Hello dear reader(s)!
Today I read a really good article from Smithsonian Magazine via MentalFloss with a headline that I can only assume was made to generate controversy. The article itself was great, but the headline definitely got people riled up. I imagine that was the point. More controversy usually equates to more page views.
But I do not necessarily disagree with the headline. Sort of.
The article is titled “Inside America’s Auschwitz.”
Some people commented on the MentalFloss link making the correct distinction that Auschwitz was primarily intended as a death camp, with slavery while the condemned waited; whereas this plantation and others’ intents were not death, even if many deaths resulted. And that’s valid.
However, they then went on to use this to downplay the horrible treatment of African-American slaves. As if the intent matters to the result. There were claims made that slaves were treated well because the owners wouldn’t want to damage their “property” as it would hurt their economic interests. Ignoring the documented horrific conditions that resulted from one race being seen as inferior. Ignoring how the steady supply of replaceable “property” devalued the lives of the people enslaved. Ignoring how it gave rise to the problem of white supremacy, to Jim Crow, and to the whole host of socioeconomic issues that persist as a result to this day. Ignoring that millions of people died as a result of the journey from Africa to America and the Americas alone.
While the intent of slavery may not have been to exterminate an entire race, the results speak for themselves. And under Article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, African-American slavery surely meets the definition.
Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Notice the word “any”. Some may argue there was no intent to destroy, but that would be ignoring that taking away humanity is the destruction of a person.
So why all the hate in mentioning one atrocity in the same frame as the other? They are both genocides by the legal definition. In fact, genocides happen all the time. Institutionally supported genocide is sadly not an exclusive club.
Then there were the obvious racist comments on the link. Bringing up the old trope of Irish slavery and how their Irish families got over it, so why can’t everyone get over theirs? Obviously the people arguing this are not “over it” if they feel the need to bring up something different with some similarities in an attempt to invalidate the experiences of another. That was actually indentured servitude, was not hereditary, and was not based on race with lasting effects of legally supported denial of rights for many generations. Which is not to say that indentured servitude wasn’t a horrible thing. Which is not to say that people didn’t suffer. Which is not even to say it wasn’t slavery. Which is not to say that it also isn’t a shameful part of this nation’s history. It is. But indentured servitude was not hereditary, race-based slavery that then led to generations of legal discrimination based on color alone. Still terrible, but has nothing to do with the problems that persist from the institution of African-American slavery that is a shameful part of this nation’s history.
Why does the atrocity that have befallen one group of people have to be brought out in an attempt to negate the issues and tragedy of another group’s?
The only answer can be racism.
My preferred candidate caused an outcry this week when he said he would “absolutely” apologize for slavery on behalf of the Untied States if elected President.
And the problem with that is what, exactly?
We should apologize. For slavery. For Segregation. For legal discrimination. For the socioeconomic conditions that naturally persist from that being law relatively recently.
We should to the first peoples of this nation who were also the victims of genocide.
And we should also apologize for indentured servitude.
We should end and apologize for prison slave labor.
We should apologize for leaving our strict immigration quotas in place when the blatant persecution of Jews in Germany was first coming to light.
We need to stop saying that because something kind of similar but very different happened to other people, that somehow the experiences of others and the effects from those experiences are invalid.
All of these things are very different from each other.
But they all have similarities. They all were very wrong.
As long as we continue to try to one-up each other on who was the biggest victim, we fail to take the necessary steps to help prevent it in the future. We fail to help mend the wounds. We invalidate the pain anyone victimized by these atrocities continue to feel, and the persisting damage in human relations they surely have caused.