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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Incommensurability: Was Jim Crow Really That Bad?

Last night, I gave a talk to an undergraduate group of Asian and Asian American students at Arizona, on race and law in America.  I discussed at some length segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans, as well as discrimination against Asian Americans; anti-miscegenation laws applicable to Asians, for example; laws designed to prevent Asians from owning land, and laws prohibiting the naturalization of Asians in an era when there were many forms of discrimination against non-citizens.   The students listened politely, and with some interest and surprise.  After the talk, I chatted with some of the students, and one sophomore, it turned out, was from Kazakhstan.  I don't think he was trying to top me, exactly, but I was shocked when he mentioned that between 1929 and 1935, Stalin reduced the population of his country by millions--the student said half the population starved, were murdered or induced to migrate.   He didn't say it, but I wondered if he was unimpressed by the fact that some Americans had to sit in the back of the bus.

Surely at other times and places, terrible things have happened.  But I hope that doesn't subtract from the injustice of slavery, segregation and racism in this country.  I do not think it is an answer to the millions of Americans who were shunted by law into inferior education and other opportunities that "Gee, at least you (or your ancestors) weren't liquidated."  On the other hand, after that conversation, I still consider Sascha Baron Cohen to be a genius, but I'm not sure I think the Borat character is  so funny.

Posted by Marc Miller on March 7, 2007 at 08:44 PM in Deliberation and voices | Permalink


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You were shocked to learn that Stalin had killed millions of people? You didn't know this until a student mentioned it to you? Of course, maybe you were phrasing it that way to make a point in your post. Let's hope so.

Posted by: Anon Prof | Mar 10, 2007 4:32:01 AM

Cultural definitions of nadirs always yield interesting and sometimes inflammatory results when compared.

See also: Israel's relationship to every other group victimized by the holocaust

Posted by: jps | Mar 8, 2007 11:09:36 AM

I guess everyone has their own definition of hell.

Posted by: Seeking Solace | Mar 7, 2007 9:26:39 PM

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