About 371,000 German soldiers were held in American prisons until 1946. That they, above all in the southern states, were treated better than black workers, gave the growing civil rights movement a powerful weapon.
In contrast, American soldiers and civilians often described the German POWs as “magnificent physical specimens,” “physically supreme, muscular types” or “fine specimens of physical manhood.” The prisoners from Africa especially attracted attention and admiration. For a man from Texas, the Germans were “just the best bunch of boys you ever saw,” while a reporter who visited Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, confessed that he found them “uniformly neat, excessively polite, splendidly disciplined, these young men are – frankly – hard to dislike.”
Americans who employed POWs often shared this feeling. Most Germans worked in agriculture, canning, logging and lumber where the war had created a shortage of reliable unskilled labor. Many of these jobs had been traditionally performed by black Americans who were no longer available in sufficient numbers, despite substantial efforts to restrict their mobility or defer their induction. The German POWs filled this gap and grateful employers often showed their appreciation in various forms. Some even invited them to restaurants or into their own homes. The Inspector General’s Department was not pleased and wrote in a March 1945 report: “The average employer and his foremen, learning that the German prisoner of war, except for ideological concepts, is in general little different from the rank and file of our own soldiers, are apt to become overly friendly and solicitous of the prisoner of war’s welfare.”
The vast majority of POWs were interned in the South or border States where they often worked next to black Americans in the fields and factories. The availability of POW labor kept the wages for blacks at a low level and also had “rather a good effect on some of our sorry Negro labor by tending to keep them on the job better,” as one employer from Alabama put it.
Nevertheless, the German POWs reported almost uniformly that the African Americans treated them friendly and regarded them as “prisoners like us.”
“We were their fellow-sufferers,” one former POW recalled. “Bad time, prisoner time.” For the moment, the joint “underdog” status was more important than the racial divide. POWs and black Americans shared stories, songs, food and drink, and many Germans came to regard the blacks as the anti-thesis of white, soulless, capitalist America – the “land without a heart.”
While black Americans frequently clashed with Italian prisoners of war who enjoyed greater freedom than their former German allies, there is little evidence of direct tension between Germans and black Americans. However, black American soldiers frequently contrasted the treatment of German POWs with their own treatment and reported in countless letters that “there are German prisoners here and they live better than we do.”
Although not all of these reports were accurate, German POWs often did enjoy better treatment and more rights, such as access to “whites only” facilities. The fact that “Nazi prisoners” were given access to restaurants or railway compartments off-limits to black American soldiers provided the growing civil rights movement in the United States with a powerful weapon.
Racial discrimination also limited the effectiveness of the reeducation program for the German POWs. The program, which started in 1944, tried to turn the prisoners into democrats “by presenting to them in so far as is possible under the circumstances the best aspects of American life and institutions.” Some POWs responded by contrasting American values with the treatment of black Americans. However, the majority of them were more concerned with when they would be allowed to return home.
The Americans created the impression that participation in the reeducation program would lead to quicker repatriation but this was not true. The first to return to Germany were “useless” prisoners and “troublemakers,” i.e. unrepentant Nazis. The last regular shipment of German POWs left the United States on July 22, 1946 of which around 178,000 of the POWs were handed over to Great Britain and France as workers. For the prisoners, this was a “modern slave trade on the grandest scale.” Some of them had to endure over two more years of captivity and forced labor.
To “disenfranchise,” typically defined in any basic dictionary, is to deprive of civil privileges, rights of citizenship or constitutional rights, especially the right to vote. Within a colonial administrative or nation-state context, disenfranchisement is an active process by which the colonizing power, state or state-sanctioned institutions deny colonial subjects or citizens basic rights.
To borrow the title from John Gaventa’s book (1982),disenfranchisement includes dynamics of “Power and Powerlessness.” American ethnic minorities can tell a variety of stories about disenfranchisement and struggles against disenfranchisement for civil rights. This is especially true for Native Americans and Black Americans.
To what degree do the more recent experiences of black American felon’s resemble the historical experiences of actual slavery and Black Americans? In order for disenfranchisement to occur and then be maintained or sustained, the colonizer, enslaver, invader, or the usurping power has to create and disseminate a story or ideological justification. Renowned scholars like Pierre Bourdieu, Antonio Gramsci, and Edward Said have contributed to and inspired a vast literature on ideological hegemonic dynamics (Bourdieu and Johnson 1993, Gramsci 1971, Said 1994). This presentation borrows briefly from the work of Bourdieu but focuses more upon the claims of John Gaventa. Political Sociologist, John Gaventa, reveals how ideological justification is forged through a “mobilization of bias” during which the usurping power asserts, imposes, and legitimizes cultural hegemony (Gaventa 1982). Another way of looking at this may be through the concept of symbolic violence. Symbolic violence, as defined by Bourdieu , refers to the ability of a dominant group to impose it symbols upon
others not through physical violence but through cultural domination, the control of ideas, images,standards, icons, and so on (Bourdieu 1977, Wacquant 1993). This ideological control becomes so pervasive and taken-for-granted that both dominant and disenfranchised group members internalize or accept these symbols as legitimate. Organizations, corporations, colonial administrations,governments, government-based institutions (including school systems), are just a short list of the entities that often engage in symbolic violence. Over time, the control of ideas, images, and symbols may become so taken-for-granted that, as argued by Gaventa, inequities become non-issues. Allow me to repeat, grave inequities such as land dispossession, dehumanization, enslavement, and apartheid eventually become non-issues. Inequities become non-issues!
So, according to Gaventa (as well as Bourdieu), what are the procedural dimensions of power and powerlessness by which a dominant ideology is imposed and, then, grave inequities become nonissues? Well, disenfranchisement and other forms of disempowerment may involve the following three levels or dimensions of power (Gaventa 1982):
1. The ability of a powerful entity (e.g., organization, corporation, government, colonial administration, executive or congressional or parliamentary power) to force someone or some group to act against their will. This level of power often involves physical force and observable conflict.
2. The ability of a powerful entity to set the agenda or “rules of the game” and thereby mobilize bias in its favor in some political arena. At this level of power, a powerful entity constructs barriers that prevent a disempowered group from participating in a political process.
3. The ability of a powerful entity to shape individual and group consciousness through the control of ideals, information, ideologies, myths, and so on. It is at this level of symbolic power (also known as symbolic violence) that a powerful entity has legitimized its ideals, symbols, and ideologies and de-legitimized or destroyed those of disempowered groups.The concepts of “mobilization of bias” and “symbolic violence” illuminate the stages through which inequities become non-issues. Also, during processes of disenfranchisement, the powerful are able to successfully characterize and treat the disempowered as a “thing” or as an “it”, in other words, as a less than human object instead of a complex human subject.
♪♫ ♪♫ ♪♫
“Doe,” deer, a female deer…
“Ray,” a drop of golden sun…
“Me,” a name I call myself…
“ME,” A NAME I CALL MYSELF!
♪♫ ♪♫ ♪♫ ♪♫
“Me” to “It” Disenfranchisement has many consequences. In addition to issues becoming non-issues, another consequence is that an individual or group is de-evolved from a subject to an object, from a “’Me’ a name I call myself” to an “’It’ a thing I am called by others.” As mentioned above, disenfranchised groups become known not by what they call themselves but by what they are called by the colonizer, conqueror, or some other powerful entity.
Back to the ideological justification or the story created by powerful entities to justify disenfranchisement. For Native Americans, the story has changed over time as British colonizers, then U.S. state and federal governments have justified disenfranchisement. During pre- and early colonial times and prior to disenfranchisement, Native Americans appeared in romanticized Enlightenment stories as noble savages. This was also an image held by Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700s.
Also, prior to European contact, many Native Americans did not describe themselves as “Indians” who belonged to mere “tribes” but as “The People” who belonged to Nations, Bands & Clans, Pueblo City States, Confederacies, and so on.
This story would give way to stories about “Indians” as non-Christian “heathens” to stories about them as “wild animals,” “savage redmen” or “blood thirsty savages” to modern day stories of American Indians as “wards of the State” and “drunken Injuns/Indians”. For Black Americans the story has also changed overtime. Prior to enslavement, those West
Africans who would become victims of the slave trade included Arabic scholars, merchants, craftsmen, peasant farmers and cattle-tenders.
The reality that enslaved Africans were diverse and complex, would change to colonial American stories of Blacks as “uncivilized heathens” to early American stories about them as “childlike” beings that were more like chattel or property than human beings to stories about them as “pack animals,” “niggers,” and rapists of white women to more modern day stories of Blacks as “criminals,” “thugs,” and “welfare queens”.
In other words, the enslaver or colonizer creates dehumanizing stories to justify the inhumane treatment of disenfranchised peoples. Gaventa argues that ultimate power exists when the powerless are made to appear quiescent or apathetic despite their history of resistance and/or when the usurping power can manipulate policies, symbols, and ideologies to the extent that inequities experienced by the disenfranchised appear to be non-issues.
Grave Inequities Become Non-Issues It is important to understand that Native and Black Americans are not dehumanized into “objectified it-things” overnight but through processes of disenfranchisement and domination carried out from the first to the third levels of disempowerment listed above. At the first level of disempowerment Native and Black Americans were forced to act against their will through such events as colonization and/or enslavement, war, land dispossession,
forced migration, apartheid, and ghettoization.
Then, at the second level of disempowerment, colonial powers and then the U.S. government were able to mobilize bias against Native and Black Americans. It is during this second level that the powerful entities excluded Natives and Blacks from the political process and set the rules of the game through various types of discrimination institutionalized in Congressional Legislation, Supreme Court decisions, presidential practices, codes, and military actions.
Then, by the third level of disempowerment the control of ideals and information is so pervasive that Native and Black Americans are known more by the labels given them by dehumanizing entities than by the names they once called themselves. Even worse, some Native and Black Americans internalize dehumanizing labels. This is the level where symbolic violence is most pervasive and insidious. I here see the plight of credit checks, background checks, and all other planned criterions’ as sifting tools to disqualify a race of people. None of which is a new thing in and of itself, but it is unique in itself because of the mask and techniques implemented to set order for the new slaughter of underpowered people.
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