Jews, Anti-Semitism, Racism and White Supremacy
I know I’m not supposed to say that. I know there’s a school of thought that black people can’t be racist, but I am. My racism has nothing to do with my use of the word “Wypipo” or “Becky.” It is not related to my reluctance to consume Caucasian potato salad. I’m racist because I live in America.
A few weeks ago, late at night, I was sitting outside in my car in one of the most crime-ridden cities in America. I was in a neighborhood that probably wouldn’t be described as upwardly mobile—a blackneighborhood. As I was entering an address into my GPS, two young black men, neither more than 21 years old, walked up to either side of my car and knocked on the window.
My heart was beating fast as I pondered my options. Finally, I rolled down the window. I knew I had been caught slipping and figured that my only choice was to give up my shit and save myself. I mustered all the bass my vocal cords could offer, put it in my voice, and asked what they wanted.
“Hey dawg,” one said. “You got Rick number?”
It turns out they were members of a fraternity I’m also a member of. They wanted to know if I had a mutual brother’s phone number, a brother who had promised them they could use his tent to tailgate during homecoming. I made the call, let them talk to our mutual friend, and they were on their way.
Now I know, because I have seen the FBI statistics, that most crimes are committed by white men. Still, like most black people, I don’t assume that white people are criminals. The gut reaction I felt came from the preconceived notions implanted by a society that demonizes young black men. It was racial prejudice.
Although I have never sentenced a defendant to jail, shot an unarmed person, underfunded a black school, or denied a person a job because of his race, I realize I am not immune to the same propaganda that fuels the anti-black sentiment embedded in the American DNA. I live in a racist country, and I would be foolish to think some of it hasn’t rubbed off on me.
Black people are racist, too. We uphold white supremacy, too. We think light-skinned girls are prettier. We send our best and brightest to predominately white colleges. We complain about black businesses but say nothing when the checker at Walmart is mean and can’t do rudimentary math, or when the McDonald’s ice machine is broken.
And here is the important part—black people’s role in white supremacy exists mainly because white supremacy continues to exist. The black plantation overseers and the tiny number of black slaveowners existed because slavery existed. Black police officers who remain silent about police brutality are cogs in a wheel that white supremacy built. The well-off black people who opposed Dr. Martin Luther King did so because they had seen white supremacy’s wrath.
There are, however, different levels of racism. It is the effects of racism that black people fight against, not the inner feelings. Joking about white people’s rhythm is different from perpetuating disproportionate police violence. Calling someone a “colonizer” isn’t as harmful as handing out jail sentences that are 20 percent longer. Black people don’t have the power to perpetuate the kind of racism that we ultimately fight against.
That’s why I understand why people say black people can’t be racist. Slavery, Jim Crow, and police brutality would still exist without black people. Because we don’t possess much societal privilege, our internalized and externalized racism has little effect on society at large. Still, we live in America and participate in a system built on white supremacy.
I am not an oppressor, but make no mistake about it—I’m racist.
I know I’m racist.
And I’m not ashamed to say that.
Jewish people are racist.
I know I’m not supposed to say this.
Last week, Lakers’ superstar LeBron James apologized for posting rap lyrics that mentioned “Jewish Money” on Instagram. A few days prior, Temple professor and commentator Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNNafter giving a pro-Palestinian speech at the United Nations. Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory was pilloried after she recently told the New York Times “while white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy, ALL Jews are targeted by it.”
Mallory’s, LeBron’s and Hill’s comments re-ignited a loud debate about anti-Semitism in the black community. But more curiously, when some pushed back by asserting there is racism in the Jewish community, or by objectively criticizing America’s unequivocal support for Israel, those people were immediately painted as anti-Semites.
Mallory was condemned for using the words “white Jews.” Even when I pointed out that the perceptions behind LeBron’s post came from the undeniable fact that Jewish people have higher average income than any other religious group in America according to Pew Research, I was warned that I should “be careful.”
On Thursday, the New York Times published a letter from Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine. Pogrebin addressed some of the issues that have caused a rift in the upcoming Women’s March, writing:
Many anti-racists continue to insist that only people of color can be oppressed and that most Jews, being white, benefit from “white skin privilege.” Yet somehow our “privilege” didn’t save the 11 people massacred in a Pittsburgh synagogue this fall by a man with the same color skin.
According to the Times, Vanessa Wruble, another activist involved in the Women’s March Movement, said she was “taken aback” when Mallory informed her that Jewish people need to confront their own role in racism.
First, let’s be clear. Judaism is not a race. It is a religion. And even though there are definitive cultural, sociological and anthropological markers, there are Jews of every color and ethnicity.
Secondly, let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that Jews don’t benefit from white privilege. They definitely do. Despite what many people think, white privilege doesn’t guarantee anyone wealth, success or a better life. It simply removes the obstacles that people of color have to face. The criminal justice system that targets black men and women does not put the Jewish community in its crosshairs. Predominately Jewish public schools aren’t underfunded at the rate of majority black schools. Jewish people aren’t disproportionately killed by police. They don’t earn less than white people with the same education and experience. They aren’t arrested at three times the rate of whites for the same rate of marijuana use. No one grabs their purse on the elevator when a Jewish kid comes on.
Jews are, clearly, also targeted by white supremacists.
But there is no need to play the oppression Olympics. Two things can be true at once. Jews are individually and collectively the subject of hate speech, bigotry, and prejudice—and Jewish people are beneficiaries and upholders of the American system of white supremacy.
They are the subject of insipid conspiracy theories. They have experienced anti-Semitic violence around the world. Many of the hate groups that want to send black people back to Africa have even more animus toward the Jewish community.
And still, the Jewish community upholds white supremacy.
You. Cannot. Live. In. America. And. Not. Be. Racist.
Whether it is because of skin color, assimilation or culture, Jewish people benefit from a system that targets and oppresses black and brown people. Unlike those other cultural and ethnic minorities, the Jewish community has agency and power. They are the highest earners in an economic system that perpetuates wage disparities for black children with the same parental backgrounds, education and living situation as white children.