The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute held its second symposium on race at the Hilton Head Island campus of the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
Thanks to the leadership of USCB Professor Gloria Graves Holmes, the symposium consisted of a day-long series of discussions, workshops and learning sessions. We learned how complex and multifaceted the conversation about race is in American society.
These issues surrounding race and human rights ought to concern the religious community when it comes to the way we treat each other, whether we are citizens or not.
During a panel discussion, I received a question from the audience. The question to me was whether or not I was offended when people liken American detention centers on the southern border for illegal aliens to concentration camps that the Nazis created.
The question itself began to gather steam on a national level when U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes was reported to have said, “The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are — they are concentration camps.”
She went on to exclaim in a CNN interview, ”And if that doesn’t bother you ... I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that we should not, that ‘never again’ means something,” a reference to a phrase commonly invoked by Jews about the Holocaust.
Needless to say, those comments ignited a firestorm between elected officials. Representatives of national Jewish organizations spoke out in opposition to and in favor of using the Holocaust analogy as a frame of reference toward understanding the function of American illegal immigrant detention centers.
The most prominent historian of the Holocaust in America is Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University. In response to this question, she was reported to have said, “Talk about the horrific conditions, and not historical analogies.
“Don’t give those who are behind this policy a chance to piously claim they are being wrongly accused. Use of Holocaust analogies to condemn U.S. immigration policy is a distraction.”
Let’s not forget that concentration camps in the Nazi period functioned with several very different purposes: to isolate people such as the Jews, to force them into slave labor, and then to murder them. That is why on many occasions they were referred to as extermination camps.
America created internment camps for Japanese Americans during the second world war. The purpose was to isolate American citizens of Japanese descent.
Today, we realize how wrong it was even though Americans, especially those living on the West Coast, were back then afraid of being attacked by the Japanese armed forces. We faced that history years later and realized the injustice that was done to our fellow citizens.
News reports revealing a policy of separating children from their parents in these centers causes legitimate concern about how our government views the dignity of human life. Any alleged abusive behavior by ICE guards toward the detainees deserves investigation by the authorities. From the moment America detains illegal aliens and puts them into its detention centers, American authorities have a legal and moral obligation to treat detainees with dignity and not as criminals while they go through the legal process of petitioning the courts for asylum.
Let’s not forget that a concentration camp was specifically geared under the Nazi regime to put people to death and not hold them until some kind of legal process was implemented to adjudicate their cases in immigration courts.
Now we have detention centers housing illegal immigrants, mostly from Central America, and we watch how easy it is to invoke the Holocaust completely out of context and use it as a political weapon to advance the movement to oppose these centers.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortes has a right and responsibility to speak her mind on this issue. At the same time, she has the duty to be accurate in her use of historic analogies for situations today.
The Holocaust was unique, and history matters. People, Jews in particular, are protective about the meaning of the Holocaust.
Let’s not forget that as history matters, so too do words matter in how we speak about race and how we refer to the past as a teachable moment about the present.
When it comes to remembering the past about slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, as well as the civil rights movement, it is important that we be accurate in how we present history if we are ever to make progress in race relations in America and face any issue that reflects injustice in our society.
Getting the history right makes all the difference in the world toward pursuing the truth in our own times.