In March 2015, Humanity in Action organized a 3-day program in Detroit focused on philanthropy and social enterprise. Sponsored by the Michigan based RNR Foundation, we selected 8 American Senior Fellows to participate in a non-stop seminar of talks and site visits. Humanity in Action has organized several study trips over the past years to Bosnia, Poland and Israel; however, the Detroit program was the first in the States. In the spring of 2015 we were also planning for our inaugural four-week John Lewis Fellowship in Atlanta in partnership with The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
The intense Detroit program was an extraordinary experience that reshaped my thinking about interpreting the past and connecting European and American histories to contemporary challenges of racial, ethnic and religious pluralism.
The intense Detroit program was an extraordinary experience that reshaped my thinking about interpreting the past and connecting European and American histories to contemporary challenges of racial, ethnic and religious pluralism. Almost all of the programs over the past 18 years have started at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. The overseas bound Fellows were preparing to focus on the World War II, the Holocaust and emerging post-war commitments to Human Rights in Europe. In the DC orientation we spoke about America’s racial issues but not in depth. One year, I gave a talk comparing the Nazi state and the Jim Crow South but that was as far I went in relating America’s racial issues with those in Europe.
Once on European soil, the Fellows would explore specific European minority issues as manifested in national narratives. The historic references were World War II and the Holocaust and, in Denmark, the flight and rescue of Jews in Denmark—all linked to contemporary European pluralistic concerns. American students were clearly critical to the international inquiries about anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia. However, the American Fellows, carrying knowledge of American diversity and race relations in particular, were expected to make that knowledge of secondary concern. Humanity in Action didn’t deliberately ignore America’s racial issues—far from it—but Europe came first since the programs were taking place in France, Denmark, Germany, Poland and The Netherlands.
The visit to Detroit made me to think in a totally different way about the impact of the post war world on challenges of prejudice and inequities in Europe and America today. It was in Detroit that I suddenly understood that Humanity in Action needed to expand its basic conceptual foundations: to compare and contrast the many intersecting points of racism in Europe and America.
One could reach back to the slave trade, colonialism and the Civil War in regard to the race-based ties between Europe and the US. But I would like to reflect back on World War II from 1940-1945. In those unforgiving years, German aggression and ideology decimated Europe’s populations; depleted its landscape and infrastructure; destroyed its democracies; and devastated its Jewish population in racial carnage. In 1945 the Allied forces, led by the British and Americans, defeated Germany and liberated occupied countries in Western Europe. The war against Nazism was fought, in part, to defend beleaguered democratic nations and destroy both a totalitarian and racist regime and claim moral leadership. Having defeated one totalitarian power during the War, America immediately took on another and entered the Cold War with Russia. America assumed its position as the righteous global power after World War II destroyed Europe’s economic base, (deeply based for centuries on colonial possessions) as well as its traditional claim to Enlightenment ideals.
Racism and Antisemitism, in particular, were repudiated in Europe. But post-war America forced no such reckoning upon itself in regard to anti-black racist practices and ideas.
Post-war America was ready to lead. For centuries, the country defined itself as the promised land, the land of the free, the city on the hill—the welcoming host to those seeking freedom. This dream of unbounded opportunities created the myth of American exceptionalism. It was and continues to be, however, a particular type of exceptionalism afforded only to the select within America itself. This is an exceptionalism that exempted America from being held accountable for pernicious racist practices and attitudes which constitute a compromised, contradictory underside of American history. The paradox—opportunities for some, exclusion for others—was strikingly evident during the war and post-war period. The U.S. fought against Nazi Germany, a racist country and short-lived empire. But, at the same time, rampant racism and invidious discrimination—through employment, educational and residential barriers and restrictive immigration laws—were directed against Asians, Slavs, Italians, Irish and Jews in the US.
Blacks, Asians, Jews, Italians, Slavs and other ethnic minority groups joined the war effort in the military and industrial sectors. They challenged the country to recognize their wartime contributions and reduce discriminatory measures. It worked for all except the blacks.
The most vicious racial practices were against blacks. Southern racist states resided inside the promised land of democracy itself. Jim Crow reigned in the entire South through the insidious legal apparatus of segregation. Southern whites ruled in a tightfisted world of racial superiority, discrimination, and economic and cultural power. By dominating key positions in the US Congress, Southern White Democrats preserved segregation. In the North, severe discriminatory attitudes and practices intensified as millions of blacks, starting during WWI, moved to the North and West. Over the next three decades 16,000,000 blacks formed massive waves of migration out of the South with hopes for decent employment, housing and education.
Engagement in the WWII presented the prospect of profound change. Blacks, Asians, Jews, Italians, Slavs and other ethnic minority groups joined the war effort in the military and industrial sectors. They challenged the country to recognize their wartime contributions and reduce discriminatory measures. It worked for all except the blacks. Support of the war effort from Southern Senators, Representatives and their constituents was contingent on sustaining racial separation. White workers fought against equal pay for blacks as was the case in June 1943 when white workers at the Packard Motor Car Company in Detroit demonstrated against the promotion of blacks. Riots broke out throughout the city causing 43 deaths and the intervention of the US Army. Black Americans in the military were forced to work and fight in segregated units. Racial conflicts broke out in many military training camps. Despite strong support for the war from the black press, until 1944 no black press reporter was allowed to join the White House Press Corp.
One story, among the thousands, conveys the depths of the irrational and enduring hatred towards blacks—as well as the dignity and perseverance of one person. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was a member of the West Point class of 1936. A member with special conditions: for four years he was forced into silence, as none of his classmates would talk to him. According to a recent article by Seth Lipsky, “except when required in academic settings or exercises, Davis’ classmates refused to speak with him. He roomed alone in quarters with several bunks. He ate his meals alone amid a corps that otherwise took its meals together.” (1) Later on during the war, he was refused entry to the officers club at Ft. Benning. Davis was good enough to train for battle on behalf of the country, but not good enough to talk to. (Davis became a four star general. In a case of belated recognition, a West Point barracks has been just named in his honor.)
After the war, the Allied countries imposed a victor’s peace of ideological and judicial imperatives on a decimated West Germany. At Nuremberg, a number of German leaders were tried: some were executed, others imprisoned for war crimes. Significant numbers of Nazis, however, were able to escape trial and resume normal pre-war lives. The great Dutch sociologist Abram de Swann, the author of The Killing Compartments, writes that being a mass murderer is generally a safe job since so few are ever brought to trial and convicted. According to his estimate, only 700 out of approximately 100,000 were tried and 500 found guilty in West German courts by 1992 for their wartime crimes. (2) Such figures would be even more shocking if one were to count the relatively few convicted of murdering blacks in the US through lynchings, as well as sanctioned police or vigilante violence.
American allowed Germany to reemerge into the land of the living. It required the commitment to democratic institutions, starting with an educational system that repudiated the institutions and ideology of the authoritarian and racist state. Germany was forced to recognize and atone for the destruction of six million Jews in Europe (and to a lesser extent the killing of Roma and homosexuals), previously seen as the racial enemy of the state. In return for good behavior and in order to check Russian expansion, America developed the Marshall Plan to resurrect a vibrant German economy.
Racism and anti-Semitism, in particular, were repudiated in Europe. But post-war America forced no such reckoning upon itself in regard to anti-black racist practices and ideas. Southern Democrats continued to rule the Congress and thereby protect Jim Crow. Cleaving to the Allied rhetoric of liberation, the Allied victory, however, slowly created a series of economic and social challenges to the powerful white Protestant establishment. Discriminatory practices against white immigrants and ethnic and religious groups declined as multiple pressures were at work: the defeat of German racism—the shock of genocide—in the name of civilized standards; the integration of whites in the armed forces—poor and rich, rural and urban, Christian and Jews. The pseudo-scientific field of eugenics, previously touted as racial truth, collapsed as a justification for white Protestant leadership and control.
The creation of an expanded white American middle class—a welfare state for whites, in the words of historian Ira Katznelson—only reinforced the structures of separation between black and white.
America was ready for security and unprecedented affluence. Astride the industrial juggernaut built for World War II and continuing military and industrial needs to fight the Cold War, the country started to binge on consumer products for house and home. The gates of economic inclusion and social mobility opened for Italian, Irish, and Jews. From the late 40s on, while the South reinforced Jim Crow, Northern and Mid-Western white populations in cities such as New York and Detroit spun off affluent segregated suburban communities such as Great Neck and Bloomfield Hills. The great migration during the war of blacks from the South to live and work in a seemingly less racist North was followed by the great white escape—the migration of ethnic and religious groups to residential segregation in the suburbs throughout the country.
In fact, the creation of an expanded white American middle class—a welfare state for whites, in the words of historian Ira Katznelson—only reinforced the structures of separation between black and white. One might claim that the post war years were as punishing for black America as the period between Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The post-war years added another pernicious juncture—a lost opportunity for rectification—in the long line of historical deviations from promise to despair. Like whites, blacks sought economic advancement, improved housing and educational institutions as owed from the war years. Once again, they were denied. Carefully designed racist policies as well as profound indifference on the part of white Americans—an expanding group of the entitled—deepened the already deep gulf of inequity between blacks, against blacks and at the expense of blacks.
The GI Bill of Rights, which provided massive funding for education, was deliberately designed to create more widespread opportunities and affluence for an expanding white middle class. But it would benefit few black soldiers. Generous bank loans and mortgage rates enabled more and more white families and individuals to buy new homes through an explosion of new businesses, housing and schools. White Americans welcomed new suburban housing in part because it was based upon layers of segregation enforced by covenants that prohibited residential black ownership. Federally funded roads cut through black dominated neighborhoods—communities already confined to inadequate urban housing—to facilitate the automobile commute of whites between home and work.
Detroit, like cities throughout the country, signed on to the new racial suburban/white and urban/black configurations. Few American cities could equal Detroit in the dynamic of rapid expansion followed by urban escape for whites. A balance of opportunity seemed possible. For a few decades whites who moved out had the illusion that they could confidently straddle two worlds. Freed from the confinement of the city, the white suburban populations thrived with new homes, roads and schools. At the same time they preserved proximity to and identification with the city they had left.
In 1950, Detroit was 83% white, before dropping to 55% in 1970 and 34% in 1980. By 2010 Detroit had a population of 700,000 which was 84% black.
Whites thought they could be of Detroit but safely and comfortably out of it. They could share pride in a city that still seemed to in its prime, claiming national recognition: self-promoting, flush with money from the automobile and related (and dependent) industries, powerful with both corporate and union strength, politically influential in the state and Washington, religiously vibrant, rich in architecture, the arts, music (especially in the black community), sports and (gambling). This was the 1963 Detroit of whites and blacks that David Maraniss wrote about in Once in a Great City. It was still living off its euphoric and exuberant growth. Between 1920 and 1940 it became the fourth largest city in the country. It grew from 285,000 in 1900 to 1,849,000 in 1950 including a black population that increased from 4,000 to 300,00.
But a new type of racial chasm was in the making. As the black middle class, along with whites, sought mobility and expansion beyond the city white Detroit resisted those mutual ambitions and hopes. When they took their money, tax base, and investment in schools and factories they left behind an increasingly poor, vulnerable, uneducated, depleted and angry black population—a population that dropped more and more deeply into poverty. An abandoned population that sometimes turned upon itself and the city. In 1950, Detroit was 83% white, before dropping to 55% in 1970 and 34% in 1980. By 2010 Detroit had a population of 700,000 which was 84% black.
It is both ironic and tragic that the Allied war effort, predicated on destroying a racist regime, drove America to divide ever more deeply along racial lines. Thus, in particular the histories of blacks and Jews in America —narratives so deeply suffused with racial exclusion and tragic histories in America and Europe—sharply diverged in the posts war years. White ethnic groups that had suffered from discrimination before the war, were finally accepted as privileged in an expanding, federally underwritten middle class. (In the pre-war years, Southern Jews had been accepted as whites but faced anti-Semitism in many areas). Starting with the war and extending into the following decades, Jews attained unprecedented economic success and increasing social and cultural integration. The anti-Semitic diatribes of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, odious voices out of pre-war Detroit, were less welcomed across the city and the country in the wake of the Holocaust. Acceptance of Jews in America’s Christian society, ambitiously pursued and achieved from the mid-40s on, separated blacks and whites. The price paid was de facto passivity on the part of countless Jews or, even more damaging, complicity in discrimination towards blacks.
While the enchantments of integration, especially in suburbia almost always prevailed, there were many American Jews could not ignore the parallel or converging lines of injustice rooted deeply in Jim Crow and the Holocaust. Jewish refugees from Europe, having suffered persecution in Europe, became witnesses to racist violations in the US. Many Jews drew connections and had to act. Rabbi Walter Plaut, rabbi of a newly founded Reform Temple in Great Neck in the early 60s, wanted to “storm the heavens for social change.” He became part of a conspicuous minority, among Christians and Jews, in opposition to America’s racial attitudes towards blacks. Born in Berlin, a refugee from Nazi Germany in America, Plaut carried the inescapable imprint of racial injustice, humiliation and violence deep in his mind and heart. He felt compelled to go south to fight Jim Crow—to pick up the battle from the 30s in Germany—despite the opposition of the leaders of his new suburban congregation. The rabbi’s journey to the South caused a split in the Temple. He went nonetheless in June 1961.
“I remembered my childhood in Europe, in the Tiergarten Platz. There were many benches on which I couldn’t sit and these said, ‘Juden’—‘Jews.’”
Plaut joined a freedom ride to Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. He went with a small, mixed group of ministers and other professionals—mixed in terms of black and white. Sponsored by Core and invoking non-violent methods, they were testing whether public facilities at bus terminals were violating federal law and a Supreme Court decision. (The 1946 Irene Morgan case before the Interstate Commerce Commission and the 1960 Bruce Bointon case before the Supreme Court). Plaut and the others were engaged in direct social action to uphold moral principles.
That battle had started for Plaut in Berlin in the late 1930s. Thirty years later in Raleigh, North Carolina, he saw a drinking fountain with a sign that stated “Negroes.” It triggered painful memories: “I remembered my childhood in Europe, in the Tiergarten Platz. There were many benches on which I couldn’t sit and these said, ‘Juden’—‘Jews.’” (P. 186) In Tallahassee, confronted by a policeman messaging his gun, the Rabbi remembered Berlin again. “The image of Europe came to me again, with an SS man coming to my home with his hand on his holster, saying, ‘Raus’”(P. 191) (3) Most of Plaut’s family died in the Holocaust. Walter Plaut escaped Germany in 1937 when he was 17 years old and came to the U.S.
In 1965, while continuing as a rabbi in a small temple in Great Neck, New York, he recounted the powerful meaning of the Freedom Ride. “I think this trip was meant to be a trip taken against lethargy, against the philosophy that all is well in the world, against leaving well enough alone, against the philosophy of comfort at any price, of prosperity at any price, against the philosophy which says that you can solve your problems by remaining morally neutral. Stated positively, I think that this trip was an action taken towards being aware, toward becoming involved, for zeal, yes, for storming the heavens and for social change, which is never achieved without casualties.” (Heritage and Hope: Dialogues in Judaism, editor by Rabbi William Berkowitz, NY, 1965. Thomas Yoseloff (p196) (4)
Today Ferguson and Paris, Detroit and Copenhagen, Flint and Berlin face the same challenges of divisiveness, fears of migration and discrimination.
Seventy years later, we are still not “storming the heavens for social change.” Urban, suburban, exurban and rural America continue to confront (or among many people, to ignore) the appalling results of inequity and the disenfranchisement of American blacks. Results that are embedded in the country’s educational, financial, cultural, political, medical and social resources and infrastructures. Results that are most conspicuous in certain cities. For the past 20 years, Detroit has been on the national and international front lines of urban history. Not for prosperity and growth but for the dark drama of racially based decline. Ironically, Europeans have shown a fascination for the ruins of Detroit. It satisfies some need for the dismal picturesque consisting of burnt out houses, shattered windows, abandoned plots of scrubby grounds, churches protected by barbed wire, a landscape of eerie, empty, denuded car-free boulevards. We go to Europe and do Holocaust tourism; Europeans may come here in a subconscious game of tit for tat to see an American manufacturing city in self-made ruins and decay from capitalistic storms and racial inequalities.
Today Ferguson and Paris, Detroit and Copenhagen, Flint and Berlin face the same challenges of divisiveness, fears of migration and discrimination. America has a certain advantage: despite the fights and resistance over immigration, the country knows how to absorb immigrants. Hispanics will make their way and be accepted in American society in the next generations. The black white divide, however, awaits the work of transitional and restorative justice. Large parts of white America are still not ready to take responsibility for its attitudes and actions that have denied blacks, through every legal and illegal mechanism, their rightful place in society.
European countries are struggling to absorb large populations of Muslim, Arabs and blacks from the Middle East, Far East and North Africa. The conflicts emerging over this process are challenging the assumptions that Europe had both overcome discrimination and would act in accordance with human rights values developed in the post-war world. Europe needs labor but doesn’t want immigrants. A contradiction, to say the least. Europe takes pride from being progressive and mostly secular but doesn’t know how to find a stable place for moderate Muslim practices, assumptions about language and imagery, or the equitable absorption of Muslims in the workplace. Europe has recognized its guilt for the Holocaust but anti-Semitic acts and attitudes are on the rise and threatening the well being of Jewish communities. Politicians and others who exploit fears, dormant or easily expressed, benefit from this unstable period of uncertainty.
But Detroit is special: it is the city of the grand collapse, the grand bargain and now the grand experiment.
And sadly, the tensions between blacks and Jews in America, in particular, now find new expression through the association of many in Black Lives Matter with the boycott campaign and the Palestinian struggle, edging in the extreme towards anti-Semitism. President Obama has directly spoken out against a position that questions the validity of the Israeli State and its support among American Jews. Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for the “Atlantic” magazine and frequent discussant with President Obama about Middle Eastern affairs, confirmed Obama’s position on Israel and the President’s attempt to bring American Jews and blacks together again. “In fact, he associates Zionism with the Civil Rights movement,” Goldberg wrote in May 2015. “On Israel, Obama endorsed, in moving terms, the underlying rationale for the existence of a Jewish state, making a direct connection between the battle for African American equality and the fight for Jewish national equality. ‘There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law,’ he said. ‘These things are indivisible in my mind.’” (5)
The tensions over diversity, integration and inclusion are felt in cities throughout the country. But Detroit is special: it is the city of the grand collapse, the grand bargain and now the grand experiment. The grand collapse occurred over many years, starting with the post-war rush to the suburbs. The grand bargain came to fruition in 2014 when national, state and local foundations, individuals and governments intervened in an unprecedented effort to prevent further decline and racial division. The grand experiment, now underway, seeks to address issues of housing, education, economic opportunity and governance to promote individual and civic stability.
During our few days in Detroit in 2015 we were infused with the hope that Detroit can find new ground for equity, economic advancement and restorative justice—the grand experiment. The prospect of a Fellowship program for European and American university students does not mean that we will do what Rabbi Plaut wanted: “storming the heavens and for social change.” But the American and European Fellows, through an international dialogue in Detroit will be in a vibrant and critical place to confront the persistent and pernicious histories of racial conflict and prejudice in America and Europe.
- Seth Lipsky, NY Sun website
- DeSwann, Abram, The Killing Fields: the Mentality of Mass Murder, p. 20.
- Heritage and Hope: Dialogues in Judaism, ed. Rabbi William Berkowitz, NY, 1965. Thomas Yoseloff, p.191.