I'm back from Colorado (with little, but not no, difficulty), and while on the plane I finished Emory History Professor Eric Goldstein's The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and the American Identity (Princeton UP, 2006) (I don't know which is worse -- that I originally started reading it in July of 2006 as part of a three book set, the goal seeing which I'd finish first -- or that it came in second). Anyway, delay notwithstanding, it was very, very good.
Goldstein examines the way Jews in American history (from about the post-Civil War era to after WWII, with an epilogue dealing with the present day) a) thought of Blacks, b) conceptualized themselves as a "race", and c) identified as White. It really covers a lot of ground, and aptly demonstrates the ambivalence and discomfort Jews had in being labeled as "White." On the one hand, they wanted to access privileges and status that Whiteness entailed (not the least of which is not being subjected to the vicious discrimination and violence that American Blacks faced as a matter of course). On the other hand, Jews worried that assimilating too much into Whiteness would threaten their own cultural distinctiveness. Moreover, the Jewish relationship with Whiteness was always tempered by their own ethical and historical commitment to Black Americans, whom they often saw as brother sufferers with experiences that mirrored their own oppression in Europe. Casting their lot with White America meant adopting the mantle of the very persecutors they fled from to the United States.
But after finishing the book, there was a further observation I had that I found very intriguing. The phenomena of groups "becoming" White (the Irish, Italians, Jews, etc.) is not at all unknown or novel. Most scholars of race, as far as I've seen, have associated this "Whitening" with a simultaneous divergence of the incorporated group's interests with those of Black Americans. Indeed, often times, enthusiastically buying into anti-Black discrimination was a way for groups to prove their Whiteness bona fides. The Irish, for example, were staunch supporters of Black equality in Ireland, but in the United States they rapidly became one of the most anti-Black groups in all the country. And as they became more firmly entrenched as White, the formerly distinct groups adopted the interests of their new racial category and -- generally speaking -- effectively ceased to care about the plight or standing of African-Americans.
But Goldstein's book seems to demonstrate that Jews didn't quite fit this pattern. In fact, the "Whiter" Jews got, the more likely they were to press for Black equality. Tracking the oscillations in Jewish "Whiteness" in the little less than a century between the Civil War and World War II, Jews exhibited the most racism when their status as White persons was threatened. Undoubtedly, this was to avoid falling out of Whiteness entirely and being grouped with Blacks, which would demolish whatever social, economic, and political gains the Jewish community had managed to achieve for itself. But when Jewish Whiteness stabilized, Jews would swing back towards loud, prominent, and passionate advocacy for Black rights. In fact, Goldstein notes that Jewish Whiteness has today become so entrenched that Jews are actively fleeing from it -- specifically disassociating themselves from Whiteness and launching a whole new wave of engagement with the Black community. Contrary to popular belief, and despite the emergence of a small but vocal "neo-conservative" Jewish movement, Jews of the 1960s and 70s became noticeably more likely to identify with and work for "Black" causes than their generational predecessors -- at least in part, it seems, in reaction their discomfort with being seen as 100% White.
What does this imply? First, it shows that Whiteness is a powerful draw for dispossessed groups, particularly when the alternative place in the hierarchy is so starkly presented. Even otherwise sympathetic or allied groups, such as Jews, can abandon their Black comrades if solidarity means risking falling to the bottom of the racial pile. But on the flip-side, it demonstrates that Whiteness does not have to be all encompassing. "White" groups can still see it in their interests to act outside the stereotypical White interest of maintaining White supremacy. Indeed, White groups can sometimes see it as in their interest to "flee" from Whiteness, if they view it as threatening other important aspects of their identity (such as social distinctiveness or solidarity with the dispossessed). And perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates that the very ascertainment of Whiteness can provide the social cushion for sympathetic groups to work with their marginalized brethren without fear and thus subvert the racial system from the inside. Once Jews became unambiguously White, they could freely advocate for Black interests without fear (or at least, with reduced fear) that their work would lead to a revival of anti-Semitic oppression and murder. Being at the top of the racial hierarchy, with access to all the privileges that entailed, gave Jews the opportunity to let their ethical commitments shine through, rather than having to only look out for themselves. It's tough to behave selflessly when you're one step away from an Inquisition. Those with power at least have the capacity to use it for good.