As Black History Month winds down, I would like to illuminate one of the most pressing questions in race politics: Why is slavery still a part of the conversation?
My answer: Slavery will be a part of the conversation of race politics as long as America refuses to acknowledge and take responsibility for its abusive history. I know this because of the precedent set by Germany for a country to own up to its past evils. Germany has spent the last 75 years making amends for the crimes of Nazism, while America has spent the last 156 killing, gaslighting and oppressing the victims of slavery. Americans will never be able to move past slavery if they are not willing to confront their violent past and reconcile with it.
Germany has been able to progress as a nation because of its ability to confront its past, but this did not come about of its own accord. Germany’s remarkable reconciliation was achieved because the whole world was holding them accountable. After Germany lost World War II, their actions were punished: The nation was split into four sections controlled by different Allied countries. The people responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust were punished in front of the world at the Nuremberg Trials, while Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, saw suicide as his only way to evade responsibility. After Germany paid their physical debts, they moved to repay the deep moral debt created by a genocide worth 11 million souls. It has done this by taking the stance that “no German is free of history,” creating memorials to the victims of the Holocaust, taking down the remaining statues of the Third Reich and forming the Treaty of Warsaw, which “committed Germany and Poland to nonviolence.”
Unlike Germany, the United States won the Civil War against the Confederacy, but it could not hold them accountable for the sin of slavery because the nation’s economy was built off of, and profited from, it. Despite the official reason for the North’s leniency being an attempt to help the South’s economy recover, they also shied away from reckoning with their own participation in slavery. Instead, Americans remain ashamed of their past and turn their shame into aggression against African Americans.
Out of fear of retaliation from African Americans, white people have spent 156 years creating systems to uphold their own supremacy. America will not even teach the full history of this country to its children, as a way to shelter white children from the damage of their ancestors. Take, for example, Maria Montessori Academy in North Ogden, Utah, which enables parents to opt out of Black History Month curriculum for their children. Germans, on the other hand, teach their children about their horrific past. That is why young Germans with no direct relationship to what happened in World War II are willing to atone for the mistakes of the past. Compare this to American children, who have yet to learn from their ancestors, are still being taught racist values and continue to breed a system of white supremacy.
Germany has used sites of Nazi crimes, including concentration camps, as “teaching tools and a visible reminder of the atrocities.” Meanwhile, it took 152 years for the United States to build the National African-American History Museum, but statues honoring Confederate leaders still stand, despite their contribution to slavery. Additionally, many Americans do not know that the White House and the U.S. Capitol were built by enslaved people and that the foundation of the modern American economy was built on slave labor. America still has not come to terms with the fact that many founding fathers, who defeated the British and created the foundation of American values, including James Madison, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were also notorius slave owners. African Americans never got a Nuremberg Trial — instead, we are forced to watch our oppressors be celebrated and immortalized while we are turned into cautionary martyrs. America’s history with slavery and oppression of African American people has always been hidden and disregarded.
The reason why we still keep talking about slavery is because America as an institution will not acknowledge its role in the abuse it inflicts on African Americans, leaving them unable to heal from their trauma. Instead, America has opted to continue to abuse and punish African Americans for wanting so desperately to be a part of the country that was built on their backs. Though not perfect, Germany has demonstrated how to express regret about the horrendous actions of its past as they have realized that reconciliation is an ongoing process that never ends.
In every generation, people grapple with the sins of their ancestors while others must slowly learn how to thrive in spite of generational trauma. Reconciling and healing are a continuous process. America as a nation will never be able to move forward, past slavery, if it is not willing to even start with a simple: “We’re sorry.”