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Excerpted From: John O. Calmore, Random Notes of An Integration Warrior, 81 Minn. L. Rev. 1441-81, 1466-1470 (1997)
. . . . Although I respectfully recognize a distinct Jewish identity and culture, I also recognize that Jews are an important part of the more general social construction of whiteness. The dialogue between Cornel West and Michael Lerner raises and illustrates similar issues. As West says, "Even amidst anti- Semitism, the anti-Black situation confers white-skin privilege on Jews." In responding to this claim, Lerner argues that "by calling Jews 'white,' Blacks are in effect denying [the Jewish] history of oppression." This social construct places Jews among the beneficiaries of European imperialism. Yet far from benefiting, Lerner responds, "Jews have been the primary 'Other,' have been socially and legally discriminated against, have been the subject of racism and genocide, and in those terms Jews are not white." Outside of the United States, particularly in Europe, Lerner's point is compelling. It transports less well to the United States, however. Although Jews experienced significant episodes of discrimination and exclusion, they have not been subjected to the experience and legacy of slavery or genocide, and they have not been the primary "Other." Overt discrimination against Jews in the United States subsided after World War II, in part because of the abhorrence the nation expressed to Hitler's anti-Semitism and murderous treatment of Jews.
I do not seek to belittle Jewish oppression. Clearly, there has been quite reprehensible past discrimination against Jews. Nor do I discount anti-Semitic sentiments that still persist in America. I argue, though, that Jews in America have sought and largely attained white-skin privilege, a privilege that advantageously sets the stage for their continued success and achievement as individuals. The stage set for black success and achievement lacks these associated props of privilege that Jews, as with most other whites, often take for granted as neutral and universally available to all, regardless of nonwhite color or history of racist oppression.
Admittedly, the attainment of white-skin color privilege by Jews has not only involved overcoming difficult barriers of anti-Semitism, but has come at substantial psychic costs and loss of identity. As Lerner points out, Jewish whiteness "is the privilege to renounce one's Judaism. By and large the way to get into this system is to take off your kippah, cut off your beard, hide your fringes; in other words, to reject your entire cultural and religious humanity." I seek to empathize, here, as my previous discussion of the sociological passing of blacks should indicate. Nonetheless, the Jewish option to be white, however difficult, has been exercised widely. It has been the way to access mainstream opportunities, status, and material rewards. I do not deprecate attaining that access. Within the system of merit, as Farber and Sherry indicate, Jews have outperformed other whites. I do not argue that this access is simply a function of unjust power-holding. Indeed, as an integration warrior, I function and am rewarded for having attained that same access. But I will not willingly serve to legitimate or apologize for that system's unfairness and exclusionary features. I will not legitimate my own race's oppression and subordination, and I have little respect for those who do.
In an extensive examination of black-Jewish conflict, Jonathan Kaufman reviewed the success of Jews during the 1980s, the Reagan years. He observes that in Jewish homes and around their dinner tables, conversations still concerned the discrimination that plagued their parents from the 1930s through much of the 1960s. Beyond the discrimination of memory, however, Jews were making enormous strides by any objective measure: "At one point in the 1980s, the Dean of every Ivy League Law School was Jewish. In the 1990s the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth were Jews. When President Bill Clinton nominated his first two judges to the Supreme Court, both were Jews. No one even remarked on it." As the 1990s began, over fifty percent of Jewish men were college graduates, compared to twenty percent of the general population. In 1970, the average family income of Jews was 172 percent of the average American family income, and recent income data reveal that Jewish family income continues to be well above that of Gentile families. In the early 1990s, Jews "were turning more and more outward--through intermarriage, success at universities, better jobs in business and government." This outward turn generally embraces white privilege, often at the expense of discounting that which impedes success for those who are not white.
My allegedly anti-Semitic scholarship is not directed toward Jews. Rather, it is part of the critical project to uproot what Cheryl Harris calls "the property interest in whiteness," an interest that builds on the advantage of white privilege and white supremacy. This may coincidentally involve Jews, but only because the white privilege that Jews have come to enjoy is racialized privilege and status that allow "expectations that originated in injustice to be naturalized and legitimated." That Jews stood outside of that privilege at one time does not place them apart from other white people whose benefits stem from its legacy, especially if Jews mute their historically oppositional voice. Like individualism and colorblindness, universal notions of merit serve as an important reinforcement of white privilege. To the degree that law and society incorporate this universalism, as Harris argues, it masks as natural what is chosen; it obscures the consequences of social selection as inevitable. The result is that inequities in social relations are immunized from truly effective intervention, because they are obscured and rendered nearly invisible. The existing state of affairs is considered neutral and fair, however unequal and unjust it is in substance.
At bottom, my alleged anti-Semitism apparently boils down to linking Jews to white people and thereby implicating them in their support of establishment, status-quo arrangements. These arrangements are in turn tied to the power that whites generally hold, and the domination they generally exercise, over most colored people. In Farber and Sherry's view, my anti-Semitic expression is the failure to remove Jews from their enlistment and complicity in perpetuating the oppressive features of white supremacy. I, of course, would also place blacks like Clarence Thomas and Proposition-209 supporter Ward Connerly in the same enlistment and complicity.
Their friendly fire notwithstanding, Farber and Sherry purport to be liberals who are genuinely concerned about constructive dialogue. Beyond responding to their views, I do think that a conversation about multicultural ideals might open the possibility that successful people of all kinds might re-think the oppressive features of business as usual and seek alternatives that represent, instead, the features of a just society.