A Teachable Moment on Racism

The brouhaha over Whoopi Goldberg’s remarks about race and Nazi Germany offers all of us a teachable moment—but only if we approach the topic through a wide-angled lens, not to score political or ideological points or to play ethnic one-upmanship or political gamesmanship.

Obviously, Goldberg’s claim that “the Holocaust wasn’t about race” is grossly mistaken. After all, the laws that denied Jews German citizenship, forbade marriage or sexual relations between Jews and Germans, and banned Jews from voting and occupying public office rested on a person’s Jewish heritage—not their religious beliefs or practices.

Coming just days after a hostage taking at a Shabbas service, it is not at all surprising that Goldberg’s words aroused anxiety among many Jews who fear that a definition of racism that centers around white supremacy is too narrow and excludes other forms of prejudice and discrimination, including anti-Semitism.

It was striking how quickly the Anti-Defamation League revoked a definition of racism that it had adopted in the wake of the George Floyd protests, which described racism as “the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.” This was replaced with another explanation: “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.”

Like apartheid-era South Africa and the antebellum and postbellum American South, Germany under the Nazis was a racist state. As Adam Serwer writes in The Atlantic, each of these systems rested on “the belief that human beings can be delineated into categories that share immutable biological traits distinguishing them from one another and determining their potential and behavior.”

Serwer is certainly right, but we also need to recognize that racism can take disparate forms and serve distinct functions at differing times and in different places. Racism’s form and meaning are contingent on context.

Thus, American racism differs in fundamental respects from European anti-Semitism. The Black-white divide in the United States combines elements of caste and class with pseudoscience, drawing upon currents from Enlightenment taxonomy, social Darwinism and eugenics. It owes less to religion (even though religion, notably the “curse of Ham,” provided theological justifications for slavery) than the desire to legitimate and normalize inequality and exploitation.

Modern anti-Semitism, in contrast, tended to associate Jews at once with capitalist exploitation and with Marxism and other forms of anticapitalist radicalism.

What we have here is a teachable moment that we shouldn’t ignore, no matter how uncomfortable the subject makes us. The academy has an opportunity to speak to three crucial issues:

1. The complex relationship between Blacks and Jews, which is far more complicated than any simple notion of allyship or of Jews simply as a part of an undifferentiated white population.

Many Jewish intellectuals, scholars, authors, composers and activists have long identified with Black Americans, finding in the Black experience a meaning and richness that couldn’t be found in synagogues or in Jewish communities or traditions. American Jewish cultural expression—in the theater, popular music and comedy—is deeply indebted to Black culture (at times prompting charges that it has appropriated Black culture). Jewish historians, anthropologists and sociologists have been disproportionately represented in the study of African American life and history.

Meanwhile, Jewish philanthropists, beginning with Julius Rosenwald and Jacob Schiff, were much more likely than Protestant whites or immigrant ethnics to invest in Black educational institutions and other charitable endeavors.

It would be a gross mistake, I think, to dismiss the efforts of Jewish civil rights attorneys or civil rights activists merely as an attempt to combat anti-Semitism by remote control.

Of course, Jewish storekeepers, landlords, record producers and others profited from serving Black communities that others of European descent wouldn’t. It’s not surprising, then, that Jews would be regarded not simply as allies, but, in many instances, as exploiters, parasites and ghetto colonizers.

Yet at the same time, many Black leaders from the mid-19th century onward regarded Jews as examples to emulate. As my mentor, David Brion Davis, argued, certain strategies for Black advancement were self-consciously modeled on the experience of Jews: not just assimilation and upward mobility via education and entry into the professions, but communal solidarity and economic self-sufficiency, legal battles against discrimination and defamation, and the Black Zionism of Marcus Garvey.

2. The breadth of American prejudice, which deserves to be told in its totality.

There is a danger that as we strive to create a more inclusive, more critical accounting of American history and society, one that compensates for past omissions and that refuses to sanitize or whitewash the past, we will ignore the many forms of discrimination, inequality and violence that mar our national past. I am certainly not calling for some false equivalency between the sufferings of various groups. Also, I can’t imagine that comparative victimization can serve any positive purpose.

Nevertheless, we need to strive, as best we can, to convey the struggles, challenges and oppressions that the range of groups that make up the American population have faced.

Thus, in terms of American Jews, it is important to discuss the lynching of Leo Frank, Henry Ford’s promotion of the notion of an international Jewish conspiracy, the restrictive covenants that barred Jews from neighborhoods and country clubs, and the quotas that restricted Jewish enrollment at many universities and in corporate boardrooms and the foreign service.

3. The ongoing debate, within the nation’s ethnic minority communities, over values.

In the early 20th century, Jews played a crucial role in disseminating two opposing views about the nature of American society. Even as Israel Zangwell’s 1908 play, The Melting Pot, gave a name to the fantasy of an America where all ethnic identities dissolve, other Jews, including Horace Kallen and Franz Boas, developed the concept of cultural pluralism, according to which ethnic groups can participate fully in the dominant society while retaining their cultural differences.

This is only one example of the kind of debates that have flourished within ethnic communities as they have sought advancement and assimilation while sustaining a unique identity.

Following World War II, Jews were incontrovertibly the primary beneficiaries of the meritocratic ideal that success should be awarded on the basis of talent, education, effort and achievement—which has, of course, played into paranoid fantasies about Jewish domination of media, Hollywood, the tech industry and the academy. It also runs the risk of implying that those who fail to succeed are somehow the victims of their own flaws and shortcomings, rather than of various systemic or structural barriers.

Not surprisingly, Jewish groups have been found on all sides of the affirmative action debate. Some Jewish groups have been adamantly opposed in principle to quotas, preferential treatment and proportional representation, and, indeed, the very first challenge to “preferential admissions policies,” DeFunis v. Odegaard (1971) involved a Sephardic Jew. Others, including the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, opposed explicit racial quotas while supporting race-conscious college admissions policies and policies to designed to expand talent pools.

Still other Jewish jurists, lawyers, legislators, university presidents, philosophers and social scientists were also leaders in the calls for affirmative action, including Lee Bollinger, Marvin Krislov and Ronald Dworkin.

Disagreements over strategy and tactics can be found among all of this country’s ethnic and racial groups, and these debates certainly deserve our closest attention.

The title of Mary Antin’s 1912 immigrant memoir, The Promised Land, captured a crucial fact. For Jews, America proved to be as true a Zion as can be found in a fallen world. Jewish Americans continue to experience harassment and attacks, but they have also achieved levels of success previously unimaginable. But for Black Americans, America was the house of bondage.

If there’s anything we’ve learned in the 78 years since the publication of Gunnar Myrdal’s The American Dilemma, it’s that neither open minds and open hearts nor the abolition of legal barriers to equality are sufficient to end the gross racial disparities in American life. Those inequalities, we know, are embedded in institutions, policies and ideologies that are discriminatory in practice and effect if not in intent.

Today, we are more conscious than ever of this country’s failure to live up to its egalitarian ideals, prompting well-justified frustration, anger and impatience.

I have friends and colleagues who regard the belief that education is the best way to overcome racial barriers and promote opportunity as a kind of myth. I disagree. I am convinced that higher education offers perhaps our best hope for overcoming gaps in income and wealth, bridging the partisan divide, and achieving a fairer, more just and equal society.

That will require each of us to be “radical where we are.” Pressure your institution to recruit and enroll many more diverse students. Identify equity gaps at your institution and take aggressive steps to rectify them.

And, yes, seize those teachable moments that will allow us to better understand racism—its historical roots, development, functions and the forms that it has taken in various societies. Remember: we can’t eliminate an evil that we can’t comprehend.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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