The brouhaha over Whoopi Goldberg’s remarks on race and Nazi Germany offers us all a teachable moment – but only if we approach the subject through a wide-angle lens, not to score political or ideological points. or to play the ethnic one-upmanship or political game.
Clearly, Goldberg’s assertion that “the Holocaust was not about race” is grossly flawed. After all, the laws that denied German citizenship to Jews, prohibited marriage or sexual relations between Jews and Germans, and prohibited Jews from voting and holding public office were based on a person’s Jewish heritage – and not on his religious beliefs or practices.
Coming just days after a hostage-taking at a Shabbat service, it’s not at all surprising that Goldberg’s words have sparked anxiety among many Jews who fear that a gender-centric definition of racism 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 it adopted following the George Floyd protests, which described racism as “the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color on the basis of a socially constructed racial hierarchy”. which privileges whites.” This was replaced by 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 their innate biological characteristics.”
Like apartheid-era South Africa and the pre- and post-war American South, Germany under the Nazis was a racist state. As Adam Serwer writes in Atlanticeach of these systems was based on “the belief that human beings can be delineated into categories that share immutable biological traits distinguishing them from each other and determining their potential and behavior”.
Serwer is certainly right, but we must also recognize that racism can take disparate forms and serve distinct functions at different times and in different places. The form and meaning of racism depends on the 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 on currents of 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 to the desire to legitimize and normalize inequality and exploitation.
Modern anti-Semitism, by contrast, tended to associate Jews both with capitalist exploitation and with Marxism and other forms of anti-capitalist 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 the opportunity to speak about three crucial questions:
1. The complex relationship between blacks and Jews, which is far more complicated than any mere notion of ally or of Jews simply as part of an undifferentiated white population.
Many Jewish intellectuals, scholars, authors, composers, and activists have long identified with Black Americans, finding meaning and richness in the black experience that could not be found in synagogues or in Jewish communities or traditions. American Jewish cultural expression—in theater, popular music, and comedy—is deeply indebted to black culture (which has sometimes prompted accusations 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 far more likely than white Protestants or ethnic immigrants to invest in black educational institutions and other charitable endeavours.
It would be a grave mistake, I think, to dismiss the efforts of Jewish civil rights lawyers or civil rights activists simply as an attempt to combat anti-Semitism by remote control.
Of course, Jewish business owners, landlords, record producers and others profited from serving black communities that others of European descent would not have. It is therefore not surprising that Jews are seen not only as allies, but, in many cases, as exploiters, parasites and colonizers of ghettos.
Yet, at the same time, many black leaders from the mid-19th century saw the Jews as examples to be emulated. As my mentor, David Brion Davis, has argued, some black advancement strategies have been consciously modeled on the Jewish experience: not only assimilation and upward mobility through education and entry into professions, but community solidarity and economic self-sufficiency, struggles against discrimination and defamation, and the black Zionism of Marcus Garvey.
2. The extent of American prejudice, which deserves to be told in its entirety.
There is a danger that as we strive to create a more inclusive and critical analysis of American history and society that compensates for past omissions and refuses to sanitize or whitewash the past, we ignore the many forms of discrimination, inequality, and violence that mark our national past. I am certainly not calling for a false equivalence between the sufferings of various groups. Moreover, I cannot imagine that comparative victimization can be used for anything positive.
Nonetheless, we must 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 quotas that restricted Jewish enrollment. in many universities, corporate boardrooms and the foreign service.
3. The ongoing debate among ethnic minority communities in the country about values.
In the early 20th century, Jews played a crucial role in spreading two opposing views about the nature of American society. Even as Israel Zangwell’s 1908 play the crucible gave 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, whereby ethnic groups can fully participate in mainstream society while maintaining their cultural differences.
This is just one example of the kind of debates that have flourished within ethnic communities as they seek to progress and assimilate while maintaining a unique identity.
After World War II, Jews were unquestionably the main beneficiaries of the meritocratic ideal that success should be awarded on the basis of talent, education, effort and achievement – which, of course , starred in paranoid fantasies about Jewish domination of the media, Hollywood, the tech industry and the academy. It also risks implying that those who fail are somehow the victims of their own flaws and shortcomings, rather than of various systemic or structural barriers.
Not surprisingly, Jewish groups were found on all sides of the affirmative action debate. Some Jewish groups adamantly opposed quotas, preferential treatment, and proportional representation in principle, and, indeed, the first-ever challenge to “preferential admissions policies”, DeFunis v. Odegaard (1971) involved a Sephardic Jew. Others, including the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, have opposed explicit racial quotas while supporting race-conscious college admissions policies and policies designed to broaden the pools of talents.
Other Jewish jurists, lawyers, lawmakers, university presidents, philosophers and social scientists have also been leaders in calls for affirmative action, including Lee Bollinger, Marvin Krislov and Ronald Dworkin.
Disagreements over strategy and tactics can be found among all ethnic and racial groups in this country, and these debates certainly deserve our close attention.
The title of Mary Antin’s 1912 immigrant memoir, The promised land, captured a crucial fact. For the Jews, America proved to be as true a Zion as can be found in a fallen world. American Jews continue to face harassment and attacks, but have also achieved previously unimaginable levels of success. But for black Americans, America was the home of bondage.
If there’s anything we’ve learned in the 78 years since Gunnar Myrdal’s publication The American Dilemmais that neither open minds and open hearts, nor the removal of legal barriers to equality are enough to end the glaring racial disparities in American life. These inequalities, we know, are rooted in institutions, policies and ideologies that are discriminatory in practice and effect if not in intent.
Today, we are more aware than ever of this country’s failure to live up to its egalitarian ideals, sparking 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 some kind of myth. I do not agree. I am convinced that higher education offers perhaps our best hope for closing income and wealth gaps, closing the partisan divide, and achieving a fairer, fairer, and more equal society.
This will require each of us to be “radical where we are”. Pressure your institution to recruit and enroll much more diverse students. Identify equity gaps in your institution and take aggressive action to correct them.
And, yes, seize these teachable moments that will allow us to better understand racism – its historical roots, its development, its functions and the forms it has taken in various societies. Remember: we cannot eliminate evil that we cannot understand.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.