Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Wheel Never Stops Turning

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:
From time to time, someone will ask why I write so much about racism. The underlying charge is that a writer should cease to follow his curiosities. I might well retort that Paul Krugman should stop writing about the economy, or Jeff Goldberg should stop writing about the Middle East. The difference is that the world which racism made is seen as a niche issue, with no real import. "Gender" and "women's issues" are often regarded in the same way.
And I thought that was strange, because of course plenty of people do say Jeff Goldberg should stop writing about the Middle East -- less because it is viewed as a "niche" issue and more because Goldberg is viewed as a niche person. Specifically, it is often argued that -- as a Jew with substantial ties to Israel -- Goldberg is biased, that he should leave the discussion to neutral, non-partisan gentile hands.

I'm reminded of the post I wrote about Judge A. Leon Higginbotham's opinion declining to recuse himself in an employment discrimination suit (Local Union 542, Int'l Union of Operating Eng'rs, 388 F. Supp. 155 (E.D. Pa. 1974)). Judge Higginbotham was black and a known civil rights advocate, and therefore, according to the defendants, biased. One of the examples Judge Higginbotham cited in declining to recuse himself was his Jewish colleagues:
I am pleased to see that my distinguished colleagues on the bench who are Jewish serve on committees of the Jewish Community Relations Council, on the boards of Jewish publications, and are active in other affairs of the Jewish community. I respect them, for they recognize that the American experience has often been marred by pervasive anti-Semitism. I would think less of them if they felt that they had to repudiate their heritage in order to be impartial judges. (180)
My post, of course, turned the full circle -- in response to people who do say that Jews should not speak or should not be in positions of authority on matters relating to Jewish interests -- I used Judge Higginbotham's powerful opinion as a counterpoint. Higginbotham uses the example of Jews to help Blacks, I use the example of Blacks to help Jews. There's no jealousy, only an example that can help check a common foe.

And on the flipside, why do we see the same rhetorical tropes used to silence Jews and Blacks alike, in seemingly such different contexts? Well why wouldn't we? If a given tactic for maintaining a particular hierarchy has worked for one group, why wouldn't it be adopted and utilized by others trying to preserve different hierarchies? The issue here isn't that all oppressions are fundamentally the same, or any such trite nonsense. But oppression is, after all, ultimately about results. Racists take their cues on what has worked for anti-Semites, and vice versa. The prevalence of rhetoric that asserts Jews shouldn't speak on Jewish issues, versus that Blacks shouldn't speak on Black issues, depends primarily on (a) the relative well-being of the groups in question and (b) what community of speakers you're dealing with.

1 comment:

PG said...

Note that Coates said Goldberg writes about "the Middle East," not "Jewish issues" and especially not anti-Semitism. I think there's a difference between writing about something where one generally accepts that there can be differing views held in good faith (eg what's best for the economy? what's best for the Middle East? what's best for parenting? which tends to be treated as a "women's issue") versus a subject such as racism where one is less likely to see those who differ as doing so in good faith. On the question of "what's best for racism?" presumably some equivalent of "lower taxes" (like "pretending racism doesn't exist") would not be deemed possible to be suggested in good faith. That doesn't mean that one shouldn't write about the latter kind of subject as much as one wants and one's audience will read, only that I think Coates's comparison is questionable.