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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Racism: Why Hasn’t It Gone Away?

Updated: Nov 20, 2022


I’ve been struggling for a while now to articulate some of my thoughts about racism. Because of my German heritage and the fact that some members of my family, back in the 1930s, were Nazi supporters, it’s a subject that I often reflect on—just trying to understand how people become hate-filled in this way. This post is an attempt to put some of my thoughts into words, but the topic is huge, and addressing racism and other forms of bigotry is a challenge that I suspect will be with us for generations. Anyway, I guess I would call this a snapshot in my ongoing effort to make sense of one of the more the senseless aspects of human nature.



The recent spate of brutal police killings and beatings, recorded on bystander and police videos, has triggered a resurgence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and evoked a huge outcry throughout the United States and around the world. The moral outrage has been widespread and has brought this issue back into public prominence. There are calls for radical changes to law enforcement, greater accountability for incidents of police brutality and renewed efforts to root out the “systemic racism” that permeates our political and social institutions. Some symbolic action has been taken, such as the removal of a few historically racist monuments and the banning of the confederate flag at NASCAR races. Still, I wonder if any real and lasting change will come out of this latest surge of protest and activism, or if the momentum will falter as the public’s attention is diverted elsewhere.


Some observers feel that this time will be different. We’ll see.


The situation is eerily familiar, another sad chapter in the unmasking of the American Dream, laying bare the recurring nightmare in which so many of its citizens are trapped. What happened? Wasn’t America, just a few short years ago, entering an era of optimism and reconciliation? Didn’t Americans elect a charismatic black president who championed unity and tolerance, who worked to break down the barriers and divisions that have plagued the nation for decades? How did that end up going so wrong?


The parallels between twenty-first century America and what went down in the Germany of the 1920s and ‘30s are almost spooky. The Weimar Republic, Germany’s first fully democratic government, had some of the most socially progressive policies in the world during its tenure from 1919 to 1933. William Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, described the Weimar constitution as, "on paper, the most liberal and democratic document of its kind the twentieth century had ever seen.” Women and Jews had significant representation in the national assembly, and all citizens were guaranteed full equality regardless of ethnicity. Ironically, this led to the migration of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe to Germany, most of whom were later caught up in the Holocaust.


The progressive direction of the Weimar parliament, however, did not resonate with all Germans. Social and religious conservatives were appalled at the relaxation of moral codes and the sexual permissiveness that blossomed in the 1920s. Members of the old-guard aristocratic establishment, represented by president Paul von Hindenburg, also worked tirelessly against Weimar as they saw their privileged status threatened by the socialist leanings of the parliament. The final blow was the 1929 market crash and ensuing economic depression and runaway unemployment. With the help of Hindenburg and his backroom manipulators, Hitler and the Nazis were swept into power in 1933.


Sound familiar? The Obama presidency set a tone of tolerance and advancement of social justice which one hoped would establish a continuing trend of progressive policies and peaceful ethnic coexistence. Instead, it triggered a backlash that resulted in the election of the crude and bombastic demagogue Trump. Both leaders, Hitler and Trump, fanned the flames of divisiveness and racism, unraveling whatever progress their predecessors had made in fostering social cohesion and equality. Why? Why do advances in liberal policy seem to spark a reactionary response and turn the democratic momentum in favor of nativism and xenophobia?


The thing is—the racism doesn’t go away. It won’t go away if Donald Trump is defeated in the November election. It won’t go away even if there are sweeping changes made to policing policy or if institutions take steps to remove barriers and end discriminatory practices. The feelings of intolerance, suspicion, and loathing of “others” remain in certain individuals—many individuals, I suspect—and these feelings will not disappear in response to changes in social policy.


Don’t get me wrong. These kinds of changes are vitally important to improve the safety of vulnerable communities and to advance the goal of equal opportunity for all, regardless of ethnicity. I’m in full support of the Black Lives Matter movement and its objectives. I hope that this new groundswell of activism and political pressure will initiate some substantive changes for the better.


However, I also find myself wondering about racists as individuals. How does a person come to feel such hatred toward others just because of their ethnic background? I agree that racism, along with other forms of antisocial thought and behavior, is “learned,” as Mandela contends, but there is also a psychological component that underlies these impulses. The catchphrase “hurt people hurt people” comes to mind. Everywhere there are individuals whose lives were made hell by abuse, bullying, shaming or neglect. A picture is emerging, from research in recent years, of the link between childhood abuse and later antisocial behavior, including violence, crime and addiction in adulthood. I suspect that bigotry is just another manifestation of this syndrome. Whether it be in the form of racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, bullying or domestic violence and abuse, traumatised individuals will often seek out a target for their rage.


Mandela also asserts that people can be taught to love, and I would say this has been borne out in the tremendous strides that have been made in promoting racial equality since the end of the Second World War. The American Civil Rights movement, through courageous and dedicated activism, brought an end to the Jim Crow laws of the South. Much has been done over the subsequent decades to cultivate tolerance and harmony among all ethnic groups—school programs, affirmative action policies and more—and attitudes have certainly changed for the better. Still, there remains a persistent, lingering level of bigotry that routinely rears its ugly head, especially in a social and political climate of implicit acceptance and even approval of discrimination toward minorities.


So, why hasn’t the message gotten through to everyone? Why have we not been able to convince racists that their beliefs are founded on flawed logic? I think we all understand that love can’t really be “taught,” like algebra or grammar. Love, compassion, empathy—these qualities emerge organically in conditions of acceptance and inclusion. Children brought up in truly loving environments will become loving and compassionate adults. Children bearing the scars of abuse or neglect will find their emotional lives distorted by the fear and rage they carry with them into adulthood. Depending on their family culture or the groups to which they are drawn, some will become racists.


I recently watched the documentary White Right – Meeting the Enemy, by British filmmaker Deeyah Khan. Hoping to understand what motivated racists (as a South Asian Muslim woman she had endured numerous ugly slurs and threats herself) she went to America and engaged with some of the men involved in white supremacist and alt-right movements. The conversations she had with these individuals are revealing.


Frank Meeink, one of the men Khan interviewed, grew up in a brutally abusive family situation. “I’m a broken human being,” he says, referring to his younger self, “I feared everything.” He found camaraderie and a sense of belonging in a skinhead group and, the first time he saw the fear in one of his victim’s eyes, felt a rush of exhilaration surge through his body. The tables had been turned. Suddenly, instead of being the fearful one, he was the one making others afraid. It was like a drug.


Arno Michaelis, another former violent neo-Nazi and member of the Hammerskin Nation, reflected upon his attraction to the white power movement. “I was a fucked-up kid with no empathy for other people,” he explained. He was drawn to the violence as an outlet for his feelings of rage, but years later, after his child was born, he had a change of heart. “I’m ashamed of all the kids I’ve led astray. I preyed upon their trauma, their suffering, to manipulate them to hate people and to hurt people. Until the day I die, I’ll be ashamed of that.”


All the men who agreed to talk with Khan seemed to share a similar history. They were emotionally damaged outcasts who had difficulty fitting in. They found a home in one or another of the white nationalist or neo-Nazi groups, where they were accepted and where they could vent their anger at the world that had rejected them. Khan engages with them in a personable but uncompromising way and sometimes backs them into a corner, where they must reconcile their racist beliefs with the fondness that many of them developed for the filmmaker during the hours they spent together. We begin to see them as human, sometimes even revealing a gentleness and vulnerability that belies the malignancy of their ideology.


Khan also spent time with Jeff Schoep, at the time the leader of America’s largest neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Movement (NSM). The NSM promotes the notion that the white “race” is under existential threat from people of color, and advocates for the creation of a white American ethno-state. Schoep toured Khan through the urban decay of Detroit, a city that he claimed provided “perfect recruitment grounds” for the NSM. “Any time you’re in an area where the economy is suffering,” he observed, “it’s somewhere that our message resonates with the people.”


Khan’s film illustrates again the veracity of the maxim “hurt people hurt people.” Perpetrators of violence and hate, inevitably, were once also victims. There is so much trauma in this world—war, hunger, imprisonment, family dysfunction, bullying, poverty—the list goes on. Some victims find ways to cope and heal; others don’t. The difference, I suspect, is in finding some kind of compassionate counterbalance—a caring family member or friend, a counselor or therapist, a support group. For others, the trauma will lead them down a darker path, be it violence, addiction, prostitution or crime. And some will be drawn to racism and religious, ethnic or political extremism.


In reference to the brutal oppression faced by African Americans, Martin Luther King said, “Forced to live with these shameful conditions, we are tempted to become bitter and to retaliate with a corresponding hate. But if this happens, the new order that we seek will be little more than a duplicate of the old order. We must in strength and humility meet hate with love.”


Are these words, I wonder, still relevant today? I see a great deal of bitterness, anger and invective from all sides in the current situation. Is there still room for the courageous Christian pastor who preached forgiveness and loving one’s enemies? He believed it to be the only true path of healing for humanity. Is it really possible to find compassion for the damaged human beings who are spewing such venomous racist hate?


Of course, our priority must be to protect Black, Indigenous and other vulnerable groups from discrimination and violence. Of course, we must do everything possible to ensure that minorities and marginalized groups have equal opportunities and that barriers are broken down and dismantled. At the same time, I hope we can also bring some attention to the conditions—poverty, inequity, social and family dysfunction, physical and sexual abuse—that give rise to racism and other antisocial attitudes. And keep trying, however difficult it may seem, to heed Martin Luther King's exhortation to “meet hate with love.”


Here are a few links to some of the subjects referenced in the post:


The documentary White Right - Meeting the Enemy


Arno Michaelis' profile and story in The Forgiveness Project


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