The phrase “concentration camp” has shown up on the trending topics sidebar on Twitter. There’s something dystopian about debating whether or not mass incarcerating children is acceptable and whether or not said warehoused children deserve soap and toothpaste, and it’s something that shocks many people. A common refrain that has come up in the midst of this has been that the United States of America “has now become a country that doesn’t treat migrants as people” or that “America has rejected being a nation of immigrants.” These sentiments are understandable, but they overlook the historical context and the underlying problem that comes with these statements; historical whitewashing and failing to understand the entrenched nature of white supremacy, and it engages in historical whitewashing of the Holocaust.
The first concentration camp in Germany wasn’t a death camp. Dachau was initially opened in 1933 to warehouse Communists and Social Democrats, as was Buchenwald. As time went on the people there were forced into slave labor, medical experimentation, and eventually liquidation at camps designed for mass killings. Yet the practice of concentration camps doesn’t come from a historical vacuum that only existed from 1933-1945; the practice long predates the Third Reich.
Some have argued it offensive to compare what presently is occurring at various Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding centers to concentration camps, in that it is unfair to compare actions of the United States to that of Fascist countries because it cheapens the memory of historical atrocity. The problem is that Fascist countries and leaders write down what they say, who inspired them, and where their ideas come from. In Hitler’s American Model we see that the Nuremberg laws (laws codifying who was and wasn’t a German citizen, and thus who was and wasn’t legally afforded rights) were directly inspired by Jim Crow. Nazi Eugenics institutes were initially given funding by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of early transnational eugenics “research” institutes that would be directly responsible for many forms of human experimentation. In fact the inevitable end goal of Nazism was to exterminate The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe so as to settle the land and “Aryanize” it. Hitler himself spoke of the similarities between the U.S. and his own project, saying “[The United States should] be respected as racial kindred and builders of a great empire… as it gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now keep the modest remnant under observation in a cage.” Indeed Hitler spoke of the Soviet Union in a way entirely indistinguishable from that of many American settlers. As quoted in the Holocaust Encyclopedia, “There is only one duty: to Germanize this country [The Soviet Union] by the immigration of Germans, and to look upon the natives as Redskins.”
This idea that German atrocities were somehow distinct from or entirely incomparable to that of American ones effectively absolves the U.S. of any responsibility to examine it’s history of and ongoing relation with racism, and in doing so erases millions of direct Nazi victims, as well as the historical and contemporary victims of American racism. In fact, it is precisely this whitewashing that has allowed so many people to overlook the real roots of the contemporary crisis we’re seeing at I.C.E. concentration camps, the roots of colonialism and racism.
To start, the U.S. has had absolutely no qualms with making concentration camps of its own devices. During the Trail of Tears thousands of Cherokee people were rounded up into prisons before being forcibly thrown out of their ancestral homes after White Settlers discovered gold on Cherokee lands. Thousands died from exposure on the march and from appalling prison conditions. Cheyenne, Sioux, Comanche, etc. were all rounded up during raids against indigenous people on the American planes, and then summarily killed in racist pogroms after being housed at concentration camps that would become extermination camps.
In fact, plantations as they existed shared many similarities to forced labor camps. In much the same way that undesirables were shipped off to labor camps, to work for the war effort as well as to enrich companies like Volkswagen and Siemens, enslaved people’s labor was used both to enrich the slave-owning class as well as to enrich companies like Dupont and Bank of America.
However, most of our modern day rhetoric involves whether or not it’s appropriate to invoke the phrase “concentration camp” when it comes to I.C.E. The entire meta analytical framework about whether the mass caging of undocumented children and attempts at mass expulsion while the director of I.C.E. uses the Nuremberg defense is deeply troubling, but it is necessary to show that the entire concept of defining American citizenship has always involved mass dehumanization and the employment of security state rhetoric. Whether it be the mass warehousing of Issei and Nissei Japanese Americans out of racist fears of wartime sabotage, or whether it be the mass deportation of a million former wartime workers from the U.S. in “Operation W*tback out from the country on the premise of “illegality.” Yet during the war endemic labor shortages were found in the U.S. after millions were drafted, and the existing bracero program (an arrangement whereby Mexico would supply the U.S. with laborers as part of the war effort) failed to deliver enough workers. In response, thousands of people skirted the program to aid in the war effort and make a better life for their families, only to be mass deported a decade later in a racist campaign based upon demonizing them. Up to half of those people deported in said operation were U.S. citizens, and most of them worked in agricultural labor that fed millions of allied soldiers, with many being warehoused in facilities similar to that of modern day I.C.E. centers.
President Reagan refused Salvadoran refugees after having aided a brutal military junta that killed thousands of Salvadorans in a civil war (in which the junta committed the overwhelming majority of civilian killings). After the U.S. propped up Cédras of Haiti following a the ousting of Jean Bertrand Artistide, the U.S. removed and turned away thousands of Haitians, and warehoused many at Guantanamo Bay. Clinton continued this legacy and Guantanamo Bay had a camp filled with Haitians suffering from AIDS. To quote Boots Riley, “Turn this shit over like Bush did a boatload of Haitians.” And following both Clinton and Bush Sr., Bush Jr. quite literally created I.C.E. It serves as a bitter irony that last year Laura Bush was writing a criticism of family separation given her very close relation to the person responsible for creating the group committing these acts.
And finally, despite the obscenity of Operation W*tback, the largest number of deportations on record occurred under none other than President Obama. Many of those people fled from a U.S. State Dept. coup in Honduras after President Zelaya attempted a series of welfare reforms.
The problem with these arguments about whether or not referring to concentration camps is “respectful” or “appropriate” is that they’re all based on the idea that any amount of atrocity short of gas chambers and death camps are a simple debate about politics. That somehow mass violence, extreme racism, etc. are different when done under the American flag. That somehow America is exceptional to any other nation, that things it does to non citizens are just part and parcel of being America, and that the violence doled out to these people is deserved because of alleged criminality. That somehow publishing lists of crimes committed by ethnic groups that are targets for removal is uniquely a German crime that can only occur in any place that isn’t America.
And it’s this reason why these crimes will continue to happen, because the roots of American violence haven’t been attacked. That it’s always been profitable for our domestic upper classes to abuse the labor of impoverished people, disproportionately many of whom are non white, both here and abroad. And until we can undermine that system of power these abuses will not stop, because they never stopped.
This has been A Closer Look with Joe.