In the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia where a stand-off between anti-fascists and neo-Nazis resulted in one of the latter driving his car into a group of the anti-fascist protesters, killing one person and injuring nineteen. Politicians of all shades of political opinion were quick to condemn the thuggery displayed by white supremacists; President Obama’s tweet on the matter, which included a quote from Nelson Mandela, becoming the most liked on the website. Many US political leaders, such as Rep. Thomas Garrett from Virginia’s 5th District, made the case that the antics of neo-Nazis did not reflect ‘who we are as Americans'.
This sort of sentiment is hardly surprising, as Americans do like to think of their country as the ever-flaming torch of liberty and a sort of Athens for the modern age, however they have very literal right to such a claim.
There has been a greater awareness, among the mainstream, of a white supremacist element within the United States ever since Donald Trump threw his hairpiece into the presidential ring. His candidacy was endorsed by a number of well-known racists such as KKK leader David Duke, and perhaps most infamously the CEO of the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon, has been described as a white supremacist.
These people, and the ideologies which they avow, are most definitely not in keeping with the principles of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. However, for most of American history they did not hold themselves to those principles in a particularly stringent manner, which is a polite way of saying that they wrote it down so it looked nice in the Smithsonian and then promptly and systematically went about doing exactly the opposite. ‘American democracy’ which is so often described as a shining example for the rest of the world, can hardly be said to be much older than fifty years. The Declaration of Independence declared that ‘all men are created equal’, yet the Constitution then set a number of very specifically drawn criteria for what a ‘man’ was; women wouldn’t get a mention until 1920.
James Q. Whitman, a Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale, has recently published a book which explores the extent to which the Nuremburg Laws were inspired by the Jim Crow laws of the American South. It is difficult to deny that the way the Jews of Germany were treated in the 1930s was the same as the way Black people were treated in the Old South throughout the twentieth century, with few exceptions. And, for most of that period, Northern liberals co-existed quite happily with Southern racists - such was the basis of the so-called ‘New Deal coalition’.
Many radical Nazis, including Hitler, admired the United States, not only for the common reason of the creativity and the robust quality of its expanding economy, but also because it was the only country in the western world which, through naturalised citizenship, literacy tests for immigrants, and segregation, had enshrined racism as a part of its constitution. Where the Nazis differed from the American model was the lip-service which was paid to democracy and liberty.
This is not a discussion about ancient history; the legacy of Jim Crow is still very much present in the fabric of American life.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have acknowledged the humanity of black people, yet since their passage there have been a number of back-door and dog-whistle measures to undermine that positive development to the fullest extent possible. The most notable of these is the infamous ‘War on Drugs’, which was first declared in 1971 by Richard Nixon, who had fought the 1968 election on a pledge to restore ‘law and order’. Anti-drug legislation since that time has disproportionately affected black people, such as ‘mandatory minimums’ which hold the possession of crack cocaine to be a felony, but powdered cocaine to be a misdemeanour, yet despite that it comes in different forms it is the same drug. The difference is that crack is most commonly found in urban areas, whereas cocaine is a far more affluent drug. Bear in mind that prisoners are barred from voting, and in many states a convicted felon will be barred from voting for life.
The so-called ‘Land of the Free’ holds within its borders five per cent of the world population, and yet it holds roughly a quarter of its prisoners. Black people make up thirteen per cent of the US population, and yet the make up forty per cent of its prison population.
Furthermore, any organisation or movement which draws attention to these issues has generally been afforded the same treatment, which ranges on a spectrum from being accused of inciting race war, to being murdered. Though there are obviously differences between Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the present-day Black Lives Matter - the main difference is time.
The criticism which both movements have received (not to mention the profile of the critics) is a pretty perfect mirror; Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail was not written to Klansmen, or the extremities of the southern Democratic Party, but to liberals who were disturbed by King’s actions and his rhetoric, believing both to be too far and too fast and a general threat to law and order.
Americans have invented the concept of their own ‘exceptionalism’, and in order to do so have needed to turn a blind eye to entire libraries worth of their own history. It is entirely inaccurate to claim that the likes of what happened in Charlottesville is an anomaly of American history, as it is quite evidently the norm. The presidency of Trump, and governance by the deviants and charlatans of his administration is only the latest example in a long stream of precedent.