Robert E. Lee does not equal Hitler. Slavery does not equal the Holocaust. A plantation does not equal Auschwitz. Our hearts and minds can respect both slavery and the Holocaust without entering into a distasteful Suffering Olympics.
I devote one chapter of Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype to a discussion of how the mainstream press treated accounts of conflict between African Americans and Jews. I did this as a control. I argue in the book that the mainstream press does not accurately depict conflict between Poles and Jews. To argue that point, a control group was helpful.
One aspect of both black-Jewish and Polish-Jewish conflict is what is sometimes labeled the Suffering Olympics. The Suffering Olympics is a distasteful exercise. Participants display their wounds, in a competition for compassion, legitimacy, and whatever other benefits accrue to those who can prove that they have suffered.
The Suffering Olympics play a role in Polish-Jewish relations, and that is regrettable. It is not helpful to compare what happened to Polish Jews to what happened to Polish non-Jews. Some individual Poles went through every horror that individual Jews went through, from round-ups to concentration camps to mass murder. A larger percentage of Poles survived.
The Jewish presence in Poland was wiped out. It was a true genocide. There were too many Polish non-Jews for the Nazis to commit an equal genocide against them. There are too many other factors to mention here, but all factors considered, it is not helpful to engage in a Suffering Olympics event. Both sides should learn to respect what happened to the other.
The folly of Suffering Olympics is brought home to me when I think of something George Taliaferro said during a meeting with me and others in Bloomington, Indiana, years ago. He did not approve of anti-discrimination funding going to women or homosexuals because neither group suffered as black people did. He wanted the funding to go to African Americans on the IU campus. He mentioned bad things that happened to black people that don't happen to homosexuals or women. One could easily mention lynching, typically an atrocity that is committed against black people, but not against women or homosexuals. If you stop with that comparison, though, you are missing a big part of the story. Gay people and women have their own story to tell.
In recent days, conflict between blacks and Jews has flared up again. See posts here and here. NFL player DeSean Jackson posted that "Hitler was right." Former NBA player Stephen Jackson overtly cited Suffering Olympics tropes. "Your races pain doesn't hurt more than the next races pain. Don't act like your hardships or more devastating than ours" (sic).
In mainstream media and social media, Black Lives Matter proponents have justified the iconoclastic purge sweeping the land by saying, paraphrase, "You wouldn't want to go to Germany and see statues to Hitler. So you shouldn't want to see statues to Robert E. Lee."
This comparison is not helpful. One can respect the horrors of the slave trade without insisting that those horrors were identical to the Holocaust.
388,000 slaves were brought directly from Africa to the US, according to PBS. Wikipedia reports that more were brought into the US from the Caribbean, bringing the total to approximately 600,000.
By 1860, the black population of the US was 4.4 million. The population grew from c. 600,000 to 4.4 million by natural increase, that is, slaves having children who survived to adulthood to have children of their own. Source
In 1939, there were 9.5 million Jews in Europe.
In 1945, there were 3.8 million Jews in Europe. Source
Had the Allies lost, the Nazis would have succeeded in their goal of wiping out every Jew in Europe.
It's not just numbers that differentiate slavery from the Holocaust. Read accounts of life as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe. Read Elie Wiesel's Night or Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. Read accounts by non-Jewish Poles, like The Auschwitz Volunteer about Witold Pilecki, and Taduesz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.
The last book contains an unforgettable passage. Borowski describes himself and other prisoners playing soccer during an arrival of Jews who are swiftly erased. "Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death." In 1951, when he was 28 years old, a few days after his daughter was born, Borowski put his head into an oven, breathed in gas, and died.
Compare these accounts of concentration camps to any given slave narrative, including those collected by the WPA. They clearly describe very different experiences.
Again, the Suffering Olympics obscure rather than clarify. The plantation was not the concentration camp, but the word "holocaust" does apply to slavery's overall impact on Africa and Africans.
To understand what the slave trade did to Africa as a continent, one must factor in the mass death of the Muslim Slave Trade. John Azumah says, "While the mortality rate of the slaves being transported across the Atlantic was as high as 10%, the percentage of the slaves dying in transit in the Tran-Saharan and East African slave market was a staggering 80 to 90% … While most slaves who went to the Americas could marry and have families, most of the male slaves destined for the Middle East were castrated, and most of the children born to the women were killed at birth … However, a minimum of 28 million Africans were enslaved in the Muslim Middle East. Since at least 80% of those captured by the Muslim slave traders were calculated to have died before reaching the slave markets, it is believed that the death toll from 1,400 years of Arab and Muslim slave raids into Africa could have been as high as 112 million."
When you factor in those numbers, and the numbers of dead on the Middle Passage, yes, the word "Holocaust" is entirely apt. But that still does not make the American plantation Auschwitz, and it does not make Robert E. Lee Hitler. It makes the American plantation its own species of bad, and trying to make it Auschwitz doesn't help.