Underground racism

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By Paul-Etienne Coisne

[media-credit name=’Paul-Etienne Coisne’ align=’aligncenter’ width=’450′]“You’re probably just a fucking Jew,” “big nosed Jew,” “the south will rise again,” swastikas… Here are a few things that were recently scribbled in the men’s bathroom of, ironically, the Humanities building. I spare you from an enlightening bro-code and oversized phalluses.

Whether against Jews, Muslims, Christians, blacks or gays, racism and discrimination are by no means new. Both history and current conflicts around the globe are testimonies to this dishonorable, rampant evil. Yet, on a liberal arts college campus where young people are encouraged to “experience new cultures, appreciate different points of view and see the world through new eyes –or ears– as often as possible,” as our website’s front page lauds, one would hope that no students indulge in downright racism. In this regard, the Jewish German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that evil and totalitarianism settle in emptiness of thought. I would like to add that evil could also take root in those who have not experienced it.

A mere 65 years ago my country, France, was entirely occupied by the Nazis. Notwithstanding my not having Jewish ancestry, as a European, evoking World War II remains terrifying. First of all, throughout our schooling we study extensively how two World Wars devastated Europe over the span of 30 years. But on top of that, my generation has grown up with grandparents who, regardless of their religion, were old enough at the time to clearly remember those chaotic six years, and are now willing to pass on their stories. Some had their entire family taken away, while others were randomly executed by merciless soldiers. People were commonly humiliated by the SS, which also requisitioned everything it wanted, including food, houses, trains, or radios. Furthermore, reminders of this cruelty exist all around Europe in the form of streets, subway stations, monuments and museums that are often named after heroes of the “résistance,” victims of the Holocaust or innocents tortured by Gestapo officers. Even the smallest towns often have a memorial to both World Wars. In other words, evocations of the racism that plagued Europe a little over half a century ago are embedded in our everyday lives. People take it very seriously, knowing first hand what drawing swastikas implies.

“You’re probably just a fucking Jew…” Let’s not forget that this mode of thinking led Hitler’s Third Reich to orchestrate the deadliest human conflict in history by sending at least six million Jews to concentration camps, along with more than 10 million Romani, homosexuals, disabled people and whoever the Nazis could put their hands on; not to mention the other 35 to 55 millions who died as soldiers or “collateral damage” civilians crushed under constant bombings, street fights and tyrannical German occupation.

Keeping this in mind really puts in perspective how far anti-Semitic and racist comments can go. In Abraham Heschel’s words, “racism is man’s gravest threat to man—the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”

We like to think that a “liberal arts education should prepare students to tackle real-world problems.” Before we set sail to the “real-world” beyond Union and Nott Street, let’s remember that silence gives consent: to not speak out against such cowardly scrawled tags and racist threats ultimately legitimizes them.

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