The summer of 2020 saw the largest public protests in the history of the United States. All over the country, Americans protested police violence against African-Americans and focused renewed attention on the unfinished work of racial justice that many white Americans would have liked to think was settled when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about his dream. Two years later, those protests are viewed differently, colored through subsequent cultural clashes about January 6th and critical race theory. At the time, however, the protests reflected the shocked conscience of a nation. Surveys showed that white Americans, ranging widely across political proclivities and affiliations, looked at the horrifying video of George Floyd slowly dying beneath a police officer’s knee and realized that a great deal of work remained to be done.
I am an American history teacher; race and its implications for American politics, economy, and society have long been central to my teaching because they are central to the development of American politics, economy, and society. We are not the first generation to recognize the inherent contradiction between Thomas Jefferson’s drafting the moving and powerful words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and owning human beings (including a number of his children!) as his property. Jefferson himself recognized that contradiction. We may, however, be the first generation in which mainstream historiography demands that we reckon with that contradiction and in which mainstream narratives demand the inclusion of those whom he owned.
In years of trying to teach about race and its implications for our community, I have found that that message is not easy to transmit. I often encounter resistance in the Jewish community to “picking up what I am putting down”, (as a former student once said.)
It’s tempting to attribute all of this resistance to defensiveness: that the American Jewish or American Orthodox community does not want to examine its privileged status and unearned advantages and therefore deflects any conversation that would attempt to force it to do so. Tempting, but wrong. Beyond simple defensiveness, barriers emerge from the ways that conversations about race, and American Jews, and American Jews and race, do not fit easily with many American Jews’ own history and experience. A first step, then, in changing our communal engagement with the American discourse about race is understanding why these stories are so difficult for many of us to hear and then, with that awareness, to make the effort to hear them.
But first, a word about American Jews: there has been much more recognition of late that American Jews are not monolithic and monochrome.1The two categories are overlapping but not identical; there are Jews from non-Ashkenazi backgrounds whose appearance would have been classed as white in America’s racial mapping; and Jews who practice Askhenazi customs even as their families’ area of origin is not Eastern Europe. The communal discourse is necessarily and belatedly paying greater attention to the lived experiences of Mizrachi Jews as well as the presence in the Jewish community of Jews of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Nevertheless, the recent Pew study2“The survey also asked whether Jews think of themselves as Ashkenazi (following the Jewish customs of Central and Eastern Europe), Sephardic (following the Jewish customs of Spain), Mizrahi (following the Jewish customs of North Africa and the Middle East) or something else. Fully two-thirds of Jewish Americans consider themselves Ashkenazi, while relatively few consider themselves to be Sephardic (3%) or Mizrahi (1%). An additional 6% say they are some combination of these or other categories. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/ indicates, again, that the majority of American Jews are of Ashkenazi European background. I will be referring to an American Jewish story that is, in fact, a European Ashkenazi American story, understanding that that still captures a majority of the American Jewish experience, even as it is decidedly not all of it.
We are a people of stories. Our national identity is grounded in stories that we pass on to our children. The centerpiece of the Pesach seder is the transmission of our national story of Exodus and becoming God’s people, of course, but it is not just that. “You shall tell your children, and your children’s children,” the pesukim exhort, “[about] the day you stood before Hashem your God at Horev.”3Devarim 4:9-10 Our obligations to care for others are not grounded by the Torah in abstract moral principles. The repeated commandments not to mistreat strangers are not attributed to their being created in the Divine image, though they are. Instead, the commandments are rooted in our history, and our stories.4Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Dif erence: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Continuum, 2002) pp. 56-60. “You know the soul of the stranger,” says the Torah, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”5Shemot 23:9 Every Tisha B’Av we sit on the floor and mourn for a Temple burned in 70 CE, for victims of the Crusades 1000 years ago. Distant historical events are recounted, kept alive, passed on in story.
Within our families, too, we cherish and transmit our stories: our grandparents’ experiences as immigrants, as refugees, as survivors; their overcoming and rebuilding. These are the source of enormous personal and familial pride, and we make sure that our children know them.
Our difficulty in engaging around race in the United States proceeds, in no small measure, from this: that in so many different ways, the story of race in America–and American Jews’ experience of race–undermines or challenges many of our stories. It does not comport with millennia of our national narratives, and it, at a minimum, complicates our family stories of “making it”–arriving as immigrants, striving, working hard, pursuing education, and achieving success in America. Further, when we are asked to hear African-Americans’ histories, stories, and experiences, we are asked to take in a set of narratives so different from our own that it may be hard to fully absorb them.
Our American Stories
For so many of us, our families’ experiences of America go something like this: fleeing the persecution of Europe, whether Czarist, Nazi, or Soviet, our ancestors came here. Things were not easy. In the face of economic privation, and significant social, education, and employment discrimination, our relatives worked hard, made sure that their kids got an education, and eventually climbed their way into the professional classes.
This story honors our ancestors and their hard work. It holds onto memories of the oppression they faced in Europe and the social discrimination and exclusion they encountered in the United States. And it celebrates, ultimately, the realization of the American Dream: that for all of its shortcomings, the United States offered our families opportunities that other countries did not, and our families took advantage of those opportunities to build homes and communities and, though we may be more reluctant to say it out loud, wealth and political influence.
This story is true. It is true as a matter of historical fact and true as our families’ lived and remembered experience. But it is not true for all Americans. That it is so true for us can obscure how not-true it is for others. That it is so true for us can obscure that others were not afforded the opportunity to make it true for them. It takes a specific effort to learn about, apprehend, and credit others’ experiences when they are so far from our own.
It is important, then, to talk concretely about what it means to say that that story was not true for everyone. Indeed, the discrimination in employment and education that Jews faced in the United States were real and pervasive; and, at the same time, despite the exclusion from social spaces and white-shoe law firms and limited access to Ivy League universities and restricted suburbs, our grandparents had an experience of opportunity in the United States that not everyone had. Our true stories can thus become obstacles in our understanding of others’ true stories. Our family histories can leave us asking, “if we did it, why didn’t they? If our community went, in the space of two generations, from barely-scraping-by immigrant peddlers or traumatized survivors to the communities that we have built, why didn’t they?” It can leave us looking askance at other American communities, blaming them for their lack of similar advancement because it seems obvious to us, based on our own experiences, that if they haven’t made it similarly, they weren’t trying hard enough.
Rather than illustrate this comparison with generalities, I want to offer specific examples. And so I tell you the story of my maternal grandfather, not because it is unique or distinctive but precisely because it is so typical. It reflects so many of our American Jewish immigrant making-it stories. And it illuminates how different others’ stories are from ours for reasons we may not fully recognize.
My mother’s father, Yehuda Kuprinsky, arrived in the United States as a young boy in 1928. At the time, immigration to the United States was governed by the strict quotas imposed by the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924. This law sought to lessen the number of ethnically undesirable Southern and Eastern Europeans entering the United States, after a decades-long wave of Southern and Eastern European immigration, by imposing a strict national-origins quota system skewed towards Northern and Western Europe. (Asians and others were excluded from the quotas entirely.) This pernicious law remained in effect throughout World War II, as an antisemitic State Department refused to bend the rules to admit Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives. It was only with the comprehensive immigration law of 1965 that this system was abandoned.6This history is fairly forthrightly recounted on the State Department’s own history website, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act. But, quotas notwithstanding, my grandfather and his brother were able to enter the country (perhaps because their father was already here and their mother had died.)
For a long time, I believed the family myth that our name had been changed from Kuprinsky to Cooper (a good Irish name) at Ellis Island. It was only fairly recently that I learned that our name hadn’t been changed there–indeed, that no one’s name was changed at Ellis Island.7https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ask-smithsonian-did-ellis-island-officials-really change-names-immigrants-180961544/ Instead, Jews who changed their names to sound more American offloaded the responsibility for the assimilationist choice onto anonymous immigration inspectors who did no such thing. As Julius (Yehuda) Cooper, my grandfather grew up, attended school, joined Zionist youth movements, and was drafted into the Army in
World War II, along with more than ten million other American men. He experienced antisemitism in the military and took pains to avoid eating treif meat during his years in the service. He married my grandmother (and namesake) after basic training before being sent overseas and didn’t see her again for years. And then he, like millions of others, came home to the plaudits of a grateful nation. Like only some of those millions, he had access to the benefits of the Servicemembers’ Readjustment Act, or the GI Bill, as it came to be known, which was the nation’s attempt to do right by the millions of men it had drafted into the military to fight the war. Now they were owed the nation’s gratitude and, more concretely, its help getting on with their lives. The law offered important benefits to returning GIs, but not all returning GIs were equally able to access them. To understand why, we need to know something about the political context of the 1940s in which this law was passed.
The Democratic Party dominated American politics in the 1930s and 1940s. Democratic presidents won five consecutive terms, often with commanding congressional majorities. But the Democratic coalition that comprised that majority was a collection of strange bedfellows. As urban liberals, working-class whites, and Black Americans moved into the party in the wake of the vast array of economic legislation passed as part of FDR’s New Deal, they were met by the longtime Democratic stalwarts: the white supremacists who maintained and benefited from the whites-only “democracy” of the Deep South.
With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, and the abandoning of its attempt at mutiracial democracy and meaningful rights for Black Americans in the postbellum South, Southern whites reasserted their power, often violently. Despite the explicit guarantees of the Fifteenth Amendment, they stripped Black men of the right to vote. They enshrined white supremacy in law and practice, the malign regime that came to be known by the deceptively mild name Jim Crow. And, because the Republican Party had been the Party of Abraham Lincoln, the party of ending slavery, the party of Radical Reconstruction and Black enfranchisement, these Southern whites voted nearly exclusively for the Democratic Party until 1964. This white-only Democratic voting bloc was known as the Solid South.
Roosevelt needed their votes to pass his legislation, and so that legislation had to meet their demands. The GI Bill could not explicitly exclude Black servicemembers from its benefits: the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified after the Civil War, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race. But the bill’s drafters could write it in a way that made Black Americans far less likely to be able to access its benefits. And they did.8This treatment of the GI Bill draws upon the work of Ira Katznelson, When Af irmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005).
The two most important benefits granted servicemembers in the bill were in education and housing. The Federal government would pay for postsecondary education -– if the servicemembers found a college or university to accept them. And it would guarantee their mortgages, making young servicemembers with little income more attractive as candidates for loans -– if they could find a bank that would lend to them. In both of these cases, already-existing systems and structures meant that Black GIs would be far less likely to access the Bill’s benefits. Across the South, public universities were segregated, and there were nowhere near enough seats in historically Black colleges and universities for the Black GIs who might have wanted to attend them. And because of the racist practices in real estate and mortgage lending (irrespective of creditworthiness) so ably documented by Richard Rothstein in his book Color of Law,9Katznelson, Af irmative Action, Chapter 5: “White Veterans Only” Black Americans were largely locked out of the mortgage lending market. In practice, this rendered the promises of the GI Bill to Black servicemembers a dead letter and a cruel joke.10This dynamic is captured succinctly and powerfully in this scene from Disney’s Cinderella: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W73Y3vCAZHc&t=14s
Nor was the GI Bill the only law written that way or for that purpose. The Social Security Act of 1935, which extended old-age pensions to working Americans, excluded agricultural and domestic workers from its benefits. Those were, of course, the two professions that employed most African-American workers. By excluding those workers as a class from Social Security benefits, Southern Democrats could exclude most Black people from the law’s benefits even as the law could not be explicitly written to do that. It was only with later emendations to the Social Security Act that most Black Americans were granted its benefits.
My grandfather faced antisemitism in the Army, and the United States’ embrace of Jews in the 1940s was certainly imperfect. But when it came down to the color line that governed who could and who could not receive the benefits of the GI Bill, my grandfather landed on the white side of the line. If he was not white enough to join the country club, he was at least white enough to enjoy the benefits officially guaranteed to all servicemembers but practically made accessible to the white ones.
My grandfather tried his hand at various lines of work after the war. He became a shochet (I have his chalif [shechita knife] in my apartment). He tried his hand at sales. And eventually, together with some relatives, he bought cheap apartment buildings in a rundown Brooklyn neighborhood that, in my childhood, were populated by poor immigrants, down-on-their-luck older men, and starving artists. My mother and her siblings still own those buildings today, almost thirty years after my grandfather’s death. The neighborhood’s name is Williamsburg, which more recently had its moment as one of the trendiest real estate markets in New York City.
Our Family Stories
My grandfather worked incredibly hard managing “the houses” (as we called them.) When he died in his early seventies, after a stroke, he was still going to work and tending to the needs of his tenants every day. Nothing was handed to him; nothing was easy. If I know my family history, know about my grandfather’s immigration and struggles and hard work, and his ultimate achievement of the American dream, hearing about the history of the GI Bill can sound like a devaluation of what he achieved. It can sound like a claim that some depersonalized force known as “white privilege” or “systemic racism” granted my grandfather the wealth he achieved rather than the endless hours of hard work that, as a child, I saw him putting in. And so some of us, put off by the implication that systemic advantage granted our families what they so evidently worked so hard for, find it hard to hear that story, striking as it does not only at our cherished family stories but at our observed and lived experience.
It is here that we need to be able to think with some subtlety; to realize that this is not a binary proposition. It is not that either my grandfather worked hard or that he was given access to certain opportunities on the basis of the race that he was assigned in a system that he did not create and whose existence long predated his arrival here. Both can be true at the same time. Both are true. My grandfather worked very hard until the very end of his life. He invested time and effort in his houses. He was also the beneficiary of luck in the ways that the New York City real estate market changed over the decades that he owned those houses. And his work was able to bear fruit because of certain structures that enabled his hard work to pay off, in ways that others’ hard work didn’t, and couldn’t.
In her famous paper, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” Peggy McIntosh refers to this as “Earned Strength, Unearned Power.”11Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” In S. Plous (Ed.), Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003) pp. 191–196. My grandfather earned his strength, but it was advanced–leveraged–by power that he did not earn. He did not shape the systems that granted him that unearned power; at the time they granted that power to him, he may not even have fully understood their workings. But he benefited from them all the same.
What struck me when I encountered that formulation was how much it echoes the pesukim of Devarim Chapter 8. In warning the Jewish people against the complacency and self-satisfaction that may attend to their entry into the Land of Israel and achieving material success therein, Moshe exhorts them not to fall prey to the fundamental error of attribution, to take as evidence of their own hard work or merit that which is in fact a sign of God’s blessing.
(12) When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in,
(13) and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, (14) beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the LORD your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage;
(15) who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock;
(16)who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end—
(17) and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”
(18) Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.12Devarim 8:12-18; translation Sefaria.
Our wealth (hayil) is attained only through God’s granting us the power (koah) to accumulate it. The forces behind those workings are very different than those at play in the twentieth century United States, but the need for perspective is the same: to enjoy the products of one’s hard work while retaining the awareness that hard work alone did not yield those products, but hard work amplified by other circumstances beyond our creation or control. That I accept that my grandfather’s earned strength was furthered by unearned power denies neither his hard work nor the social, economic, and educational antisemitism widespread in the United States through the mid-twentieth century. It simply acknowledges reality.
We can be proud of our grandparents. (Indeed, we need to be.) We can realize that for most of the American Jewish community, our family stories include immigrants arriving from Europe with nothing, or refugees or Holocaust survivors arriving with even less; that through hard work and emphasis on the redemptive value of education, our families achieved success–material, certainly, but not only, building the institutions and infrastructure of a robust observant Jewish life in the United States. And at the same time, we can recognize that not everyone’s grandparents had access to the same avenues towards “making it” and that not everyone’s hard work was similarly rewarded. (Some people’s hard work, as in the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre discussed below, was razed to the ground.) Our grandparents earned their strength, but that strength was amplified by the social systems, rules, and laws of this country. They may not have designed these rules, maintained them, or even asked for them, but my grandparents benefited from them all the same.
Our Jewish Stories
Beyond our own family history and our pride in our ancestors’ accomplishments, another impediment to the Orthodox community’s engaging in meaningful conversation about race stems from our deep discomfort with the ways in which this American history challenges our Jewish stories. Deep in our collective consciousness and unconscious are memories of our national history of oppression–the oldest hatred, the worst oppression. On the world stage, both of those things are indubitably true about Jews as a religious and national group. But in the specific case of the United States of America, neither of them is. Yes, Jews faced discrimination of various sorts across the decades, in housing, education, and employment. Then and now, Jews, especially those who are visible minorities (men who wear kippot; obviously Orthodox men and women) have been targets of physical violence. But we have not, in the United States, been the targets of state-sanctioned murder and expropriation. We have not, systematically, been denied the protection of the law–denied protection of our right to property, our right to vote, our right to keep our families together and our bodies intact. And Black Americans have.
It is vital that we learn that history. To understand the country in which we live, to understand its politics and its legal structures, to understand even its contemporary debates, we must understand something of this history. For those who wish to explore further, a reading list is appended to the end of this paper. But to begin the study of that history, I offer three brief narratives, spread across space and time: of convict leasing, the Tulsa race massacre, and the segregation of America’s suburbs.
One of the mistakes that white Americans make about our history–one of the forgettings that we engage in–is to argue that slavery ended in 1865, so all of this unpleasantness is in the rearview mirror. That assertion reveals a profound, perhaps even willed, ignorance about this country. The Civil War ended chattel slavery in the American South. In many parts of the country, for generations, not much more than that changed.
Some of the precise ways in which this is true came to light through Douglas Blackmon’s reporting for The Wall Street Journal. He began by exploring the history of American companies’ complicity with the Nazi regime in Germany, but in the course of his investigation, he discovered that many American companies were complicit in a racist atrocity here at home.
As the South began to industrialize after the Civil War, the companies that located there–global titans including U.S. Steel, local corporations such as Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel–needed a workforce, ideally one that would be cheaper and more docile than the restive, union-organizing workers in the North and Midwest. Southern officials offered them the prisoners right out of their jail cells. The prisoners did not need to be paid because the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, contained an exception: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” [emphasis added.]It was a loophole large enough to march a chain gang through.
Everyone won here, except the prisoners. The corporations got extremely low-cost labor–even lower in cost than enslaving people since, if an enslaved person died, the enslaver had lost valuable property. If the convict laborers did, the prison system would just provide another haul of workers, and so those workers could be treated even more horrifically than slaves often were. (Part of Blackmon’s research was to document a few of the many unmarked graves of prisoners located at their work sites.) The local sheriffs profited off the leasing out of people in their control. Before convict leasing was outlawed in Alabama in 1928, it provided a majority of the state’s revenue. And Black men died in the mines.13All of this is drawn from Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work in Douglas Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008)
No one deserves to be worked to death and buried in an unmarked grave. Even if this form of slavery was nominally legal, it was clearly more about money and control than about proportionate consequences for a crime. But it was worse than that. These were mostly not men who had been convicted of violent crime, or of any serious crime at all. In fact, the law enforcement officials who profited from convict leasing used the criminal legal system to ensure a never-ending supply to meet the demand. Laws like those against vagrancy and loitering, which vaguely prohibited “hanging around” in a way that could criminalize unemployment or even socializing, were used to arrest Black men. These men were then assessed high fees that they could not pay and jailed for failure to pay those fees and fines. Trapped in prison by a vagrancy or a loitering charge and unable to pay an onerous and disproportionate fine, they ended up as convict labor, essentially slaves, working for some of America’s wealthiest and most important corporations.14Again, assessments of the validity of contemporary critiques of the criminal legal system must be carried out with some historical knowledge and background. Actions like the imposition of cash bail and imprisoning people who cannot pay it while releasing those who can, or imposing excessive fines and fees and jailing those who can’t pay them, have a history.
Some have taken strong issue with Michelle Alexander’s assertion, in the thesis of her book The New Jim Crow, that after the civil rights movement and the end of legalized segregation in the United States, official second-class status was imposed on African-Americans through the criminal legal system. In assessing the merits of that claim, it is important to note the historical background: before it was the New Jim Crow, the criminal legal system was, in the title of Blackmon’s book, Slavery byAnother Name.
Tulsa Race Massacre
As recently as three years ago, when I taught about the Tulsa Race Massacre, I was met with disbelief of both the rhetorical and literal varieties. Today, after the 100th anniversary commemorations of the events of Tulsa, and the HBO series The Watchmen, the events of June 1921 in Tulsa are better-known. They are worth reviewing.
The nominal pretext for the massacre in Tulsa was that a Black man had disrespected, perhaps harassed, a white woman. The African-American community in Tulsa had established considerable wealth and, in the Greenwood business district, their shops, businesses, and home reflected it. Over three days, from May 31 to June 1 1921, all of that was destroyed.
With the pretext of the rumored assault, the incitement began. The Tulsa Tribune ran headlines on its front page: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” A white mob stormed the business district, looting businesses and destroying homes. Hundreds of African-Amerians were murdered, their bodies buried in mass graves in the Tulsa cemetery. And all of this took place with not only the passive acceptance but even the active endorsement of the governmental and police authorities.
In all of the horror of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the detail I find most staggering is one that was re-raised to public attention in 2016, when a manuscript letter was discovered in an attic and donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The author was a Tulsa lawyer named Buck Colbert Franklin, whose son, John Hope Franklin, would become a leading African-American historian of the twentieth century. Franklin the elder described what he saw that day: “I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top.”15https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/long-lost-manuscript-contains-searing-eyewitne ss-account-tulsa-race-massacre-1921-180959251/
This event took place in 1921, a scant few years after the first use of airplanes in combat in World War I. Then, airplanes were used primarily for reconnaissance and air-to-air combat (dogfighting.) This is one of the first recorded instances of aerial bombardment anywhere, and it was done by the government of an American city, to destroy its own citizens. The violence in Tulsa, in other words, was not simply the rampaging of an out-of-control mob. It was the deployment of state power to attack those citizens to whom the state not only did to extend its protection but against whom it wielded weapons of war.
Mary E. Jones-Parrish, a Black woman living in Tulsa at the time, gathered testimonies and descriptions of the events of June 1921 in Tulsa from witnesses and survivors. Her oral history was published as a book titled The Nation Must Awake. One survivor describes,
As daylight approached, they [the white people] were given a signal by a whistle, and the dirty, cowardly outrage took place. All of this happened while innocent Negroes were slumbering, and did not have the least idea that they would fall victims of such brutality.
At the signal of the whistle, more than a dozen aeroplanes went up and began to drop turpentine balls upon the Negro residences, while the 5,000 Whites, with machine guns and other deadly weapons, began firing in all directions. Negro men, women and children began making haste to fell to safety, but to no avail, as they were met on all sides with volleys of shot. Negro men, women and children were killed in great numbers as they ran, trying to flee to safety.
As the fighting progressed they were caputing and taking all Negro men from their honest homes to a down town hall, etc., also Negro women and children were being taken to different parts of the city. After they had cleared more than five hundred homes of occupants, then the dirty work of firing and looting of homes began.
Torch lights were used with gasoline to burn up the Negro settlement, and, in the meantime, they used large trucks to load up pianos, victrolas, and other articles that were in the Negro homes. In fact, the whole of the Negro homes were looted by these rascal Whites who met no resistance, as most of the Negroes were taken prisoner.
We read the Bible about Sodom and Gomorrah, but the sights, as witnessed that morning, could not have been worse. One part of the city was cut off from the other by fire, smoke, and ashes.16Mary E. Jones Parrish, The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1923) 51-52
The first time I read this, despite everything I had already learned and read about the Tulsa Race Massacre, I was silenced, at an utter loss for words. But my ancestors would have had the words to describe this. They would have called it a pogrom.
Segregation of the Suburbs
For a long time, I taught my students something that wasn’t true. I did it inadvertently, in ignorance, but I did it all the same. I taught my students that in the American South, there existed a regime of de jure segregation–segregation imposed and enforced by law. In other places, including the Northern city where we live, segregation was de facto–the product of norms and expectations and people’s decisions about where to live, but not mandated by authorities. That, I taught, was how we ended up with almost-entirely-white suburbs around Northern cities. That the schools in those communities were very nearly white-only was the result of the choices of developers, realtors, and homebuyers, not the actions of the government.
Richard Rothstein’s 2018 book The Color of Law17Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law. (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018) Race and the American Orthodox Jewish Community, 22 was a revelation when I read it, and not in a good way. He documents in detail that laws throughout the United States mandated that neighborhoods be segregated by race. Enforced by law, and upheld by private actors such as mortgage lenders and real estate agents, these restrictions denied Black Americans access to the rapidly-expanding suburbs and thus, to the engine of wealth-creation that was homeownership. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his important article “The Case for Reparations,”18Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/ Race and the American Orthodox Jewish Community, 23 documents the costs to Black Americans of being shut out of real estate markets. What Rothstein does is to show us that it was not accidental or incidental. Federal and state law imposed housing segregation on communities across the United States.
For many American Jews descended from European immigrants, a significant part of our family’s story of “making it” is of our parents or grandparents buying a home in an expanding postwar market and then passively building wealth as real estate values skyrocketed. We can hold that–and the prudence and hard work that enabled it–as part of our families’ stories while recognizing that many American families did not have access to that opportunity because they were denied it, not by happenstance, but by the deliberate and targeted actions of their government.
Are [White] Jews White?
We turn, then, to the question of Jews and whiteness. What does it mean to say that Jews—even European-origin, white-appearing Jews—are white? In the American racial hierarchy, being white referred less to a specific skin tone than to having access to the advantage conferred by whiteness. And for all the antisemitism he confronted in the US Army, for all of the many ways that my grandfather’s life was affected by this country’s limited and conditional welcome to Eastern European Jews, when it came down to whether he could access the benefits of the GI Bill, my grandfather was white enough. Scholars might use terms like “conditionally white” or “revocably white” to refer to the tenuous, partial nature of European Jews’ whiteness in mid-twentieth century United States. But US law, from 1790 through the 1950s, restricted naturalization to “free white persons,” and no one ever argued that my grandfather could not be naturalized. For that, as for so much else, he was white enough.
Many (most?) Americans, certainly most white Americans, are not aware that from 1790 until 1952, the naturalization law—the written codification of who could legally gain American citizenship—limited that to “free white persons.” They are not aware of the line of cases from the 19th and early 20th centuries, litigating whether different ethnic groups were white enough, or white-adjacent enough, to be naturalized under that law.19Marian L. Smith, “Race, Nationality, and Reality: INS Administration of Racial Provisions in U.S. Immigration and Nationality Law Since 1898”, Prologue, Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2 https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/summer/immigration-law-1#:~:text=Rather%2C% 20the%201870%20rule%20appeared,naturalization%20of%20Chinese%20in%201882. Even as Jews faced widespread discrimination in education and employment, even as they were excluded in various ways from the social sphere, Jews were accepted as eligible to become naturalized American citizens. While Jews faced discrimination in education, employment, and the social spheres of American life, when the law conferred advantage on those defined as white and disadvantage on those defined as Black, Jews were white enough.20The discussion of Jews and whiteness is a subset of a broad scholarly literature about whiteness in America. Two places to begin are Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) and Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
The resurgence of a vocal white supremacy in the United States, which certainly doesn’t see us as part of them, means that Jews have a complicated and not entirely clear relationship with whiteness. When Jews are being murdered in a house of worship on Shabbat morning by a white supremacist who sees us as undermining whiteness in the United States by bringing in immigrants and refugees of color, asserting the whiteness of white-appearing Jews can seem like a painful and bad joke. Eric Ward, a scholar of white supremacy, has referred to antisemitism as the “theoretical core” of white nationalism.21Eric K. Ward, “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism”, The Public Eye, Summer 2017 https://politicalresearch.org/2017/06/29/skin-in-the-game-how-antisemitism-animates-white-nationalism Race and the American Orthodox Jewish Community, 25
But it would be unfortunate, indeed, if, in a desire to protect ourselves from contemporary threats, we force ourselves to deny clear truths about our past and this country’s past. We might, in that case, respond to overly simplistic or reductive historical narratives, or challenge the appropriateness of applying American racial narratives and frameworks to other societies. Instead, we must be able to think with subtlety and complexity because the relationship of American Jews to the racial mapping of Black and white in American life is nothing if not complex. We can be not-fully-white and even hated by the self-appointed defenders of whiteness in some contexts, and white enough in others. We can have benefited from historical opportunities that were afforded to white Americans and denied to Black Americans—a proposition that is indubitably true—even as some education, employment, and housing opportunities were denied to our parents or grandparents because of their Jewishness. And we can have been white in those historical ways, even as we are frightened of a resurgence of the violent antisemitism that would deny us our place in American society and attempt to enforce that with deadly force, as in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh.
Some of our communal reluctance to reexamine and re-engage American history, and our history with race, stems not from ignorance of our past or our reluctance to face it, but our deep uneasiness about our present. In a world in which Israel is routinely cast as the worst human rights abuser on the planet, in which individuals and institutions establish their progressive bona fides by denying Zionists access to their spaces, opening up a conversation about race may seem threatening because it seems to invite the delegitimizing criticisms of Israel that hardly need encouraging.
The concern is not about the racial reckoning itself, then, but about whom that empowers, and whom it puts us into coalition with. Are we, if we agree to engage in the effort of re-learning and re-thinking American history, empowering those forces who would exclude our kids on college campuses from progressive spaces or uncomplicatedly label Jews as part of the white oppressor class without any understanding of our history?
From the founding of the United States—from before there was a United States—race, racism, and racial exploitation were central to the American story. There had been human beings owned as property on American soil for more than a century before Thomas Jefferson. When the country was dragged—kicking, screaming, and at the cost of three quarters of a million lives—to the end of chattel slavery, it replaced those mechanisms with generations of economic exploitation, mob violence, and legal unpersonhood. The amount of time that we as a country have spent committed to nominally treating all citizens the same regardless of the color of their skin is still far less than the amount of time we have spent enforcing legal regimes of white supremacy. The amount of time that we have spent committed to understanding the structures of white supremacy is shorter still.
American Jews, for the most part, entered this story in medias res. While there have been Jews in what became the United States since the 1650s, we arrived in greater numbers beginning in the nineteenth century to a country that had decided to leave chattel slavery behind. We arrived to social, economic, and educational discrimination, to racial regimes that classed us as less than, as not fully white. But we also arrived to a country that provided the conditions for our accomplishment and success, and, crucially, to a country that decided that we were white enough to enjoy the benefits of citizenship, political rights, and access to the top tier of a binary and hierarchical system.
To contend, as American Jews, with the history of race in this country, then, is to try to hold all of this at once: our status as the world’s most persecuted minority, but not the United States’; our history as immigrants, as refugees, as the wretched refuse and the homeless, tempest-tost; our status today as the most successful minority community in the United States, because of our parents’ and grandparents’ hard work to take advantage of the opportunities this country afforded them; our place in a contemporary landscape of discussion about race in which we feel singled out for opprobrium on both far ends of the political and discourse spectrum; to try to hold our families’ histories, and our nation’s, and our people’s; to think subtly, without defining ourselves in opposition to the pernicious forces on the extremes of the political discourse.
And then George Floyd died beneath a police officer’s knee on a Minneapolis street, and many Jewish Americans, like many Americans, thought it was high time we asked and addressed some painful questions. We are Jews, with our own history and experience. We are Americans. And we are, many of us, of European background, white or, at least in this context, white enough, which adds additional layers of complexity to this already complicated story. In trying to think about all of this, we keep running into roadblocks—the mental or emotional barriers that get in the way of our thinking openly, honestly, and fully about race in the American story and where we find our place in it. I hope that in identifying those roadblocks and understanding how they came to be, this paper has lowered some of them and offered a way in.
- 1The two categories are overlapping but not identical; there are Jews from non-Ashkenazi backgrounds whose appearance would have been classed as white in America’s racial mapping; and Jews who practice Askhenazi customs even as their families’ area of origin is not Eastern Europe.
- 2“The survey also asked whether Jews think of themselves as Ashkenazi (following the Jewish customs of Central and Eastern Europe), Sephardic (following the Jewish customs of Spain), Mizrahi (following the Jewish customs of North Africa and the Middle East) or something else. Fully two-thirds of Jewish Americans consider themselves Ashkenazi, while relatively few consider themselves to be Sephardic (3%) or Mizrahi (1%). An additional 6% say they are some combination of these or other categories. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/
- 3Devarim 4:9-10
- 4Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Dif erence: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Continuum, 2002) pp. 56-60.
- 5Shemot 23:9
- 6This history is fairly forthrightly recounted on the State Department’s own history website, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act.
- 7https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ask-smithsonian-did-ellis-island-officials-really change-names-immigrants-180961544/
- 8This treatment of the GI Bill draws upon the work of Ira Katznelson, When Af irmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005).
- 9Katznelson, Af irmative Action, Chapter 5: “White Veterans Only”
- 10This dynamic is captured succinctly and powerfully in this scene from Disney’s Cinderella: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W73Y3vCAZHc&t=14s
- 11Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” In S. Plous (Ed.), Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003) pp. 191–196.
- 12Devarim 8:12-18; translation Sefaria.
- 13All of this is drawn from Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work in Douglas Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008)
- 14Again, assessments of the validity of contemporary critiques of the criminal legal system must be carried out with some historical knowledge and background. Actions like the imposition of cash bail and imprisoning people who cannot pay it while releasing those who can, or imposing excessive fines and fees and jailing those who can’t pay them, have a history.
- 15https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/long-lost-manuscript-contains-searing-eyewitne ss-account-tulsa-race-massacre-1921-180959251/
- 16Mary E. Jones Parrish, The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1923) 51-52
- 17Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law. (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018) Race and the American Orthodox Jewish Community, 22
- 18Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/ Race and the American Orthodox Jewish Community, 23
- 19Marian L. Smith, “Race, Nationality, and Reality: INS Administration of Racial Provisions in U.S. Immigration and Nationality Law Since 1898”, Prologue, Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2 https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/summer/immigration-law-1#:~:text=Rather%2C% 20the%201870%20rule%20appeared,naturalization%20of%20Chinese%20in%201882.
- 20The discussion of Jews and whiteness is a subset of a broad scholarly literature about whiteness in America. Two places to begin are Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) and Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
- 21Eric K. Ward, “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism”, The Public Eye, Summer 2017 https://politicalresearch.org/2017/06/29/skin-in-the-game-how-antisemitism-animates-white-nationalism Race and the American Orthodox Jewish Community, 25