Overtly Racist Regimes in the 20th Century


In his book “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903 W.E.B. DuBois stated profoundly that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line”. It is perhaps unlikely that DuBois speculated the excessive degree to which that would be the case. Before he died in 1963, however, he would witness the institutionalized Jim Crow laws across the Southern United States that stripped the Black community of its civil liberties; he would witness the Nazi Germany holocaust in the 1930’s and 1940’s; and he would witness the establishment of the apartheid government in South Africa in 1948. Scholar George Fredrickson refers to all of these three regimes as “overtly racist”.

George Fredrickson died in 2008 at age 73. As a scholar of comparative history he was profound. In the New York Times obituary on March 7, 2008, Douglas Martin writes of Fredrickson as being “a historian who cast new light on the study of race and who helped define the field of comparative history with a penetrating examination of racial relations in the United States and South Africa”. Martin also credits Fredrickson “with breaking ground in the use of comparative history to escape provincialism and suggest broader, more thematic judgments about historical forces. This was particularly evident in his book “White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History” (1981), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.”

One of Fredrickson’s last books was “Racism: A Short History” (2002). The book serves as a composite of much of his profound comparative history on racism and white supremacy. For those of us in the United States, he importantly places the southern United States Jim Crow period in an international context and he anticipates the questions or critique of his analysis.

It was in the 20th century, no less, that we in the course of our human history had what Fredrickson refers to as our only overtly racist regimes. While, his comparative analysis is sobering and compelling I only touch on some of it in this article. We’ve always had racism and discrimination, he says, and wherever Europeans went they were always racist but the degrees varied. Fredrickson states, however, that “racist principles were not fully codified into laws effectively enforced by the state or made a central concern of public policy until the emergence of what I will call ‘overtly racist regimes’ in the last century.”

Fredrickson’s description of an overtly racist regime is as follows:
What are the distinguishing features of an overtly racist regime that would distinguish it from the general run of ethnically pluralistic societies in which racial prejudice contributes significantly to social stratification? First there is an official ideology that is explicitly racist. Those in authority proclaim insistently that the difference between the dominant group and the one that is being subordinated or eliminated are permanent or unbridgeable. Dissent from this ideology is dangerous and is likely to bring legal or extralegal reprisals, for racist egalitarianism is heresy in an overtly racist regime. Second, this sense of radical difference and alienation is most clearly and dramatically expressed in laws forbidding interracial marriage. The ideal is “race purity” and the bans on miscegenation reflect the maintenance or creation of a caste system based on the presumed racial difference. Third, social segregation is mandated by law and not merely the product of custom or private acts of discrimination that are tolerated by the state. The object is to bar all forms of contact that might imply equality between the segregators and the segregated. Fourth, to the extent that the policy is formally democratic, outgroup members are excluded from holding public office or even exercising franchise. Fifth, the access that they have to resources and economic opportunities is so limited that most of those in the stigmatized category are either kept in poverty or deliberately impoverished. This ideal type of an “overtly racist regime” applies quite well to the American South in the heyday of Jim Crow, to South Africa under apartheid, and to Nazi Germany. Nowhere else were the political and legal potentialities of racism so fully realized.”

In anticipation of a critique, after his description of an overt racism, Fredrickson says that while many other countries had a “significant racist dimension” they would “fall short of meeting the criteria for an overtly racist regime.” He cites many examples, such as Latin America that had many blacks and indigenous populations and informally discriminated but did not, for example, institute Jim Crow laws that banned intermarriage.

Then Fredrickson describes the similarities between these three regimes. Why was it that they became so racist? For one, the slavery period and forming attitudes based on race was certainly a factor in the United States and South Africa and a history of intense religious bigotry in the case of Germany.

Fredrickson writes that “Another common factor was the varying significance in the three cases was the extent to which the racial other came to be identified with national defeat and humiliation.” In the southern United States white southerners blamed blacks for the loss of the Civil War either because, for example, the war was fought around the issue of preventing the spread of slavery or black involvement in Union lines (200,000 blacks fought for the Union). Also the black franchise helped keep in power the Radical Republicans during the Reconstruction period much to the disdain of the ruling white elite.

In the German case Hitler blamed the Jews for the loss of World War 1.

In South Africa during the Boer War (1899-1902) Africans were blamed for siding with the British rather than the Afrikaaners in what became a humiliating defeat.

As Fredrickson says, the northern United States, the Allies in World War I and the British were “too powerful to be within reach of reprisal, at least in the short run.” So one way of dealing with the frustration was to use the “vulnerable Other” as a scapegoat.

The empire building by Europe and the United States also impacted the rationale used by the overtly racist regimes as a way of justifying their actions and also softened the criticism of those outside the regimes. For example, when Rudyard Kipling came out with his “White Man Burden” poem in 1899 as the US was building it’s own empire as a result of the war in the Philippines in 1899, another and compelling justification for occupation was given. It was the white man’s responsibility to “civilize” these brown skinned peoples of the world.

Finally, Fredrickson refers to the fact that this “highest stage of white supremacy” in South Africa and the American South as well as the racist anti-semitic German regime were facilitated by “becoming modern” which, he says, was a precondition to the development of the overtly racist regimes. Fredrickson has a way of turning things on their head. The goal of white Europeans has always been to maintain control but the question is how this can be done. For example, during the slavery period whites in the South could largely control blacks more often by their own personal dictates. This control became more problematic as the economy evolved to a more urban and industrial setting in the 20th century. As Fredrickson says, “the maintenance of white supremacy now required rules and regulations to prevent blacks from taking advantage of the absence of personalized surveillance and thereby ‘getting out of their place.’” Thus, the overtly racist regimes were established to control all behavior.

As a political activist myself, and white I might add, and who in one way or the other has been impacted by all of these overtly racist regimes, it was rather sobering to realize that in the whole history of the world it was in the 20th century when I was born and raised that these regimes evolved. My Canadian uncle was killed in Germany during the war; my neighbor here in Atlanta was a survivor of Dachau death camp in Germany; all my adult life I have been involved in challenging civil rights abuses and hammering in yet another nail in the coffin of Jim Crow and it’s dreadful impact in the urban and rural southern United States; in the 1970’s, 80’s ad 90’s I was organizing and helping to intensify the battle against apartheid and finally, in celebration, serving as an observer of the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.

Fredrickson’s analysis was sobering as it helped me to step away from the provincial sense of Jim Crow in he United States, to better understand the enormity of it all and to place it all in the universe of human history – or as David Martin referred to above “suggest broader, more thematic judgments about historical forces.” It was this, then, that many of us in the world were battling against in the 20th century – overt state controlled racism and brutality the degree to which the world has never seen in terms of racial hostilities in all three regimes. Even the South African whites were shocked at the brutality in the southern United States and that’s saying a lot! Yet, though these overtly racist regimes evolved in the 20th century, they were also defeated in the 20th century thanks to the struggles and demands and armed struggles of the victims themselves. The legacies of these regimes still resonate of course and the struggles and resistance by people all over the world continue now and will continue in the future to chip away and often make profound gaping holes in these legacies of oppression.

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net <mailto:hmcgray@earthlink.net> .

Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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