I’ve always been fascinated by how good people— people like you and me— can allow horrible things to happen or be so easily indoctrinated into believing that evil practices are somehow okay. For example, how did the German people in the 1930’s not only come to believe that the Jews were responsible for all their problems but, a decade later, sit idly as millions of Jews were slaughtered in extermination camps? Of course, many didn’t realize how far they had gone, but just about everyone knew that Jews were being removed from their cities and neighborhoods in a wave of racial cleansing.
Closer to home we had an entire culture of people relying on the enslavement of other human beings for their livelihood and, to be blunt, enhance their lifestyle. That happened because they believed that some races of human beings were inferior to them. There were slaves in the Bible, after all, and some Christians and Jews used that to justify treating other humans like animals.
By the way, there were Jewish plantation owners in the American South in the 18th and 19th Centuries and they did own slaves, treating them no better or worse that Christian slaveholders did, according to historians.
However, they did represent a very small percentage of those who owned slaves. Most American Jews lived in the North at that time, and they were a small minority there. History recognizes three waves of Jewish emigration from Europe, with the first wave, mostly from Spain and Portugal, coming in the mid-1600’s, and two of the major ports where they arrived and settled around were Charleston, SC, and Savannah, GA. So Jews had been there for generations. Some became plantation owners.
So even people who have been the objects of discrimination can do the same to others.
There is a theory that the American societal structure always demands that some group of people be at the bottom. The Irish were there at one time, regarded as inferior, if not subhuman, as were Japanese, Jews and, more recently, people from Muslim cultures. All were seen as threats to our way of life.
War also breeds racism. There are World War II veterans who went to their graves hating the Japanese. They had, after all, been trained to kill them and had witnessed the horrors of beloved comrades dying at the hands of this enemy. To them there was no way that this race of people could be anything like them.
I guess I never understood anti-Semitism, which has been with us for centuries— even before the crucifixion of Christ. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a rural area where the vast majority of people were white and Christian. Racism was never a factor in my life while growing up, but, again, it wasn’t something with which I had to deal. There was just one African American family that attended Wyalusing district schools when I was a kid— all girls and none in my class.
So I was isolated from the real world, in a sense, but was fortunate to have a mother who would not tolerate any denigrating remarks about people of different colors, races and religions. She said, for example, that if you laughed at a racist joke, you were no better than the person who told it. (Note: The origin of the word “denigrate” itself has racial overtones and an early meaning is “to blacken.”)
Going out into the real world, especially in the military, I was exposed to all races and religions, of course. I had white friends from the Boston and New York metropolitan areas who blamed blacks for all of their problems. Their neighborhoods, once lily white, were being invaded, as they saw it, by people of color. They regarded my views on racial equality to be naïve. At the same time, I learned that you can be friends with people who have this hatred smoldering within them, even if you find that part of them repugnant. It has been implanted there, through a kind of cultural indoctrination, and you can’t change their minds.
That’s probably the way it was with the people of the South during the days of slavery whose sustenance, social and spiritual lives revolved around an industry that relied on human bondage to survive and thrive.
It takes a long time to remove the stains of racism and anti-Semitism, but it does happen. We have to remain vigilant. We too often see the flames of racism, sexual discrimination and religious intolerance fanned to turn us against each other when we need to work together more than ever.
The good news is that young people today — Generation Z, successors of the Millennials —are much more accepting of all these differences than preceding generations. If that isn’t a reason to be hopeful, what is?