Confronting the Past America Finally Turns Its Attention to Rampant Racism

Why is America only now having an honest debate about racism? The dead from Charleston are also the dead of a nation that has long refused to work through its past mistakes.

The murders in Charleston have plunged the US into a debate about racism.

The murders in Charleston have plunged the US into a debate about racism.

A Commentary by

The United State excels at dealing with the injustices of other countries. They often even help other countries to cope with their shameful past. Germany will always be grateful to the US for sending American troops across the Atlantic to defeat the Nazis. And for insisting that the Germans be held accountable for the crimes they committed. The Nuremberg trials gave Germans the opportunity to own up to what they had done. They could no longer deny it.

The US has been less successful, however, in conducting the same process when addressing the dark parts of its own past. This includes its treatment of Native Americans who were brutally repressed, or even killed, in order to clear the way for Western expansion. They were betrayed, neglected and disrespected. Today, they live on reservations in some of the saddest living conditions the civilized world has to offer.

Americans seem even more forgetful when it comes to the history of blacks, who were once snatched from their homes, forced into ship galleys and kept like animals for centuries. Even after the end of the Civil War and the official abolition of slavery, it took another hundred years before the discriminatory racial laws were finally officially lifted.

No Clean Break, No Apologies

To this day, the US has never issued a formal apology nor made any attempts at redress, let alone compensation. Instead, many patterns of institutionalized racism still exist. When a clean break from the past is not made, it may be difficult for people to part with their old ways of thinking. Indeed, not only do many Americans continue to hold twisted notions of the superiority of whites, but these beliefs often go unchallenged.

Imagine: 150 years have passed since the American Civil War ended, and only now has a national debate begun over whether some of the symbols of the South are inappropriate. Nine black people had to die in Charleston -- executed by a white Nazi adorned with the Confederate flag and other symbols of alleged white supremacy. It seems that there was never a thought given to the fact that the South went to war against the North partly in order to defend their "right" to continue to hold blacks like animals, to put them in chains, to beat them when they were down.

How is it that for many politicians and American citizens, this flag has only now become a little embarrassing? Why are people only now asking whether it is really a good idea to name streets and public spaces after the greatest generals in the fight for slavery? They may have been brave soldiers, but if they were fighting for a despicable cause, they should not have monuments built in their honor. Unless, of course, we believe that what they stand for is not really so reprehensible.

A Sign of Greatness

On the Mall in Washington -- and not somewhere in Germany -- one can find one of the best and most poignant Holocaust museums in the world. Yet similarly impressive museums dedicated to the history of slavery, to racist polices throughout American history or to the treatment of Native Americans, are missing. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, is enshrined on that Mall in a monument fit for a deity. The fact that Jefferson was also a brutal slave owner is something one only learns at his former estate in Monticello. Perhaps not surprisingly, that fact is not prominently displayed.

To date, the American treatment of its own dark past is so ignorantly passive, so intentionally vague, so in denial that it begs the question: Do the majority of Americans feel any guilt or acknowledge any wrongdoing toward blacks and Native Americans?

Every nation has dark spots in its past, and nowhere are those spots darker than in Germany. However, the greatness of a country is reflected in how it deals with this past and whether it critically examines it. In this respect, the United States is not the great nation it believes itself to be.

Translated from the German by Jiffer Bourgignon


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spiegelfun 06/26/2015
1. generalizations of the worst kind
This article is infused in generalizations that do not reflect the actual state of the discussion of racism in the US. There are discussions everywhere about problems of racism--it's a part of everyday life here in schoolrooms and museums (yes, there are fabulous museums detailing the cruel European-American legacy vis-a-vis things like slavery and Native Americans). It's actually almost unprofessional to put things the way they are put in this article--not that I am surprised since Europeans often absolve themselves of the very things that they (rightly) see in Americans. Many Americans are racist--racism remains a problem. To present the problem as if it isn't a major concern (as it has been for decades), is, however, something approaching a laughable misstatement. And let me add that, as a liberal American who has lived in Europe and all over the US, the most racist occurrences I myself have witnessed were in Europe. Indeed, one sometimes wonders whether the US is not, in some ways, ahead of most Europeans in the discussion of race. But I suspect this comment will only outrage many of those who read it, as it doesn't conform to their own tidy world view.
Ernest Yates 06/26/2015
Hmmm. 1. Europeans brought black slaves to the Americas long before the USA existed. 2. Up to 100,000,000 Native Americans were killed, mostly by Europeans, south of the USA in the great holocaust of the Americas; Native Americans were (are) also not well treated in Canada. 3. I beg your pardon, but the US has very strong anti-discrimination laws; it even has laws that positively discriminate in favor of African Americans--laws that, as I understand it, are not in force in many European countries. 4. I do believe that your indignation is highly selective. Are you just jealous?
djhoffman24 06/26/2015
3. Confrontin the past
The writer should have his facts straight before he comments on American history. FIRST, The vast majority of confederate soldiers were not fighting for slavery; they were fighting for States Rights. ANY student of American history should know that. Less than 5% (probably 1%) of confederate soldiers had slaves. As an aside, my primary heritage is German and my family fought on both sides, and on both fronts, of WWII. I marched, multiple times, for equal rights as have tens of millions of other American's; both Black and White. To say that "the US has never apologized" is simply wrong as several Presidents have done so to one degree or other. To say that there are no Museums to slavery is to show lack of knowledge of the multiple Museums (including the one in Cincinnati, OH). Racial debate has been going on, at least, ever since I was a child in the 1950's. The vast majority of Americans have worked for equality and harmony; period! My parents taught me that the color of a person's skin had NOTHING to do with who they are. The idiocy of going after the confederate battle flag as the flag of the confederacy simply shows how little we know of our own history. The confederate flag was the "Stars & Bars" and bears little resemblance to the battle flag. The battle flag is what various confederate armies carried into battle and it was not the official flag of the confederacy. Regarding Jefferson as a "brutal slave owner". You simply cannot judge actions of a hundred years ago in the context of todays world.
cclar7772 06/26/2015
Why would I, or anyone alive today, feel guilt over something that was done before we were even born? I never owned any slaves, I think slavery is wrong, I'm glad we in America are past that, but guilt? No. Not one iota.
deeegeee 06/26/2015
5. US confornts racism
That's this week.Americans have a very short attention span.It will all be put on the back burner by the end of next week & forgotten all together by the week after !!To most Americans if it isn't headlined at the supermarket/CNN/Fox check-out,it isn't news !
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