On Race, Religion, and Human Complexity

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In a debate in Flint, MI, on Sunday, Bernie Sanders, asked to describe his “racial blind spots,” said this:

“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto – you don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.”

The Clinton campaign quickly mobilized to condemn him for a raft of implications, saying that not all Black people live in ghettos, that not all people who live in ghettos are Black – many are immigrants who belong to other racial categories, for instance. Some people objected that not all white people lack understanding of racism’s impact, others that there are plenty of whites who know poverty firsthand.
This is a rehearsal of politics-as-usual, of course, in which each faux pas is ammunition, and huge edifices of argument are loaded onto the usage of a word or phrase, (in Bob Dylan’s immortal words) “just like a mattress balanced on a bottle of wine.” It will happen again before November, many times. I doubt many of my progressive friends would take exception to Sanders’ underlying point – however poorly expressed – that many white people have not experienced overt discrimination and harassment on account of their race and may therefore lack adequate empathy and understanding.
I have no objection to holding candidates to a high standard of speech, so long as the standard isn’t double. But as for me, especially when it comes to elections, Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker fame is my guide: “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” (I have earlier written about why I choose Sanders’ actions over Clinton’s words.)
Someone who shares the Clinton campaign’s condemnation posted Sanders’ original statement and subsequent attempt at clarification to a progressive e-list I take part in.One response focused on calling an “old white male” to task for communicating badly on race. Another noted the word “ghetto” originally referred to areas restricted to Jews. (To be precise, the term in Venetian dialect was ghèto and came into usage in 1516 to formalize the boundaries on Jews’ residence and rights.) And that Sanders’ own family history reflected this experience: his father had emigrated from Poland, while many relatives who stayed behind perished in the Holocaust. Sanders attributes his own politicization to awareness of these events.
The “old white male” commenter retorted that “Jewish refugees from Europe were probably white. Just sayin’.”
There ensued a spirited discussion about whether Jews are white.The focus was white in the sense of partaking of white skin privilege, and the exchange included references to immigration laws and discriminatory practices that had formerly put Jews in restricted categories (i.e., pointing to times when we were not treated officially as white) and to movements such as the Ku Klux Klan, which excluded Jews from whiteness and enforced that distinction with violence. Henry Ford and Father Coughlin were mentioned, along with examples of legislation that categorized Jews as non-white. Cornel West was quoted:

“Even if some Jews do believe that they’re white, I think that they’ve been duped. I think that antisemitism has proven itself to be a powerful force in nearly every post of Western civilization where Christianity has a presence. And so even as a Christian, I say continually to my Jewish brothers and sisters: don’t believe the hype about your full scale assimilation and integration into the mainstream. It only takes an event or two for a certain kind of anti-Jewish, antisemitic sensibility to surface in places that you would be surprised. But I’m just thoroughly convinced that America is not the promised land for Jewish brothers and sisters. A lot of Jewish brothers say, ‘No, that’s not true.’ We finally – yeah – they said that in Alexandria. You said that in Weimar Germany.”

Or here’s James Baldwin. You can find the context in something I wrote a few years ago: “It’s up to you. As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you. As long as you think you’re white, I’m going to be forced to think I’m black.”
My forebears are from Russia and Poland, so my complexion definitely puts me in the white-skin-privilege category with all it entails, obviously a meaningful distinction. On appearance, I get the benefit of the doubt: taxis stop for me, cops call me ma’am, my civility and belonging are presumptive.
But the story is far more complicated than that.I’m guessing I’m not the only person who feels the dominant racial and religious categories in our society don’t do an adequate job of containing us as human beings. There’s “Asian,” for instance, which encompasses both Koreans and Japanese, two peoples who have had a less than friendly history. Even within groups, differences can eclipse commonalities. My husband’s family is Okinawan on both sides, and Okinawans have many stories about being looked down on by other Japanese. (Here’s an interesting piece on that.)
Many of us – perhaps you too – have experienced the complexity of identify in more or less direct ways. When we use big clumpy identity categories like “Black” or “white” to make statements about social status and conditions, we elide a lot of distinctions that have concrete meaning in actual lives: class, gender, orientation, (dis)ability, location, and many other factors affect the way we experience privilege or prejudice, advantage or injury. People often bat around identity categories as if they had fixed meanings, and those very common ways of deploying them then have unintended consequences in the way we treat each other.
As a Jew, I have many opportunities to hear myself included in categorical statements that have consequences. For instance, although my own heritage as a first-generation American is the socialist left (e.g., the Workman’s Circle, a provider of settlement, solidarity, and education for 20th-century immigrant Jews, largely from Europe) and my own work and politics are focused on racial, economic, cultural, and environmental justice, I frequently read mass media statements about “the Jewish vote” that don’t feel any more accurate than those made about “the Black vote,” as Van Jones has so eloquently pointed out.
I would like to complicate our ideas of racial and religious categories so as to make room for the full and rich reality of our human lives and communities.To me, this is one of the core social justice commitments: to do justice to each other in this way. So let me say a bit about my own category.
Jews as a whole are a very small proportion of the U.S. population, just over 2%. Within that, there are quite a few Jews of color. You can check out the Jewish Multiracial Network (the Shalom Center, where I serve as president, acts as fiscal agent for this group) or Be’chol Lashon, for instance. There are a number of Jewish congregations led by African Americans, notably Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, whose rabbi has been named head of an international alliance of Hebrew-Israelites.
Internationally, there are Chinese Jews, many North African Jews, Central and Latin American Jews, the Jews of Cochin in India, Crypto-Jews here in New Mexico, etc., etc. The major categories used to describe this diversity are Ashkenazi (of European descent, primarily Eastern Europe, with a historic vernacular language of Yiddish, rooted in Spanish and Dutch but varying by region), Sephardi (originally from Spain and Portugal, but now more broadly defined, with a historic vernacular language of Ladino, based in Spanish and Hebrew), and Mizrahi (generally referring to Jews from Muslim-majority countries, whose vernacular may be Hebrew-inflected versions of Arabic, Aramaic, Persian, etc.). Perhaps a fair comparison would be the way the U.S. Census allows people of any racial background to check Latino as a category.
I am not going to write a family biography here, but I think a few highlights may be illustrative of the nuance of belonging and disbelonging (to use a term being popularized by my friend Roberto Bedoya, Secretary of Belonging on the National Cabinet of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture).My father was born in London, where his family had emigrated not long before from Poland. He had his nose broken so many times by anti-Jewish thugs that by the time he emigrated, the nose on his identity card photo looked like a smear, not an organ of breath. My grandmother was pregnant with my mother on the boat from Russia; she and my grandfather had run away under cover of night after her father was killed by Cossacks and my grandfather received a draft notice from the Czar’s Army, which was a death sentence for Jews, frontline fodder. Through their early decades in the U.S. – uneducated, hard-working, dazed and never feeling anything one could call belonging – they were sadly able to share many stories of being turned away from jobs, restaurants, and accommodations on account of being Jews.
My father was a housepainter, one of many working-class Jews in our circle and family. I grew up in California, where our multiple generations settled into one crowded house bought on the GI Bill after my father mustered out of the U.S. Navy, a citizen at last. We lived two blocks from a Catholic school, where in pre-Vatican II days the catechism included condemning the Jews for killing Christ. I am unable to count the times I was chased home when this point in the curriculum arrived. I am not going to detail the insults and slurs. I will mention that it has been my good fortune to work in many regions of this country with many different types of people, and I believe that it sheer ignorance, utter lack of exposure, that led me to hear many years ago in the hills of Kentucky that Jews carry the mark of the beast. But I also want to say that ignorance and lack of exposure take many forms. I have heard many such things in towns and cities large and small, and know that what I have heard is only a fraction of what is believed or expressed in my absence. My greatest sadness is to hear such things from companions on the left.
I imagine many of you could tell a rich and nuanced story of personal heritage and ancestral experience that can’t be summed up by a single word, whether Jew, white, Black, Muslim, Latino, Asian, or any other large racial or religious category (and of course I have not even mentioned categories such as gender and orientation). And I imagine many of these stories will have as much to say about why we are aligned so strongly with a vision of justice tempered by love (to quote the Reverend James Lawson’s beautiful trope) as my own does. As Bernie Sanders’ story does.
I am in no way equating my experience with anyone else’s, nor am I suggesting some type of ranking of the pain of disbelonging in this country.Only that it is incumbent on us to do justice to the truth in all its complexity and contradiction. One of my personal visions of heaven on earth is to imagine a day when all of us are invited to share those stories in fullness and respect, when we find ways to talk with and about each other that honor these truths in fullness.
Avishai Cohen and Mark Guiliana perform “Come Together” by the Beatles at a 2007 concert in Germany. (It starts with a string bass solo, FYI.)
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