Friday, December 28, 2018

(How) Do White Jews Uphold White Supremacy? (Part I)

The fallout to the latest Women's March antisemitism controversy yielded a brand new Women's March antisemitism controversy, centering around the following statement by organizational co-leader Tamika Mallory:
[W]e’ve all learned a lot about how while white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy, ALL Jews are targeted by it.
I'm not exactly a Tamika Mallory fan on the subject of antisemitism. Nonetheless, I didn't really share the outrage that this particular quote engendered among many of my Jewish compatriots. That's not to say I think she's demonstrating some sort of penetrating insight or vision on the subject. But I did view the statement as representing a forward rather than a backward step for her.

Much of the negative reaction to Mallory centers on her relatively broad usage of "White supremacy" and "uphold". Many people hear those terms and think of consciously organized endeavors of racial terrorism designed to declare and enforce White dominance. The social movements who most clearly embody these practices -- the KKK, the Aryan Nation, etc. -- almost always target Jews as well. So, the argument goes, it is inaccurate, insulting, and hurtful to accuse Jews of being part of these movements and these practices. Indeed, it is so implausible that Jews are mass supporters of these sorts of far-right extremist organizations that the argument otherwise rings antisemitic -- how could one think that but through a sort of 7-dimensional "the Jews are behind all our misfortunes" conspiracy theory?

But that response relies on that particular understanding of "upholding White supremacy" as meaning overt participation in these sort of far-right violent movements, and Mallory was almost certainly thinking of those terms differently. For her, White supremacy less describes a movement, and more a social condition. White supremacy is the state of affairs where White people systematically occupy a superior social position vis-a-vis non-White people along the axis of race. Put differently, there can exist White supremacy (the social condition where White people are systematically advantaged) even in contexts where few if any people are White supremacists (avowedly ideologically committed to a state of affairs where Whites-qua-Whites are systematically advantaged). Consequently, the fact that White supremacists hate Jews doesn't necessarily mean that those Jews who are -- to most everyone else -- viewed as White will fail to reap the (majority of the) benefits of White supremacy.

Likewise, "uphold" might be thought to imply a conscious effort to facilitate and buttress conditions of White domination -- again, most obviously instantiated by membership in overt White Power organizations. But here too it seems clear that Mallory means to speak more broadly. There are all manner of ways to uphold an extant status quo without making that one's primary mission in life.

Most obviously, persons who are beneficiaries of a set of privileges -- for example, White people who benefit from living in a society where they are systematically favored -- might have little interest in disturbing that state of affairs, an indifference that manifests as apathy rather than public support. They might not notice the advantages they receive, and thus unknowingly reenact or support social practices that reify those advantages. They might deprioritize the struggle against racism, acknowledging the reality of certain unjust practices but viewing them as comparatively unimportant as sites for investing their energy and attention. Or they might recognize and frown upon certain practices they acknowledge as racist but be willing to overlook them in pursuit of more important agenda items (think the proverbial Trump voter who genuinely doesn't like all the racism, but just cares about getting his taxes cut more).

These all represent ways one can be complicit in, perpetuate, and uphold White supremacy that fall far short of joining the Klan -- that are, in fact, quite compatible with both hating the Klan and having the Klan hate you right back. If you're Jewish, think of all the times you've read something like "if you're marching in the Women's March" (or voting UK Labour) "that doesn't make you an antisemite -- it just makes you someone who doesn't care that they support antisemites". These are ways of talking about people "upholding" antisemitism without themselves necessarily being antisemitic or desiring antisemitism. They are targeted at people who do not share Mallory or Corbyn's views on Jews, and may in fact be repelled by them, but nonetheless think that on net that matters less than whatever other factors drive them towards the Women's March or Labour. If it is at least coherent to speak of that as "upholding antisemitism", then one should also grasp how one could speak of similar complicity in movements or practices that (among other things) rely upon, perpetuate, or act out a system where Whites are advantaged over non-Whites "upholding White supremacy".

The point is, upholding White supremacy, in this context, is not meant to solely encompass people "running around in white hoods or marching with tiki torches". There are no doubt extraordinarily few Jews playacting as Klansmen. But White Jews in America absolutely receive many -- not all, but many -- of the benefits accorded to White people in our society. We don't tend to be shadowed in department stores, we don't tend to be randomly stopped-and-frisked by police, we don't tend to have our murder victims cast as "not exactly angels". And so it is quite possible and plausible that White Jews can and do "uphold" White supremacy in that they are relatively content with a state of affairs where they don't (but others do) experience shadowing, stop-and-frisks, and insinuations that our crime victims were nothing but trash anyway.

When I frame the controversy in this way, many of my Jewish friends are relatively receptive to the basic thrust of these arguments -- but suggest that they aren't the things people generally associate with a phrase like "upholding White supremacy". Mallory's terms are misleading; the connotation is all wrong, suggesting far more explosive allegations than this. Sure, it is fair to say that many White Jews benefit from many White privileges, and may even act in ways that perpetuate this status quo, and all of that is worthy of critique. But to label it a case of Jews "upholding White supremacy" implies that they're doing something far worse than that -- something tantamount to being a Klansman or a White Power activist -- and that's wrong.

As it happens, I have some sympathy for this view -- persuasive definitions can be dangerous things. But note that if this is the gravamen of the controversy, then what we really have here is a semantic argument about terminology. I'm not saying terminological debates don't matter -- they can help avoid fiascoes like this -- but they're different debates than what we've been having, and hardly deserve the level of venom that's being directed towards Mallory. If we agree that White Jews can and do benefit from the prerogatives of Whiteness in our society, and that we often are complicit in allowing the social condition where that racially unequal distribution of prerogatives exists, then we agree with the thrust of Mallory's underlying point (even if we might have expressed it differently).

These are all ways of suggesting that it is entirely appropriate, even necessary, to consider (under whatever label) the fact that White Jews gain many (not all) of the privileges of Whiteness in America and are perfectly capable of acting in ways which perpetuate the continuation of that racialized hierarchy. None of this requires denying that White Jews also face antisemitism -- but that should be a mundane point. There are all sorts of oppressions that one can experience while nonetheless being White: White women still face misogyny, queer Whites still face homophobia, and White Jews still face antisemitism. Being White doesn't displace those oppressions; and those oppressions don't displace being White.

Simply put: those who flatly deny that White Jews in America are White in any capacity -- as if a Jew who looks like me is identically situated to an African-American in my interactions with the police, employers, universities, landlords ... -- are denying reality. They are only obstructing badly-needed reckonings with our community's relationship with racism and racial hierarchy, both in terms of how we relate to community outsiders as well as those Jews of Color inside our community.

But another thing they obstruct is a more nuanced conversation about the precise contours of the relationship between Whiteness and Jewishness. If it isn't the case that it's nonsensical to apply the label "White" to a Jew who looks like me, it's also not the case that one can uncritically apply it to those Jews who look like me -- that anything we know about "Whiteness", generally, we consequently know about the Whiteness of White Jews, specifically.

The obvious example is, of course, that unlike most White people, White supremacists hate me and want me dead. That's a rather significant deviation from standard-issue Whiteness!

But I suggest that it's much deeper than that. White Jews are not simply White people in all respects but-for the bizarre and inexplicable fact that White supremacists want to murder us. Jewishness does things to Whiteness (and vice versa). Understanding the unique cocktail that's created when these identities intersect is critical to understanding the limits of the "White Jew" frame and comprehending why so many Jews resist it with such ferocity. This is the project I will take up in Part II (which I plan to put up shortly).

UPDATE: Part II is now available here.

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