Nazi Germany’s crimes, was relegated to a place of historical amnesia. The successful export of white American racism was soon forgotten.

Speaking of historical amnesia…..

One of the disappointing, but not entirely surprising, aspects of the official 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations was the deliberate snubbing of Russia and its contribution to the defeat of Nazism. The role of the Soviet Union was decisive in beating Nazi Germany, yet you would not know this going by the official commemorative ceremonies. This is not the first time that Russia was pointedly excluded from D-Day activities – former US President Barack Obama purposefully disregarded the Soviet contribution to the Allied victory during his term in office.

What is noteworthy is that the most recent example of disdain towards Russia occurred in the context of a malignant Russophobic campaign of conspiratorial xenophobia mounted by the American (and British) ruling classes. The Russiagate paranoia has enveloped American society, and has kindled a kind of respectable racism – not overt like the racial segregation of yesteryear, but an insidious kind of xenophobic boosterism nevertheless.

What does this mean? Russiagate and the resurgence of xenophobia will be the subject of the next article.

Stay tuned.

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