Race and the Future of Jewishness


In the January 11 Newsweek, which published on the web yesterday, Ellis Cose has a piece called Race: The Future of Whiteness in America. It’s a complex piece, about more than one thing of interest to me in my work here: the shifting definitions of who is white, the increase in intermarriage between groups that previously didn’t mix, the complexity of articulating a mixed identity on the U.S. Census.

Cose highlights the shifting nature of racism in the United States by picking out Jews as an example. He cites Karen Brodkin Sach’s How Did Jews Become White Folks? and discusses how Ashkenazi Jews, who now consider ourselves, and are considered by others, to be white, used to be categorized as non-white in the United States. (In some people’s minds, we still are.) It reminds me of the first time I read Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew where he describes a three-way dance between Jews, anti-Semites and liberals–the target of discrimination, who is defined by it, the racist, and bystanders. I had a revelation about the way racism was working in the United States in my lifetime when I read Sartre’s Second World War insights into French anti-Semitism. People get defined as people of color not based on their physical characteristics, exactly, but on whether their current society considers those characteristics real signs of difference.

Of course, there are problems with this model. Jews don’t only exist as a group because of anti-Semites, but because of our shared history, religion and culture. Blackness in the United States isn’t only the condition of being discriminated against because of being Black–it’s also the culture that comes out of that experience. I should also add there are already many Jews in North America who would be recognized as people of color even in our current set of social definitions.

What it means for interfaith families is there are definitely going to be more Jews of mixed heritage as we get older, and the Jewish community is going to have to relax about it. At the same time, everyone else is going to be facing the same problem we are–how to hang on to our distinctive subculture as society opens up.

I’m not worried (worried?) that anti-Semitism is going to disappear. We don’t have the FBI’s Hate Crimes statistics for 2009 yet, but for 2008 they reported that of 1,732 religious hate crimes, 66.1 percent were against Jews. Racial violence, which like all hate crimes may be under-reported, was even higher–more than half of single-bias hate crimes were motivated by racism. We’re not moving rapidly to a society where former targets of bias are suddenly handed the task of self-definition as all hatred evaporates instantly. (I know, that kind of trouble you could handle.)

But for all of us, the picture is gradually changing. It’s going to be increasingly normal to be a person of mixed heritage, and more people are going to be able to relate to the desire to preserve more than one culture. It would be great if we all could have our differences in common.

3 thoughts on “Race and the Future of Jewishness”

  • Always a topic of interest to me.

    Ten years ago, I found myself kvetching to my daughter’s African-American father “I hate having to list myself as ‘caucasian’ on the census forms.  I’ll cop to having white skin privilege, but as an Ashkenazi Jew I certainly don’t feel ‘white.’ ”  His response:  “you’re not white, you’re Jewish” resonated with me, and ever since then, on forms asking me to designate my “ethnicity” (or “race/ethnicity”) I consistently check “other” and write in “Ashkenazi Jew.”  That’s exactly who I am, ethnically.

  • Thanks for this interesting post.  I grew up in a small town in the Northeast, where people distinguished between “Whites” and Italian Americans (Jews somehow were included as white).  It’s always interesting to see how perceptions change over time and distance.  As the non-Jewish mother of an adopted Guatemalan daughter who will be raised Jewish by her Russian-Jewish father & me, it’s going to be really interesting to see how these perceptions continue to evolve.  I’m hopeful she will have an overall positive experience managing multiple heritages as she grows up, but I’m sure there will be some tough days as well…

  • Can you link to the Brodkin Sachs’ piece? Is it a book, an article, or what? I’d be curious to know more. As a Southerner, stories about the shifting definitions of Jews and color are especially interesting to me — there are stories of Jews back in the day who were invited to join the Klan in one town and were targets of the Klan in the next. Anyway, great fodder to chew on for the new year!

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