The triangle trade of racial segregation

1945-2005: Commemorating oblivion

, by @Alfred, Soopa Seb

Year in year out, from one commemoration to the next, we celebrate. Military parades here, tributes and lame speeches there, Tv specials oozing pathos and rehashing the same old hackeneyed homages, the whole commemoration circus will make your head spin, prevent you from thinking straight, bury you in mudslides of thanksgivings. Thank God we’re here, thank our liberators for crossing the ocean to save our asses, like modern day St Georges doing away with Absolute Evil, slaying the dragon of the Third Reich. Why do we spend so much time and money on commemorating the end of World War II ? Did the world change so drastically after the final victory ? Had the world been so good before the rise of nazism ? In the middle of so much political and media fervor around the 60th anniversary of the victory of Allied Forces over the Axis, let’s look into the constant movement of racist segregationist laws and concentration camp techniques between Europe, Africa and the Americas, before and after WWII.

Pray sweep this Negro under the rug

Among stock statements you hear about WWII, one is that it was the final victory not only over nazism, but also over the unique and irrational barbarity it was supposed to embody. TheNuremberg Laws of 1935 (see here) written by the Nazi Party are often shown as the epitome of evil law-making, a disgusting and unprecedented act of dehumanization against part of the population of one’s own country. As sickening as they were, those laws weren’t the first of their kind.

A deeper look into those laws will show that their roots go deep in the heart of American democracy. For if you compare them to the Jim Crow Laws set up in the late 19th century to put an end to the Reconstruction period [1], you will find odd similarities : the same urge to separate children, you never know, they might become friends and all, and therefore jeopardize segregation ; the same obsession with sexual relations, an enormous threat against racial purity... Thus concerning school segregation, we can compare these two articles :

- Nuremberg Laws, First Supplementary Decree, article 4 :
The conditions regarding service of teachers in public Jewish schools remains unchanged until the promulgation of new laws on the Jewish school system.

- Jim Crow laws :
" Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.( Alabama Constitution, 1901)"

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And about the ban of interracial marriages :
- Nuremberg laws , " Law for the Protection of german Blood and german Honor", section 1 :
"Marriages between Jews and nationals of German or kindred
blood are forbidden. Marriages concluded in defiance of this law
are void, even if, for the purpose of evading this law, they are
concluded abroad.
- Jim Crow laws for the states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri and Wyoming :
"The marriage of a person of Caucasian blood with a Negro, Mongolian, Malay, or Hindu shall be null and void."

Note that the law for the state of Missouri states that :
" No person having one-eighth part or more of negro blood shall be permitted to marry any white person, nor shall any white person be permitted to marry any negro or person having one-eighth part or more of negro blood."]]

The blood quotas will also appear in the Nuremberg Laws, as in article 2 of the First Supplementary Decree of November 14th 1935 :
"An individual of mixed Jewish blood is one who is
descended from one or two grandparents who, racially, were full
Jews [...].

Surprising, isn’t it ? Nevertheless, this was not the first time that the idea of distinct legal status according to race had crossed the Atlantic. Earlier on, it had come from the East.

Napoleon, the Black Code and the Civil Code

The first set of racial laws was indeed originated in the proud countrey of human rights, right here in France, a country that always made a point of looking after its dusky natives. The infamous Black Code(see here) had indeed ruled on mixed relations (art. 9) and mixed marriages (art.6) in its revised and much stricter version of 1724, also known as the Black Code of Louisiana:
"forbids marriage of whites with slaves, and concubinage of whites and manumitted or free-born blacks with slaves, and imposes penalties. [...]"
The ban had been enforced in Guadeloupe since 1711, as noted by Louis Sala-Molins, quoting W.B. Cohen’s, Français et Africains.

Reestablishing slavery and the Black Code in 1802-after they’d been abolished by the Convention in 1794-wasn’t enough for Napoleon Bonaparte ; he therefore decided to make the status of freedmen a little clearer in article 3 of the 1805 Civil Code :

"The laws of the Civil Code concerning marriage, adoption, recognition of natural children, children’s succession rights, inheritance and donations, official and de facto tutelage, shall only be carried on in the colonies from whites to whites, and from freedmen to freedmen, without any possibility, direct or indirect, that the said dispositions be carried on from one class to the other."

Victor Schoelcher underlines the addendum to the decision : "Considering that color distinction has always been enforced in the colonies, that it is indispensable in slave countries, and that it is necessary to maintain the line that has always existed between the white class and that of freedmen and their kin, etc."

One could wonder why Bonaparte restricts this law geographically to the colonies ; apparently some did wonder, as in 1818 the problem was solved by reminding the good people of France that negroes were forbidden on the continent. Simple and efficient.

Apartheid : Amerikkkan excellence

Another country worried about color distinction, South Africa. One forgets too easilythat apartheid was born under british rule, and that before then, Apartheid (separation in Afrkaans) was already much appreciated by the Dutch : for the bigots of tulip land, mixed sexual relations were "a disgrace for the Netherlands and for christian nations". In order to salvage their chance for salvation, the Crown forbids marriage between "people of different colors" in 1685.

Taking inspiration in the Jim Crow laws, the so-called Colour Bar and Job Reservation Acts are voted in 1911. The similarities with the american segregationist system are striking : the laws set a physical, spacial color line between whites and blacks...
To boot, the Native Land Act of 1913 is promulgated, an echo of which can be found in the Lebensraum (vital space) theory of the third Reich, influenced by the german theoretician Friedrich Ratzel : 78% of the population was cooped up in 7.5% of the land, inscribing in the geography the mark of military domination. By explicitly excluding black populations from working certain jobs, the Job Reservation Act set a precedent to the Nuremberg Laws...

Racist ideas circulate from one continent to the other, improve with technology or local genius to be used in systems sharing in basic racist ideology. Thus in their system of geographic exclusion, South Africa followed the example set by the USA to settle the "indian problem" : "Native Americans in reservations are kept in an enclosed and fragmented space, under military surveillance meant to immobilize and atomize them . » » [2]

On a similar note, South Africa decreed the Native Urban Areas Act in 1923, which confirmed the exclusion of Africans from any property rights within urban areas, and assigned them to habitation zones called townships, located away from european neighborhoods. The pass, that was used to check identity, right of being in urban areas and their employee status, was officialized and generalized at the same time.

A yellow star was superfluous, seeing how hard it can be for black Africans to pass for white Europeans, but the spirit was there alright. Thus an American experiment in eradicating and controlling a part of its population considered disposable, inspired by French racist colonial policies ended up inspiring apartheid in South Africa, a system the Nazi ideologues would copy in attacking the jewish community of Europe.

The main difference lies in the fact that racist american and south african policies never triggered military interventions... much to the contrary, the world never stopped celebrating american troops, carriers of the flame of liberty, vanguard for the great american democracy come to rescue Europe. Yet...

Segregation, an american value fit for Europe ?

During WWII, as american propaganda was pushing for the good people of the USA to stand for the defence of freedom and democracy in Europe, patriotic fervor burned slow in the heart of the African-American community. Howard Zinn, in his monumental People’s History of the United States, quotes a student talking to his professor :

" The Army jim-crows us. The Navy lets us serve only as messmen. The Red Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out. Lynchings continue. We are disenfranchised, jim-crowed, spat upon. What more could Hitler do than that?"

As noted by this student, the US Red Cross, following an order from the military high command, refused to mix "black" and "white" blood in their bloodblank program for wounded soldiers, in agreement with the racist laws of the time. It so happened that the doctor who started the project was Charles Richard Drew, an African-American ; he was forced to resign from his position after denouncing the lack of scientific grounds for the policy .He had declared that there was no proof of a difference in blood based on race.

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While the Nazis were carrying their racial politicsin Germany, the american government was commissioning its own study on concentration camps. After native Americans, it was Japanese-Americans’s turn to be arrested, deported and sequestred for 3 years, from february 1942, when Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066 (see text here) that authorized deportations, until the end of the war in 1945.

Laws of racial exception were set up in Europe and the US and applied against brown populations, long before the creation of the nazi party, but they were enforced during and after WWII. Segregation was diligently applied in Allied countries long after it was wiped out of Germany. This small detail is, apparently, not worthy of commemoration.


[1During the Reconstruction, following the Civil War, former slaves in the southern states were granted equal rights with their white counterparts. Jim Crow was not an actual person but the main character in a song popular in minstrel shows. See here.

[2Personal translation from Delanoë Nelcya, L’Entaille rouge; Des terres indiennes à la démocratie américaine, 1976-1996, Albin Michel, coll.Terre indienne.