Opinion

Will White Nationalism in the White House Spur a Renewed Black-Jewish Alliance?

To challenge a president who brought the racist demons of the American experience to the surface, we must revive the historic cooperation between American blacks and Jews which far preceded the Civil Rights movement.

Demonstrators walk through downtown San Diego in protest of Donald Trump's election as the president of the United States, San Diego, California, U.S. November 9, 2016.
Demonstrators walk through downtown San Diego in protest of Donald Trump's election as the president of the United States, San Diego, California, U.S. November 9, 2016. Sandy Huffaker, Reuters

During my first trip to Israel, in 2000, I was regularly asked the same question. Why do black Americans hate Jews? 

This was the result of a 1992 op-ed (“Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars”) that appeared in The New York Times written by Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor, which implied that the last pockets of anti-Semitism in the United States existed among black Americans. The op-ed was picked up by CNN and its message broadcast to 200 countries. I called Professor Gates and cited statistics that showed a decline in anti-Semitism among black Americans. He told me not to worry, because his editors at the Times would print a follow up op-ed about racism among Jewish Americans. That piece never appeared.
  
How exactly did black Americans show their "anti-Semitism?" When Senator Joseph Lieberman ran for president he was the first choice among black Americans. When Rev. Al Sharpton entered the race, Senator Lieberman was second choice. I wasn’t surprised by this.

I grew up in the inner city and after living in various bohemian zones and the suburbs for about 16 years, my family and I moved to inner-city Oakland, California, in 1979. I rarely heard an anti-Semitic remark among ordinary black Americans growing up or while living in Oakland. You hear it, sometimes, in academia and among intellectuals, both low-paying industries. The late author Ron Sukenick attributed this to competition.

Moreover, cooperation between blacks and Jews has been more prominent than conflict, but those who write that Jewish-black cooperation began during the Civil Rights movement are mistaken. 

It actually began in the early 1900s over the issue of police brutality aimed at both groups by the New York Police Department. Later, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement was beneficial to blacks, Jews and other groups, but tensions arose when black nationalists expelled white liberals, many of them Jewish, from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. People went their separate ways. According to Mary King, however, the modern feminist movement began when white women, who joined the Freedom Summer, based their feminist manifesto on SNCC’s, which makes it hard to understand why the majority of white educated women chose race over gender, by voting for Trump. 

Jewish Night at the San Francisco Jazz Center, April 5, 2014. Left to right: Jack Hirschman, Marcia Falk, Alan Kaufman, the late David Meltzer and Ishmael Reed.
Tennessee Reed.

But there was another reason for the rift.

Herbert Hill, former Secretary of Labor for the NAACP, declared that in the 1960s many American Jews became white.

Therefore it must have come as a jolt when President Donald Trump’s campaign unearthed an anti-Semitism that dwells below the surface and that a group of so-called "alt-righters," the label that neo-Nazis give themselves these days, was installed a few doors from the Oval Office. Trump advisor, Steve Bannon, was the editor of Breitbart where William Kristol was called a “Renegade Jew." Perhaps Bannon was the one who advised the Trump campaign to end its campaign ads with one referring to a global banking conspiracy and featuring the photos of three prominent Jews.

President Trump has given the far right a wink and a nod. He has retweeted racist and anti-Semitic material from far right sources. When an ad appeared in which a Star of David annotated with the tagline “Most corrupt candidate ever!” to refer to Senator Clinton, and one of Trump’s campaign operatives took it down, Trump said that he would have kept it up. Jewish journalists who dare to criticize Trump, or members of his family, have been accosted with death threats, yet progressives and middle of the road pundits have minimized the presence of haters among Trump’s followers, even though his taunts at blacks, Hispanics and Muslims received enthusiastic reception at his rallies, reminding Abraham Foxman, former director of the ADL, of rallies greeting Adolf Hitler. Other ADL officials repeated Foxman’s charges, which is why they were rarely invited to appear on cable TV. The media doesn’t want to alienate Trump. He’s making them money. They provided him with billions of dollars-worth of free coverage. 

Perhaps the threat facing both Jews and blacks will renew an alliance - an alliance that has worked well among black and Jewish writers and whose representatives have energized American culture.  

The media line is that the white working class voted for Trump as a result of a bad economy. They tiptoe around evidence of Russian intervention and the FBI’s heavy-handed hinting about potential criminal behavior by Secretary Clinton - and then two days before the election clearing her. Her defeat was also blamed on millennials remaining home, or voting Green Party or Libertarian. 

But suppose the media were right? That Clinton lost because of the lack of jobs among the rust belt white working class, and not as a backlash to the two terms of a black president, a contention held by black leaders and intellectuals? That it wasn’t an appeal to racism that attracted white voters to Trump but economic reasons? Then follow the logic. 

During his confirmation hearing, Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama expressed skepticism over the use of consent decrees to address civil rights abuses in policing. Among the Trump administration's first actions was a request to delay the Justice Department's case against Texas over a discriminatory voting law.

Why then were the first measures of the Trump administration to protect the police from charges of brutality and to suppress the voting rights of blacks and Latinos? Nothing to do with jobs for the rust belt?

The unemployment rate is 4% and the net worth of the average white family is more than ten times that of black and Hispanic families yet according to an analysis of more than four decades of data from the General Social Survey and other public polls blacks and Hispanics are very optimistic about the future of the country. I agree. So what was the reason that whites of all income levels voted to elect such a mercurial candidate for president? 

In two of my books, I make the case that the election of Barack Obama led large segments of the white population to go bonkers. I illustrated the cover of my book of essays, Going Too Far with an illustration of President Obama not as a Muslim born in Kenya, the lie that brought white nationalists to power, but as the Catholic priest in the film, “The Exorcist,” because his presidency  brought the demons of the American experience to the surface. The subtitle was, Essays About America’s Nervous Breakdown.

Some might consider this hyperbole. Nevertheless something terrible has been released in our county. I’m also old enough to remember the last time that white nationalists took their argument for white superiority to the battlefield. Millions perished.

Ishmael Reed is a writer and poet, and Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of thirty books including the acclaimed novel Mumbo Jumbo, as well as essays, plays and poetry. Awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and the L.A. Times Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Awards, he is a founder of the Before Columbus Foundation and PEN Oakland. Together with his daughter Tennessee Reed he co-publishes the online magazine, Konch ishmaelreedpub.com. He is currently Visiting Scholar at The California College of the Arts. His latest book is "The Complete Muhammad Ali.”