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Human Rights Quarterly 23.2 (2001) 260-307

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Racial Purity Laws in the United States and Nazi Germany: The Targeting Process

Judy Scales-Trent

White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know they could act that way. But I doubt very much whether black people were astounded--at least, in the same way.

James Baldwin 1

Table of Contents

I. Introduction 260
II. Definitions and Proof 264
III. Instability within the Racial Purity System 267
    A. State Controls Instability 268
    B. Target (sometimes) Controls Instability 271
    C. State Renews Efforts to Control Instability 276 [End Page 259]
IV. The US System: A Broader View 281
    A. States 282
    B. Federal Government 284
V. Supporting Systems of Racial Purity 287
    A. Immigration Control and Citizenship Restrictions 287
    B. Forced Sterilization 291
VI. Afro-Germans in Nazi Germany, and Jews in America 292
VII. Conclusion 298

I. Introduction

In 1994, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published a notice in the Federal Register asking for public comment on the possible revision of Statistical Policy Directive 15, which sets out the definitions for six groups: Black, White, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. The government had used these particular definitions for two decades to tell us, for example, who is "white" or "black" in the United States, and to collect data on "race." Now the OMB was soliciting comments on whether those categories were adequate. Should they be changed? Should the government define and add other racial or ethnic groups? Should it try to find a way to classify those persons who were of "mixed" racial and ethnic origin? 2

The government held hearings at the Capitol and around the country, taking testimony on this issue. By 1997, it had reached its conclusions, just in time for the census of the year 2000. However, the answers the government reached are far less important than the questions themselves, for simply by formally posing these questions, the government reminds us that it is still creating and re-creating "races," as it has for hundreds of years. Similarly, it reminds us that although it now considers that some US citizens might be of "mixed" racial origin, as a general proposition people in the United States are racially "pure."

Hearing the federal government address so casually the notion of "racial purity" in the United States is frightening, for that discussion leads ineluctably to theories of "racial purity" in Nazi Germany, and the role this concept played in the destruction of millions of lives. Is there a relationship between US notions of "race" and Nazi concepts of racial purity? Is there a core of sameness within the two theories? If there are similarities, how do [End Page 260] they manifest themselves? If our country does have profound ideological similarities with Nazi Germany, the paradigmatic outlaw country, what are the implications for US self-identity and self-understanding?

This article will explore these questions through a comparison of the racial purity laws in both countries focusing on Jews in Nazi Germany and blacks in the United States. The comparison will suggest an answer to that question. It will also allow us to see the underlying structural framework of legal systems of racial purity.

By "racial purity laws," I mean two sets of laws. The first set is the definitions themselves. How does the US government define "black" and "white"? How did Nazi Germany define "Jew" and "Aryan"? The second set of laws is those the state creates to maintain "racial purity," by prohibiting sexual intercourse and marriage between certain racial groups. In both countries, this body of law concerning miscegenation includes statutes, regulations, and decisional authority.

Many are puzzled by the notion that the government would go about the business of defining who is "Jew," who is "black," and who is "white." To find out if someone is Jewish, why not just ask her? If you want to know if someone is "black" or "white," why not just...


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