Jews, White Privilege and the Fight Against Racism in America

U.S. Jews took an active part in the struggle against racism in the '60s. The events in Ferguson and Staten Island raise the question: Why isn't that the case anymore?

Student activists demanding justice for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown
Student activists, demanding justice for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, take part in the nationwide "Hands up, walk out" protest at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, Dec.1, 2014. Reuters

My Jewish-American identity is defined by my religion as much as my whiteness. While I do not often think, write about, or actively engage with my whiteness, it is an omnipresent force in my life. I was raised in a safe, suburban, and mostly white neighborhood; went to a private Jewish day school, with mostly white peers; and most of my friends at college are Jewish and white. Thinking about police officers evokes a sense of comfort, not dread. I normally don’t think much about my whiteness; probably because it helps – not hurts – me.  But when Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager is shot dead in Ferguson with no recourse; when – most recently – Eric Garner, a black man, is strangled on camera in Staten Island and the officer walks free – I know I have to bring both my whiteness and Judaism to bear in the struggle for justice.

Reactions to the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson over his deadly shooting of Michael Brown were divided across racial and partisan lines. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Americans are almost evenly split over the grand jury’s decision: more liberals and democrats opposed the decision than conservatives and republicans, while more African Americans opposed the decision than whites.

While Jewish organizations like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs  and the Anti Defamation League have released statements calling for dialogue and engagement on racial issues in the United States in light of the Ferguson case, and groups like T’ruah have joined the protests there, the Jewish establishment has not embarked on a major campaign to combat institutional racism. I find this strange for two reasons. One is that we, Jewish Americans, were very active in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The second is that we were once subjected to racism and institutionalized prejudice ourselves. However, I think these two facts can shed light on our community’s failure to take substantive action in the Ferguson case and others like it.

In an article about Jews and the civil rights movement, Professor John Fobanjong describes how the Jewish community was strong and relatively unified in that struggle. Fobanjong notes that Jewish philanthropists helped create, and chair, the NAACP; Jewish charities built 5,337 black schools across the south; two thirds of the white freedom riders were Jewish; and, a staggering 96 percent of American Jews supported President Kennedy’s decision to dispatch federal troops to desegregate Montgomery, Alabama.

I believe the drive behind this communal activism was that, during this period – the 1950s and 1960s – Jewish Americans themselves had only just begun to be accepted among white Americans as equals, and still remembered what it was like to be oppressed.

Anthropologist Karen Brodkin, in her book, How Jews Became White Folks,” writes that in the early 20th century, there were gradations of whiteness that corresponded to class. While not all American Jews are white skinned, white Ashkenazi Jews make up the majority of American Jewry. Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, as well as immigrants from Poland and Ireland, were all considered to be “lesser whites” because of their more menial professions. But after World War II, the American government enacted a series of programs that disproportionately benefited white-skinned European immigrants over African Americans. As Jewish immigrants and their children climbed the economic ladder during the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, they joined protestant America in the white middle class (despite remnants of institutionalized anti-Semitism).

As the Jewish community in America came into its privileged whiteness in the 1960s, its previous status as victims of prejudice was fresh enough to prompt unified activism against oppression of others – namely African Americans.

With time, institutionalized anti-Semitism dissolved (although it still exists on an interpersonal level) and today, half a century later, Jews are among the most privileged groups in the United States. We have become "white elites.”

Yet, the more we have become part of the oppressive system, the less proactive we have struggled against others’ oppression. According to Pew, 64 percent of Jews believe that blacks still face “a lot of discrimination,” but our community has not made enough of an effort to combat racism.

While our Jewish history should remind us every day that we’re perpetually at risk of being on the wrong side of white elitism, and that failing to fight injustice exacts a heavy toll, our ingrained "whiteness" is preventing us from biting the hand that has fed us so well.

As we move further and further away in each generation from our oppressive past, I worry that the chances of reviving that solidarity dissipate. We should never lose sight of the oppression that persists all around us. If nothing else, our community has to challenge the system that robbed Michael Brown , Eric Garner and so many others of justice and dignity. We must do so out of moral conviction and nothing less.

Benjy Cannon is the National Student Board President of J Street U. He studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland, where he sits on the Hillel Board. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email to benjycannon@gmail.com.