Bridges Across Savage Inhumanities

“The camps set up for Japanese Americans, like the camps we are currently forcing asylum seekers into were awful, but they are not engines of genocide.”–Evan Gerstmann

I mourn the way some persons, in general, and some persons who are Jewish, in particular, claim ownership of words like “Concentration Camp” (as if many other peoples have not been systematically corralled and detained in unsanitary, malnourished, dehumanizing prisons/penal structures); and words like “Genocide” (as if the cruel erasure of the aborigines of Tasmania never happened; as if we merely had a nightmare about the reduction of 90% of many North American Indigenous peoples via warfare, biological warfare, policies of extermination, disease, policies of termination, etc. And these are just a few examples). Though the word “genocide” was coined in the wake of Nazi atrocities against Jews, Roma, and others, there have been many, many, more genocides (as well as many more concentration camps). Yes! The Jewish Holocaust of Nazi Germany is among the most inhumane atrocities out there, ever. But I mourn the tendency of some Jews to claim ownership of these words because doing so builds barriers instead of bridges among those who have also suffered very savage inhumanities. We need to learn the lessons of these atrocities instead of engaging in what Elizabeth Martinez has referred to as the “Oppression Olympics.”

Even the initial concentration camps of the Third Reich, as dehumanizing as they were, did not start out as death camps. Persons incarcerated could be and were killed/murdered by German officials; but the “Final Solution” came later. Scholars disagree over that actual start of the “Final Solution,” but it was with the implementation of the “Final Solution” around about 1941 that the atrocities of the Third Reich hit even more horrific heights. (See Holocaust Encyclopedia here)

We must remember that the atrocities of the Third Reich happened in stages. We have to be mindful of those stages. We must do all in our power to make sure that the detention camps at the southern border of the U.S. today do not descend into bureaucratized death camps!

There are many crimes of Western imperialism dating back to the late 1400s. If we look carefully and critically at Spain’s Encomienda system imposed upon the Indigenous Peoples in “Hispaniola” in the late 1490s and at the Praying Towns forced upon Indigenous Americans during the early Massachusetts colonies of the mid-1600s, we will probably find concentration-like camps that descended into death camps. Many millions of indigenous people died or were killed as a result of violent European invasions of the Americas.

However, of this I am sure: There were horrific concentration camps that descended into death camps before the cruelties of the Third Reich. For example, there are the horrors of the British Raj and the death camps of Lord Lytton in the mid-to-late 1800s. (see source here).

The British would go on to use concentration camps at the turn of the 20th century for the Boers and Native South Africans. Then the British seemed to say, “tag you’re it” to the Germans. In the early 1900s the Herero and Nama death camps (especially Shark Island) happened in the country today known as Namibia; the Herero and Namaqua concentration/death camps occurred 30 years before the Third Reich. These death camps were, actually, a German colonial invention. But these British and German penal structures still post-date the U.S. reservation system imposed upon Native Americans (which included concentration camps and prisoner of war camps). And although the internment camps that imprisoned Japanese Americans did not descend into death camps, they were definitely concentration camps.

In short the concentration camps of the Third Reich were extraordinarily anti-human and atrocious in their scale and impact. But so were some of the concentration camps that preceded the Third Reich.

I agree with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s application of “concentration camps” to the anti-human detention camps currently being used to imprison US immigrants and refugees, almost all people of color. And I pray and protest that the migrant concentration camps do not evolve into death camps or camps linked to the earlier genocidal practices.

Dr. Lory Janelle Dance
Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies
Associate Director of the Institute for Ethnic Studies
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Visiting Senior Researcher
Human Rights Studies Program
Lund University, Sweden

Black Lives Matter!: Dreaming for America to Practice What Jefferson Preached

PART I
I had a dream, no not the dream of Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I am the legacy of their dream. I dreamed that it was the late 1700s and I was talking to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Jay.

In this dream, I was the voice of conscience materialized as a wealthy, property owning White man, because in the days of Thomas Jefferson the elites did not listen to poor, non-property owning White men or to wealthy White women. At that time the voices and realities of Native Americans and Enslaved Africans told inconvenient truths that the founding fathers of the U.S. conveniently and blatantly ignored.

Thomas Jefferson exalted: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…”

I interrupted: “But Thomas you acquired over 600 slaves during your lifetime!”

James Madison and John Jay joined in—-you know, James Madison the slaveholding 4th president and John Jay, the slaveholding first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—-well Madison spoke as John Jay nodded in agreement: “It was I who fashioned the preamble to the constitution, ‘We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare…’”

Once again, I interrupted! Remember, in this dream I was cloaked in the privileged identity of a wealthy, property owning White man. I reminisced: “But James, you also believe that the primary goal of government is ‘to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.’ And by ‘minority’ you mean the 1% instead of People of Color like the original inhabitants of the Americas or Enslaved Blacks; poor Europeans are not part of that 1%.” I then turned to John Jay and asked: “And how did you put it John?: ‘The people who own the country ought to govern it.’

This conversation with Jefferson, Madison, and Jay continued.

PART II
Then in my dream, time shifted from the late 1700s to the mid-to-late 1800s. Suddenly I am sitting among a group of prominent liberals, progressives, and radicals. Folk like William Lloyd Garrison the renowned abolitionist and social justice advocate, and John Dewey, famous for his views about Education and Democracy. The vast majority of the people in the room are still wealthy White men. But this time, they have been joined by prominent White women like sociologist Jane Addams, known as the mother of social work. Black men like Frederick Douglas, a freed slave, abolitionist, orator, Statesman and defender of rights for Blacks, and Black Women like Sojourner Truth, a freed slave, abolitionist, and advocate for women’s rights as well as Anna Julia Cooper who was born to an enslaved mother but became an author, educator, and distinguished scholar. There were two other faces that stood out: Southern Cheyenne Peace negotiator Black Kettle sat along side Sojourner Truth. And Christal Quintasket was also present; she sat beside Anna Julia Cooper. Quintasket, an Okanogan Native woman also known by the pen name Mourning Dove, was the first Native American woman to publish a novel. Though progressives and liberals, the vast majority in this part of my dream were still wealthy White men but Newton Knight was also present. Newton Knight was the White Mississippi farmer who opposed Confederacy. Yes! I said “White” & “Mississippi” & “farmer” who opposed the Confederacy.

The wealthy, progressive White men, argued from the principled space of how things should be. John Dewey asserted: “Like Horace Mann, I believe public Schools to be Great Equalizers!”

Frederick Douglas countered: “But Blacks, and many Whites, still don’t have the right to an education!”

Jane Addams exclaimed: “And women don’t have the right to vote!”

As Sojourner Truth nodded in support, Anna Cooper explained: “Black women neither have the right to vote nor the right to an education! We support our Black brothers yet point out that we deal with the oppressions of racism and sexism!”

Newton Knight, William Garrison, and Jane Addams chimed in: “Speak sisters!

Knight added: And poor Whites have far more in common with Black men and women than with Wealthy whites!”

Black Kettle, speaking directly to the White progressives in the room, asserted: “You speak of equality as you covet lands that are ours. You are dazzled by ideals, while in the mid-to-late1800s, Native nations do not have the right to vote in their own country!”

Christal Quintasket augmented Black Kettle’s reprimand: “White men have too often been infatuated with turning Native Americans in to symbols and ideals instead treating us as equals who are real. Native nations will not have citizenship and the right to vote in their own country until 1924!

Forgetting that I was cloaked in the privilege of Whiteness & Maleness & Wealth, I emphasized: “And White liberals and progressives like you!, ahem [clears throat], I mean like us! must venture down from the loft of ideals and actively listen to and reverently collaborate with those whose causes we claim to support!”

Among the Whites in the room only Addams, Garrison, and Knight saw thru my cloak of White-privileged-maleness as they smiled, nodded, and winked directly at me in support of my statement.

PART III
Now, I am no longer dreaming. I have arrived to this panel discussion as a working-class origins Black woman, with the status of professor. When I say “Black Lives Matter!” I am saying that Thomas Jefferson never practiced what he preached. Like too many open-minded Whites today, I am saying that many White liberals and progressives from mid-1800s to mid-1900s were more infatuated with ideals than realities. I am suggesting that if Part II of my dream had been reality, most White liberals and progressives would have treated me with racist, sexist, and elitist disregard. I am saying that the achievements of the Women’s Movement in the early 1900s as well as the accomplishments of Black, Chicano, Asian, Native American, Poor Peoples’ social and civil rights movements from the 1960s and 70s are ongoing, uphill struggles.

In agreement with Jesse Jackson, I am saying: “The system has a class bias as well as a race bias…. [I]n the first five months [of 2015], 95 percent of police killings occurred in neighborhoods with median family incomes under $100,000. There were no killings in neighborhoods with median family incomes of $200,000 or above.” I am saying that according to UN Trends and Statistics, women, and especially women of color, are the most vulnerable group worldwide, I am saying that the highest rates of police killings are for Native, Black, and Latino Americans.

In highlighting the intersections of race and class, I am reminding you that if Dylan Roof—the mass murderer and white supremacist who killed nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina—had been Steve Bannon, if he had been White and wealthy, his lawyers would have likely used some kind of “Affluenza” defense, like the one used to exonerate Ethan Couch after he killed four people while driving DUI. Or despite his heinous crime, Roof might have received a relatively light sentence, as was the case with Brock Turner, the White and wealthy rapist who was found guilty of three felonies yet only sentenced to six months. On the other hand, although Roof lacked class privilege, he still experienced race privilege as police bought him a hamburger because he seemed hungry and placed Roof in a bullet-proof-vest just in case someone tried to attack him. Though the light sentences of Couch and Turner were extremely inadequate, I am saying that, “We, All The People!” should be treated with the same complex human dignity afforded those who are White AND Wealthy. I agree with sociologist Z.W. Rochefort who argues:

The question is not how privilege can be eliminated but how it can be democratized.

So when I say “BLACK LIVES MATTER!”, I ask you not to insult the struggles of Black Americans and other marginalized groups with the shallow universalism of “ALL Lives Matter!”. But I invite you to join in solidarity and bolster the common struggles of “We the People” who have been left out of the American Dream. When I call “BLACK LIVES MATTER!”, I invite you to transcend oppositional posturing, and join in solidarity by responding: “Black Lives Matter!”, “Native and Latino Lives Matter!”, “Poor White Lives Matter!”, “Poor Women’s and Children’s Lives Matter!” I especially ask White liberals and progressives to move beyond ideals and take a close and complex look at historical and empirical realities. As perceptively observed by Remi Salisbury:

To engage meaningfully in the kind of feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist work needed to bring about change is a task infinitely more difficult [than criticizing Donald Trump]. This kind of engagement would reveal Trump to be more symptom than cause. It would encourage us to look at the wider factors that would give rise to such a demagogic figure. To abhor one man may be comforting, but, unless it is supplemented by a critique of structural white supremacy, it will always miss the mark.

So, when I say “Black Lives Matter!” if you still feel the need to counter with “ALL Lives Matter!” then I answer you by going back to my dream. I indicated that the conversation with Jefferson, Madison, and Jay continued. Well, at least in Part I of my dream, Thomas Jefferson turned to James Madison and John Jay and said

Gentlemen, if there is a hell, if there are levels of purgatory, then we are headed to the sections designated for overconfident braggarts and self-righteous hypocrites!

In closing, I end my speech by revising German anti-Nazi Martin Niemöller’s famous poem:

First the Trump Administration came for the First Nations of America, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Native American from the First Nations.
Then they came for the Women, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Woman. (Or I was a woman who thought my abusive president could change).
Then they came for the African Americans, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an African American.
Then they came for the Mexicans, other Latinos, and Asians, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Mexican in particular, Latino in general, or Asian.
Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Muslim.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for those with disabilities, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not disabled.
Then they came for persons who were LGBTQ, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not Queer.
Then they came for the Immigrants and Refugees, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a recent Immigrant or Refugee.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This presentation was one of five short speeches given for the panel discussion “We The People: A Roundtable on Black Lives and American Politics,” held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on February 9, 2017. (Given time limitations, the speech given at the panel discussion was a seven-minute-excerpt of this longer version.)