by Hannah Greene
Despite the thinkpieces on the myth of a postracial America that proliferated during the Obama administration, Donald Trump’s election to the highest office in the land abundantly demonstrates the fallacy of such a claim. He rode into the presidency on the back of a platform of white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia (among other bigoted ideologies) that remains the cornerstone of his administration.
Nor is Trump an outlier. We persistently encounter the decisive role that race has played and continues to play in American culture and society across the board. From the violent Nazi and KKK march that we witnessed in Charlottesville to the oblivious #ThisIsNotUs social media response, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ prescient warning that it will take more than a Black president to eradicate our history of racism to the fact that literal Nazis and Nazi sympathizers retain power in the White House, from the battle over the removal of Confederate statues to the disparity between Trump’s treatment of hurricane victims in Texas and Puerto Rico, America is not nor has it ever been postracial. It is nigh impossible to imagine how a country premised on a racist distinction along the color line that enabled the political and socioeconomic exploitation of black people—simply to name one example—could be otherwise. Yet the myth persists.
James Q. Whitman, a professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale University, delineates the disturbing extent to which Nazi jurists utilized American legislation and legal practice as a model for the Nuremberg Laws. He drives home the truth that America cannot reasonably whitewash itself of its racist past, certainly not when a regime typically regarded as evil incarnate had such significant recourse to American law. Whitman’s book belongs among the trajectory of titles such as Clif Stratton’s recent Education for Empire, which evaluates how American education has functioned as a race- and ethnicity-based tool of imperialism and colonialism in the national space. We cannot understand America apart from the entrenched institutional and structural racism undergirding socioeconomic, cultural, political, and legislative processes and interaction integral to its founding and functioning. To do so is to take an ahistorical approach that misses a key and consistent tenet of the American context, codified from the very ratification of the Constitution. Although Americans themselves have frequently failed to understand and still struggle—or even refuse—to come to terms with the reality of American racism, during the early twentieth century numerous European countries readily perceived American bigotry in their recognition of the United States as the world leader in racist legislation.
In Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, Whitman places American racist legislation in conversation with Nazi legislative construction, unpacking the transcript of the 1934 Nazi meeting that ultimately resulted in the Nuremberg Laws. These laws laid the formal groundwork for the Nazi Party, rescinding Jewish citizenship and levying marital and sexual restrictions upon Jews based on blood. Shortly following their passage, Nazis extended them to incorporate Roma and black people as well. Whitman’s analysis of the discussions between moderate and radical Nazis reveal the discomfiting history of the impact that American racist legislation and common law practice had on the development and practice of the 1935 Nazi legislation—and indeed that the radical faction of the Nazi Party “pushed most energetically for the exploitation of American models.” Hitler’s American Model traces the extent to which German Nazi Party officials found inspiration in American immigration, naturalization, and anti-miscegenation legal practice and theory to draft and enforce their own racially rooted ostracizing legislation.
American policies were not only race-based, but explicitly racist.
Nazis looked to the American precedent of establishing legal status based on race when debating how they would craft the Nuremberg Laws. Perhaps contrary to expectations, the Nazis found U.S. federal and constitutional law, including Supreme Court decisions—as opposed to the laws of the former Confederacy—most useful for their purposes. American exclusionary immigration law, racial naturalization law dating to 1790, anti-miscegenation law as far back as the late seventeenth century, second-class citizenship for people of color, and the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny collectively formed a significant example for Nazi jurists.
Anti-miscegenation law in the United States particularly struck a chord with Nazi lawmakers, since not only was America “a beacon of anti-miscegenation law, with thirty different state regimes—many of them outside the South,” it also stood alone in this regard worldwide. Whitman stresses that these American policies were not only race-based, but explicitly racist. They privileged white, Christian men of western European origin over non-white people, itself a fluid category partially at the whims of the white majority. Individual judges held dramatic sway over the interpretation and enforcement of racist legislation under American common law, rather than being subject to legal science, allowing for extreme conceptions and application of the law.
Whitman is careful to note that Nazis did not import American law wholesale. His narrative situates American racist law and Nazi Nuremberg policy in each country, telling a story of comparison and influence, not of direct transplantation of legislative language. American law predominantly—though not exclusively—targeted black people, while Nazi law predominantly—though not exclusively—targeted Jews. Nazis drew upon American racist legislation as historical and intellectual stimulation for their own racist law upon which they grounded their government.
Where American law beat around the bush at times in defining who belonged to which race, and as such the legal and political disabilities under which they suffered, Nazi law was direct and to the point. That said, at times even some Nazis spurned American law, such the one-drop rule, as too harsh in its determination of who constituted a member of a given race. Nazis noted that American constitutional authority and egalitarianism competed with its racism in law and practice, as well as its white legal and political dominance. Nonetheless, the United States’ overt and implicit discrimination against non-whites served as a model for legal and juristic methodology and practice to foster master race ideology to Nazi policy makers. A point to which Whitman returns again and again, the United States, as the world’s foremost leader in racist legislation, provided inspiration for foundational Nazi racist statutes.
Hitler’s American Model is critical reading in general, but especially for our political moment. It is imperative that we understand the depth of racism integral to American policy making and execution, as well as the degree to which it manifests in daily life and speech. It should appall everyone that American legislation served as a catalyst for a racist system of laws that privileged the “master race” over the inferior dilutors of that race who allegedly threatened its purity, which ultimately led to the Final Solution. American exclusion and criminalization of non-white people proffered a blueprint to Nazis, who engaged intimately with it in the hopes of carrying it out to its logical extent: an openly racist legal system that systematically drove out the so-called racially decrepit to foster a pure Aryan state. America’s distance from Nazism is not so far as we might like to believe.
Hannah Greene is doctoral student in American Jewish history, with a focus in women’s and gender studies, at the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Her research concentrates on American Jewish women’s healthcare activism.
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 James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 34, 93.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 128.
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