C. Richard King
C. Richard King

By Phyllis Shier, College of Arts and Sciences

Research by a Washington State University professor last summer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies (CAHS) has changed his teaching and his approach to culture and racism.

It also resulted in the recruiting of a lecturer who will speak in collaboration with WSU’s 2012 Common Reading Program in November.

C. Richard King, a professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies, spent a month at CAHS conducting research and incorporating themes of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism into his WSU courses.

He recently gave the inaugural Common Reading lecture, providing historical context for this year’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The book raises issues about racism, scientific ethics, and poverty, among others. It has won numerous awards and has been used for common readings at many universities.

Patricia Heberer, a historian at CAHS, plans to travel to WSU in early November to discuss her work documenting victims of the Nazi “euthanasia” policy. Heberer’s research is based on patient files from a notorious death facility near Augsburg, Germany.

Using Holocaust metaphor to illuminate other issues

King originally participated in a 2005 seminar examining developments in Holocaust research in the social sciences because he “had a growing interest in the use of the Holocaust as a metaphor or template to describe other events and experiences.”

A variety of ethnic groups draw on Holocaust metaphors to make lesser known or misunderstood atrocities more palpable for a wider public, he said. Holocaust metaphors are also used to highlight controversial arguments, he said. For instance, some pro-life groups speak of abortion as a kind of holocaust, and animal rights activists make similar claims about factory farming.

King’s recent work was supported by a Curt C. and Else Silberman Follow-up Grant, which resulted from the 2005 seminar. The grant allowed King to work on integrating issues surrounding anti-Semitism and the Holocaust into his classes and research. He revised his WSU undergraduate courses and developed a new class on the history of anti-Semitism.

“I developed lectures on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism for my ‘Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies’ course,” he said. “And it encouraged me to use the theme of denial to engage a range of issues on theories of racism, including racism as the denial of humanity and Holocaust denial.”

King designed an online version of the “Social Justice and American Culture” course and reworked materials for his course on race and science to stress comparative discussion of race science, eugenics, and experimentation in Nazi Germany and the United States.

Anti-Semitism material enhances class understanding

King believes the new and revised courses will fill a gap in the WSU curriculum, creating dialogues beyond the more familiar paradigms of race and racism by grappling with the persistence of anti-Semitism, which some, he said, have dubbed “the longest hate.”

“Bringing the study of anti-Semitism into my classes also allows me to build bridges between my teaching and research,” he said. “In my work on white power movements and ideologies, I encounter accounts of Jewish control and Jewish conspiracies regularly.”

In the recent Common Reading lecture, King endeavored to illustrate this, placing anti-black racism in the United States alongside anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.

“This allows for deep discussions about racial classification and hierarchy, the connections between difference and citizenship, institutional racism, and scientific racism,” he said. “Introducing this subject does not so much mark a separate focus; rather, I believe this new material and associated pedagogic possibilities serve to complement, extend, and deepen the kinds of questions asked and the range of experiences addressed in my classes.”

Book in the works about white power and popular culture

King’s research into neo-Nazism in Europe, white power, and fascist movements also will help facilitate completion of his book-length manuscript, with WSU associate professor David J. Leonard, on white power and popular culture. And, he said, it will add momentum to his project on the changing focus and content of white power rhetoric in response to broader shifts in racial discourse in the United States.

“Most generally, what we witnessed over the past 50 years or so is a rejection of racial prejudice and preferences, the end of overt racist expression, the withering of a biological basis for racial thinking, the demise of public celebrations of white supremacy and so forth,” King said.

But that does not mean that racism has ended. Rather, he said, the terms and tone of the movement have shifted. Colorblindness and multiculturalism, for example, have taken shape as efforts to chart this unfamiliar territory in which difference remains fundamentally important, racial hierarchies remain nearly as pronounced as ever, and character purportedly trumps color.

“My sense is that while new, different ‘problems’ such as 9/11 and immigration from Central America have encouraged new, or at least modified, vocabularies, anti-Semitism has remained fairly constant . . . along with anti-black racism and a sense of imperiled whiteness—or the idea that the white race faces a series of existential threats,” King said.

About CAHS

The Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies supports scholarship and publications about the Holocaust and promotes the growth of Holocaust studies at American universities. The center seeks to foster strong relationships between American and international scholars and initiates programs to ensure the ongoing training of future generations of scholars specializing in the Holocaust. The center publishes the scholarly journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies in association with Oxford University Press.