In the weeks since the events of Charlottesville, a great deal has been written about the resurgence of white nationalism in America. If you were to follow some of the many media narratives in response to the events in Charlottesville, you would have seen countless conversations about how “We Beat the Nazis Before…,” speaking to our broad recognition of World War II as a righteous struggle against white supremacists and our intention to take on a re-emerging adversary so antithetical to our values. The trouble with this understanding of our history is that it fails to address America’s own troubled story of racism both during and after the war. And although meme culture and cable news dialogue is rarely a place for nuance, this attempt to portray racism as some sort of horror movie doll that we had tossed to the bottom of a well, only to find sitting on the bookshelf at home, runs the serious risk of preventing a much-needed dialogue.
There is no controversy in saying the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II was one of the greatest and most necessary interventions in the history of humanity, and the sacrifices to make it possible should be respected and lauded. But it is misguided to use those sacrifices as a way of glossing over America’s own racist past, or to pretend that our fight against Nazi Germany was in any way similar to our current fight in Charlottesville – that this is a case of “foreign” adversaries invading our home. It takes only a glance at our history to see that white supremacy has rarely been challenged at its deepest roots in our country.
It’s worth taking a moment to understand America’s choice to join the Second World War at all. Although Germany’s ethnic cleansing is inseparable from the rest of their conduct during the war, it didn’t meaningfully serve as a catalyst for American involvement. In fact, in the years leading up to war, Americans were divided on whether to intervene. For the first few years of the war, American involvement was confined to supply ships and loans, the parental equivalent of arming a bullied child with a thesaurus. America was content to let the situation handle itself, teetering between blissful ignorance and stubborn neglect of German atrocities, until the war was brought to its own doorstep and the fight became one of self-preservation.
But even if we were to pretend that involvement in the war was altruistic, waged to fight back against a fascist menace as it waged mass slaughter against ethnic and religious minorities, it would still not wash away our racial struggles during the exact timeline of the war itself. In 1939, the same year Germany invaded Poland, Billie Holliday first took to the American stage with her haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit,” conveying the horror of lynchings that marked the American South during segregation. In 1942, in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, America embraced xenophobia as it rounded up tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans into camps out of fear and malice. And in 1944, even with hundreds of thousands of black men serving in the armed forces, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in largely segregated platoons – a practice that continued until 1948.
America’s legacy of racism has lived on in every meaningful way since the end of the war. Nearly two years to the day after Hitler took his life in a Berlin bunker, Jackie Robinson first took a Major League field, and did so almost every day of his career in fear for his life against a barrage of threats. A decade after the end of the war, it took armed forces to integrate a southern school, and the National Guard to quell the riots that ensued with every step African Americans took toward equality. And in a somber nod to the most persecuted group in Nazi Germany, in virtually every year the FBI has compiled U.S hate crime statistics, the Jewish people have been, by far, the most targeted religious group in the country. This may pale in comparison to German atrocities, but it is a painful reminder of how deep our own troubles run.
Racism and bigotry in America has been an unrelenting foe throughout our history, since our earliest genocides of indigenous peoples and trade in slave labor. It is a culture that has deep roots, and requires a deep understanding. It is not a discussion that deserves to be cheapened or undermined by a revision of our own history, no matter how proud or noble some chapters may have appeared. If we are to have a meaningful dialogue on the nature of race relations in this country, we need to treat the events in Charlottesville not as the return of a presumed-dead enemy, but as the persistent stain it has always been.