Resisting Apartheid, Genocide—and Trump

Steve Russell

There are many reasons I admired my late friend, the South African poet Dennis Brutus. He was “shot trying to escape,” did time on the infamous Robben Island prison that held Nelson Mandela, and had his work banned in his homeland.

But one thing always stood out for me. Dennis was “colored,” which meant in the racial hierarchy of apartheid South Africa, he was above Bantu (blacks) and just below whites. Asians were a separate category, excepting Japanese who were declared to be “honorary whites” to seal an important trade deal.

Dennis was well aware of the differing privileges. When he was shot, lying in the street bleeding out, the first ambulance that showed up was the one for whites. He had to lie there and bleed until the police summoned one for coloreds.

Knowing fully what he was doing, Dennis refused to claim any privileges colored had but Bantu did not. “When anybody is a kaffir,” he said, “I’m a kaffir.” He was referring to the South African version of the N word.

I thought of Dennis this week when The Hill reported from a conference in New York, where a speaker was the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt. The ADL, the leading Jewish civil rights organization, has had a busy year with the spike in anti-Semitic incidents around the election.

Greenblatt asserted, “The new administration plans to force Muslims to register on some master list. As Jews, we know what it means to be forced to register.” He went on:

I pledge to you that because I am committed to the fight against anti-Semitism that if one day Muslim-Americans are forced to register their identities, that is the day this proud Jew will register as Muslim. Making powerful enemies is the price one must pay, at times, for speaking truth to power.

Greenblatt’s position is politically astute and morally correct. There’s no objective measure for faith, and I think if the government starts making lists of Muslims, I will start paying more attention to the Azaan

There’s an apocryphal story that when Hitler’s occupation government in Denmark ordered all Jews to wear yellow stars on their clothing, King Christian X responded that he would have to wear one and suggested all Danes do the same. This story can be traced to a cartoon in a Swedish newspaper but the truth is that there is an important reality behind the cartoon.

The arrest and deportation of Danish Jews was ordered by the Nazis on October 2, 1943, but Danes had already warned the Jews and begun to spirit them out of the country. Thanks to the small heroisms of hundreds if not thousands of ordinary Danes, fewer than 500 of the 7,000 Jews in Denmark were caught and of those 90 percent survived.

There never was a general decree about wearing yellow stars for the Danes to defy, but they did a good enough job of defying the order to round up the Jews to justify a lot of national pride.

Japanese-Americans could have used some of that heroism in the U.S. on February 19, 1942, when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing internment of Japanese-Americans for the duration of the war. The majority of the persons subject to the order were native born U.S. citizens and the primary result of internment was Japanese-American property becoming the property of white people at pennies on the dollar.

In 1988, Congress apologized for Japanese-American internment and paid reparations to the few survivors. This year, this week, in 2016, Carl Higbie, a former spokesman for a Super PAC backing Donald Trump and speaking to Megyn Kelly on Fox News as a Trump surrogate, offered Japanese-American internment as a “precedent” and claimed that Trump’s immigration advisors are convinced a Muslim registry would “hold constitutional muster.”

Roosevelt made a list in a national paroxysm of fear. Hitler made a list to expedite genocide. South Africa made a list to enforce apartheid.

Trump is now considering a list. The purpose is unclear but the reason he thinks it is possible is fear, fear stoked by the idiotic idea that the war on terror is a war on mainstream Islam. Judging Islam by jihadi terrorists is like judging Christianity by snake handlers.

It seems unlikely that the opinions of sane people will move the President-elect away from making a list by religion and he already said during the campaign that he thinks he can exclude people from the U.S. based on religion.

I can’t deny that Muslims believe some silly stuff. So do Christians and Jews.

I also cannot deny that our tribal beliefs do not get the equal regard to which they should be entitled under U.S. law.

Keeping all that in mind, I can still hear Dennis Brutus the poet speaking in prose so plain even Donald Trump ought to understand it: “When anybody is a kaffir, I am a kaffir.”

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.


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