Friday, December 16, 2016

My Adventure in Identity Politics

My adventure begins with a group read of two books by my congregation--first, of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, and, second, of Jim Wallis' America's Original Sin.  It was Fall 2016, and my congregation was confronting the apparent disproportionate shooting of black people in America, particularly black men, by the police.

I say "apparent" since, as Wallis makes clear, we have no statistics.  We do have data on arrests, convictions and incarcerations, but not on police violence. We don't know whether the shootings of black men are what is happening disproportionately or whether we have begun disproportionately noticing the shootings of black men.  Yes, I know what we are seeing, but it takes data to go from appearances to the actuality of what is happening.

Not only are reactions by police subject to unconscious bias, but our perceptions in general are subject to bias. There is confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as supporting what we already believe. There is the availability heuristic: a mental shortcut that biases our judgment of a topic's importance based on how easily the topic comes to mind. Another common source of bias is that people's preferences influence what they believe: the so-called affect heuristic. We become convinced of the benefits of the positions we favor, while seeing only the costs of those positions we oppose.  And those are just a few examples.  Not only do we react to what's out there, we create our reality by the act of seeing. We become invested in our vision; the more we see the greater our investment. Polarization happens.

At any rate, we need data to move from story to science, and according to this October 13, 2016 article (from before the election), we're going to get it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Between the World and Me had been excerpted in The Atlantic, a magazine I take. When I heard all the buzz, I picked it up but found it a hard read, all blame and no transcendence, so I put it back down--until, lo and behold, our clergy put it first in the group read on race.

I love books, and Between the World and Me was a far easier read in book form. Moreover, it has the merit of being short. And, since it comes from the gut more than from the head, its logic is not nailed down tight.  Amidst the clichéd harangue against America's "machinery of criminal power," "club of criminal justice," and "criminal irresponsibility" were openings for thought.

Subsequently I've learned you'll be called defensive for comparing yourself to the particular identity group in question: in this case, African-Americans.  Comparisons are a no-no, for although we all have troubles, do not presume to compare yourself to them or appropriate their suffering.

I did get in some thinking, though, and here's my review of Between the World and Me, written before this post on which I'm now working.

With the Jim Wallis book I got doubly bogged down: in white privilege and identity politics. And I thought Ta-Nehisi Coates was hard!  Here's my review of America's Original Sin, which got me thinking and led me to this point.

The main theme of America's Original Sin is reconciliation between white and black Christians.

How do Jews figure in that equation? Are Jews even white? (See the timely article, "Are Jews White," Dec. 5, 2016, The Atlantic.)

In the first half of the last century, the Jewish leaders of the era advocated for authorities to remove the racial designation "Hebrew" from incoming immigrants ("Hebrew," since in those days, "Jew" was a dirty word). Jewish immigrants continued to get that label until the 1950s, when, due to the prevailing cultural and political winds, their advocates succeeded in having it removed. During World War II, erasing boundaries between European peoples and categorizing them as ethnic groups instead of races satisfied the country's need to unify and set us apart from the Nazis. In due time there was the expectation Jews would conform to their new "white" identity; if they didn't, what good would it do?  For more on how that worked, see my review of Melissa Fay Greene's The Temple Bombing.  In essence, then, the social pressures of the day pushed Jews to pass as white, even as most Jews aspired to do just that.  Who would not want to emulate the country's most successful cultural group and, furthermore, avoid persecution? (Seeing all success as suspect leads to a dead end in hope and vision.)

Don't think that you can discern whiteness by skin color alone. White isn't just a skin color but is code for a certain level of society.  For further discussion see my review of Eric Goldstein's The Price of Whiteness.

At the top of the heap in America were the WASPs: white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  The struggle to erase the distinctions between them and other Europeans--Jews, Catholics, Irish, Italians, etc.--and end their particular power and privilege continued well into the 1960s and beyond. Before that point, college students would not have encountered beaucoup Jewish professors as they do today, since there were fixed quotas as well as restrictions on which fields they could enter. Who knew?  It was in the sixties that I started college, and how was I to know it hadn't always been that way? See my review of John Hollinger's Science, Jews, and Secular Culture.

For a variety of reasons explored by Hollinger, Jews had led that advance upon the ramparts of what Melissa Fay Greene calls the white Protestant power structure.  As we are all too aware, the advances of women, and more to the current point, African Americans, did not come until later, since people of color, especially African Americans and Native Americans, were not yet included with those Americans among whom unity was considered desirable.

If Jews are white--or if they have passed as white--do they need to atone?

Here's how the story goes: white privilege accrued to those admitted into the ranks of whiteness. If everyone thinks you're white, you've had certain advantages and avoided certain disadvantages, at the expense of people who were not designated as white. According to that narrative, if you were so designated, it's up to you to atone. And atonement entails having sinned.

Added to that is that standing up for the black community is what American Jews do. It's our basic historic version of social justice.  So, that's the direction in which a lot of our clergy are leading us.

But for Jews, in a sense, it's been there, done that.  This is not to knock what we did during the civil rights era.  We did good--some of us, certainly not all--and some of us paid the price, too.  This time around (at least before the election), though, it has not been dangerous, but popular. This time, we were not leading but getting on the bandwagon.  We were establishing our bona fides with white Christian groups while simultaneously declaring our membership in the "white race."

I understand that Jews want to stand up for black people, not only in general but often for our own partners or children or for ourselves--but this time around, I think the ones we were taking the most care of were ourselves. There was a certain incoherence to our actions.

Historically, Jews in America have tended to stand up for themselves vicariously by standing up for others--African Americans in particular--on the basis that if we support the inclusion of all we'll be supporting inclusion for ourselves as well.

That vicariousness is something I've turned over and over in my thinking.  Above and beyond black and white in America, Jews have long inhabited a bad-guy role in Western civilization due to the cultural dominance of Christianity.  To a certain degree it's to be expected that we would have inhabited that role: we live in the same culture and we're pickled in it like everyone else. At this point I've come to associate our vicarious self-advocacy with the vaunted "Jewish guilt" incurred from that longtime assigned role. Hence the difficulty that Jews, who also happen to be a small group, have had in standing up for ourselves more directly within American society.

If  power is the ability to make people not only listen to a cultural story but also to play the role decreed for them in that story, then, practically speaking, we Jews have had little choice in our symbolic value for the culture as a whole.  Adding atonement to the picture further complicates it.

The privilege Jews have received from being white has been ambiguous, that is, mixed, as one might expect upon reading The Atlantic article on whether or not Jews are white.  Jews have had considerable cultural success.  But, on the one hand, viewed from the political right, Jews aren't truly white but have infiltrated society by passing as such (a not uncommon view among the Protestant intellectual leadership up until the mid-twentieth century).  On the other hand, for the left, now that being white is not so good, Jews are the essence of whiteness. Jews retain their identification with capitalism and with a degree of success that can seem unfair, so are sometimes assigned a disproportionate share of guilt for their presumed white privilege.

Even if Jews are white and whiteness is something for which to atone, proclaiming one's purported whiteness in order to atone can come off like a backhand assertion of status and group membership, given Jewish racial ambiguity: I'm white and you're not. It can feel paternalistic.

This sin-and-atonement model assumes that everyone did the same thing with their skin color, that is, use it for fun and profit at the expense of people of color. Not so!  Even as it has not been right for black people to be stereotyped--so that each individual is stamped with the alleged faults of the whole--neither is it right to mark all people from another group based on supposed group characteristics.

Jews may have something to learn from the interracial experience.  I recently heard author Mat Johnson's NPR interview on his new book Loving DayHere also is my review of his graphic novel Incognegro, featuring courageous light-skinned interracial men who went South undercover during the Jim Crow era to spotlight the practice of lynching.

Saying that the racial designation of Jews can be ambiguous is not saying Jews are black. There are more things in heaven and earth than black and white.  Nor am I claiming we're interracial--although there are not enough ancestors to go around, and at some level we're all mixed.

Note that ethnicity is not the only issue with respect to belonging. Are you smart enough to belong? Economically secure enough? Slim enough? Sociable enough? From the right side of the tracks, the right family, the right community, the right denomination?  Who is acceptable enough? Let's say society demands we all shape up and keep in line--but let's save that extended discussion for later.

Now I want to raise the question of where the storied Jewish brain power is in regard to all these questions of race, identity, belonging, and atonement.  As far as I can tell, for example, none of the clergy leadership has thought to look very closely at what was coming out around the edges of the Black Lives movement (as they commonly were doing vis-à-vis the Trump campaign), nor did they consider the movement's roots in or relationship to Black Power, and the implications. Of the rabbis I know who have taken up the atonement model with its witnessing and listening--that is, being an ally in the sense of deferring to the experience of  those who are people of color and as such are deemed the only experts concerning their own experiences--none examined, through its broader application or otherwise, that model which has so recently emerged from college campuses.

Being submissive and subordinate--not having a voice--is the result of being compressed into a role in the narrative of the dominant social group.

It's not the case that societal demands require constant overt enforcement, since people internalize them.

Despite some overlap, a role in a powerful group's story never comprises the totality or essence of who the other group is.  That's true of Jews in the Christian imagination. It's true for people who have been considered black, in the white imagination.  And it's also just as true for people who have been considered white, in the black imagination.

It took power to suppress black people. And it's a power play to attempt to compress some white-looking people into a people who, to redress the historical imbalance, believe justice now consists of telling particular black people only what they want to hear, while self-righteously scolding other insufficiently subservient white-looking people.

Everyone's voice is needed.  Everyone gets feedback. There's a time to speak and a time to listen.

I spent most of my life thinking I had a deal here in America: I was supposed to "behave." I didn't know that meant squelching myself into the requisite identity.  I didn't know I was responding to powerful societal messages by passing; I thought I was just behaving, doing what I was supposed to do.

For Ta-Nehisi Coates, the issue was "the American Dream," and he learned at an early age it wasn't meant for him. For me it was e pluribus unum. Not until an advanced age did I zone in on my sense of precarious inclusion. Why did it take me so long? I lived in suburban surroundings that were nothing if not genteel. I wasn't being called names or getting beat up on the way home from school, but there were things nobody could talk about. My mother, mistaking her hopes for fact, told me "all that" was over and done with except from the ignorant or stupid. So, I could not read my social situation correctly. When I picked up on confusing vibes, I thought it was me.   As long as that was the case, I could not question--couldn't really see--my automatic assumptions. At the point I gained enough perspective to see them, the deal was off: the deal that meant I had to remain blind to what it means to see or even think about society's demands.

So, as I said earlier, it's complicated. Who is guilty? Who is to atone? Are they atoning for themselves, or are they being put into the role of atoning for others as well? And, if the latter, in whose story is it that they find themselves playing that guilty role?

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "Few are guilty, but all are responsible."

Assigning guilt is very close to blame.  What would it look like if we were to focus instead on taking responsibility?

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