Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Exchange Rate of Whiteness

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.


Kevin Andre Elliott said...

Interesting. I've been working out a paper on what I see as the faux black/jewish divide, a divide that is only perpetuated by racial supremacists (white, black, of all stripes and colors) and this is a book that I somehow missed in my research. I'll be picking it up and reading it.

I'm particularly interested in the idea of achieving whiteness as a way to combat white supremacy, or as you say, "let their ethical commitments shine through, rather than having to only look out for themselves." I'm not sure what I think about that yet, but it's certainly a fascinating idea.

Thanks for the review and the heads up on the book.

Jack said...

disassociating themselves from Whiteness

How does that work? I suppose one could make symbolic gestures and use one's privilege to help the disenfranchised but surely one can't just give up their privilege.

David Schraub said...

Jack: Basically, it's claiming not to be White. I used to do this. I'd actively claim that I wasn't White, I was Ashkenazi Jewish -- which was presented as a whole different category. We'd say that we weren't real beneficiaries of White privilege, pointing to how we had historically been divided out of "Whiteness" (which is sort of true and sort of not), and actively disavow our inclusion in the category now. Instead, we'd affirm our own distinctive identity and demand recognition along that axis; as well as expressing solidarity with other non-White people and pledging fealty to that struggle.

As to giving up White privilege, I think the argument would be a) we don't get all White privileges and b) most White privilege shouldn't be "given up", it should be extended. Everybody should be able to shop without being shadowed, or make mistake without casting doubt on the entire group's cognitive capacity, or succeed without being a "credit to the race." That we have some privileges that White people have too doesn't make us White, it just means we've managed to claw together a few of the pieces of a dignified life that everyone deserves.

I'm not saying I totally agree with that line of argument anymore (I'm conflicted about it, to be honest), but I think that's what is meant by disassociating from Whiteness.

Anonymous said...

I dunno...if you "pass", then it seems like denial to say you're not white, when you get a lot of white privilege. You can't usually tell by appearance that someone is Jewish, can you? Though of course I agree people should honor their identities and avoid total assimilation into dominant culture. And what about non-European Jews? There is a difference in the way an Ethiopian or Indian Jew would be treated in Israel or the US versus a European one. Interesting stuff.

David Schraub said...

I'd also be curious as to how an Ethiopian or Indian Jew would be treated relative to non-Jewish Ethiopians or Indians, actually.

PG said...


"Passing" isn't that simple. There are names and even physical characteristics* that are identified as Jewish. And of course religious identity can make it impossible to pass. Someone was telling me a story about his plane ride and mentioned that he was sitting next to a Jewish guy. I said, "How do you know he was Jewish?" and my friend said, "Well, the yarmulke was a big hint." If you belong to a sect of Judaism that commands such signifiers, "passing" as a gentile isn't an option.

But I think David is talking about whiteness not so much as "passing," i.e. actively pretending to belong to the dominant group (that would require Irish and Italians to give up Catholicism), but as a kind of card one carries to show membership privileges. In most of the country, Catholics are not perceived as an Other, though anti-Catholic attitudes still reside in some areas where there never was a sufficiently large and mainstream- integrated Catholic community to reduce those attitudes. (E.g., in my hometown most of the Catholics are Latino immigrants, and the more intolerant white Southern Baptists still hold all the old prejudices about Papists.)

I'd be curious as to the psychology of how immigrants translate the socioeconomic hierarchy of their homeland to the U.S. For example, are "scheduled caste" members who immigrate from India more compassionate toward African Americans than are other Hindus, because they identify with being at the bottom of the pile? Or are they like the Irish Catholics who were ruled over by Anglos in Ireland yet did not sympathize with the similar situation of Blacks?

* The use of physical characteristics other than skin color is of course common in other racial conflicts, as in the nose-sizing done during the Rwandan genocide to pick Hutus from Tutsis.