I’m not the “most Jewish” person around, that’s for sure. One thing I do have, though, is that I connect my Jewishness up with empathy for what African-Americans have gone through and still experience. We Jews ought to have special insight into America’s long history of racial, ethnic, and class discrimination because of our unique history. My wife came up to me tonight, flaming mad, about another example of the mistreatment of, discrimination toward, and prejudice directed at black people in America. It was heartening to see her make an astute connection, and the point of this blog is to elucidate that thesis for you.
My wife’s main point was, essentially, Wow think of the latest example of some outrage suffered by an African-American in this country! What some folks don’t get is how reminiscent the experience black Americans have in America is to the experience Jews had in Germany and other countries such as Poland in the 1930s (and, obviously, in the 1940s).
I think that level of historical analysis is wise to entertain because it is all too true.
Jews had it bad in Germany in the 1930s. Here is a look at the very frightening era (LINK) The hatred, the discrimination, the anti-Semitism was subtle; it was arguable; the German populace didn’t think of Jews as “Germans” per se. Jews weren’t sent to gas chambers or even to ghettos and work camps on Day 1. It was through scapegoating and discrimination and state-sanctioned violence that slowly, perniciously, the situation for Jews became more and more intolerable. For many, it was like the old “frog in a pot” thing: they didn’t realize until it was too late that they were in boiling-hot water.
To see how pernicious it was, reflect for a minute on what Albert Einstein meant when he said in the early 20th century, before he was “famous” and “a genius”, “If my theories are proved correct, the Germans will consider me a German; if they are proved false, the Germans will consider me a Jew.”
African-Americans face a lot of fear, discrimination, prejudice, hate, and recrimination that a lot of white folks just don’t get. In fact, Trump has hastened the willingness of whites to commit hate crimes while in office. Heck, his whole thing is based on demagoguery and scapegoating. This whole idea of white grievance has something to do with globalization and outsourcing of jobs and a gross level of income inequality, but the fact that there is anger toward blacks and Hispanics makes it a clearly racial phenomenon. Whites have the same reasons everyone else does for worrying about tribalism and economic insecurity, but there is no doubt that blacks have it worse. Evidence abounds.
Think of the incidents that have drip-drip-dripped on the psyches of African-Americans since this country was born. Slavery. Jim Crow. Stop and Frisk. Frustrated Reconstruction efforts. Endemic racism in the South. White flight. Redlining. Lynchings. Prohibition from sports. Segregation. Disparities in criminal justice and health outcomes. Police brutality. The list goes on.
Them Hartmann calls what happened to Ahmaud Arbery a lynching. If you think he is exaggerating for effect, or to make white conservatives feel guilty, watch this 7-minute video and really ask yourself what the truth is. Was he hanged from a tree while KKK members looked on? No. Was he murdered, and did that have to do with his skin color? Absolutely. Here is the LINK.
Take a look at the following analysis of the murder of Eric Garner, which should make all Americans about as proud as the Rodney King beating did.
I don’t want to belabor the point; it’s kind of one of those things that shouldn’t take a thesis-length demonstration to validate. Either you get my point or you won’t get my point if I stayed here all night typing.
Let me share one story that really shocked me. It’s the story of Corey Williams. Here is a summary (LINK). This is the sad story about a boy who was 16 when he was at a party in Louisiana about 30 years ago when a pizza delivery person was shot and killed. Absolute tragedy, no question. The problem is, he didn’t commit the crime. He went to death row at Angola State Prison in Louisiana, probably the hardest place to do time at the time. It has been likened to a slave plantation, if that tells you anything. Sixteen years old, sentenced to die as an adult.
Second problem is: he has a 68 I.Q. due to lead poisoning as a kid. Don’t get me started on lead paint in the black community, just like I won’t get started on the situation with race and drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
Yes, the man is, for these purposes, mentally retarded. He’s not like deeply disabled, but if you know anything about boys who have an I.Q. below 70 as teens, they are basically a one-person trouble-finding machine. This boy, obviously through no fault of his own, consumed lead until he developed brain damage. He is obviously not capable of defending himself in an interrogation room for 6 hours with no food, drink, parent, or lawyer.
Then, enter the demonstrably-racist assistant district attorney. Basically, a mad-dog when it comes to putting blacks in jail and on death row. Fully half of the cases this prosecutor has sent to death row were overturned. A tape that completely exonerated Mr. Williams was…. wait for it…. never turned over to the defense, uncovered fifteen years later, and was still not enough to exonerate him officially.
The patently white-supremacist and authoritarian nightmare of a prosecutor is still not disbarred from practicing law in the State of Louisiana.
You can’t make this shit up.
Williams served 20 years, much of it in general population, and finally—finally—due to extremely hard work by some very committed and righteous attorneys working pro-bono, released. He had to sign a deal that stipulated that he was getting freed under a manslaughter charge, for time served, and could not sue. Something’s rotten in Denmark. His life has essentially been ruined by a racist prosecutor, an overzealous detective, duped and ignorant jurors, and incompetent judges in Louisiana. He might be able to work in menial jobs, manual labor, or something. Maybe some good-hearted employer will take a chance on him. Otherwise, it’s just rinse and repeat.
“I missed out on a whole lot. I didn’t get the chance to learn how to drive a car. I didn’t get a chance to watch my nieces and nephews grow up,” Williams says. “With the evidence that [the A.D.A.] had and withheld it from me all them years it could have been avoided. I didn’t even have to go on death row if the evidence was turned over the night I caught my charge”, he notes. Yep, if you watch the episode of Death Row Stories that tells his story, it makes perfect sense. Total miscarriage of justice. In America. Yet, he’s not embittered and hasn’t committed suicide. He’s a pretty nice guy—albeit he suffers from PTSD and most jobs are completely off-the-table now.
One of the many attorneys who worked hard from a locked-up and obviously poor Corey Williams is a man named Ben Cohen. My hat’s off to him. I told him about my feelings on this topic, having watched the Death Row Stories episode featuring Mr. Williams (narrated by Susan Sarandon and produced by Robert Redford, by the way). Hauntingly, he reacted by sharing this:
“Many times sitting outside the Caddo Parish Courthouse in 2004, watching the confederate flag waive in the wind (the flag came down in 2011) underneath the monument (still there), I wondered what it would have been to proceed to trial in Germany, in a courthouse which commemorated the Third Reich by flying the swastika.”
Jews should have special insight into American discrimination faced by African-Americans because of their heritage. This should cause the Jews who have this level of recognition of what it looks like when the dominant social group is suspicious of (and more than occasionally abuses) a minority group. And they should feel that deeply. Any Jew who is not socially liberal confounds me. They just don’t get what the Jews went through, or they don’t get what African-Americans have gone through in the last 375 years. You can’t see both of those phenomena and not draw a connection if you’re a perceptive and moral Jewish person, I think. I would tend to think that even fiscal conservatism is hard to justify when it comes to a progressive view of society’s role vis-a-vis social justice, but that’s more arguable, so I won’t stand by that.
But certainly if you don’t, say, bristle when you consider that when Clinton took office, there were 800,000 Americans in jail, and when he left eight years later, it was 2,000,000. The Republicans were hell-bent on incarcerating street criminals, and were more than happy to ensnare blacks in the net; Clinton went along for the ride. Call him an appeaser, in 1930s-era parlance. That shameful aspect of American history lays bare the racism, demagoguery, white privilege, class struggle, and discrimination that is all-too-apparent when one surveys American history.
We may think this is the land of opportunity, but we’d be wrong: 15 or 20 other industrialized countries have more social mobility (ability for the poor to work their way out of poverty in a generation) than America does now. That means the “American Dream” is a nightmare for many, many people. Imagine the nightmare of being mentally challenged and also sent to death row in Angola State Prison at age 16 by a racist A.D.A. Rich, white men do not face that kind of jeopardy, or absurdity.
We may believe that the criminal justice system only punishes egregious wrongdoing, but that’s not correct. We may wish to hide from the fact that for decades now, the “get-tough-on-crime” attitude pioneered by the Republicans was fair and balanced, but clearly it did not turn out that way. Disparities in education and systemic racism and endemic poverty and high-priced college and AIDS and crack and for-profit prisons and demagoguery may be able to be overlooked by some people, but the truth will find us. Only in the last year have we begun to reduce the prison population. For the longest time, with 2,000,000 persons in jail–mostly street-level criminals, and predominantly black and Hispanic, and almost all poor or lower-middle-class—we jailed more people per capita than China and Russia. China. Let that sink in.
If Jews don’t get what blacks are going through, they’re either not paying attention or they don’t care. It’s not absolutely inarguable, I’m not saying that. Clearly, African-Americans have more opportunity than they did, say, 100 years ago. But come on.
If you doubt, ask yourself this: Even though blacks have a natural resistance to skin cancer, would you rather have been born as a black American, or a white American—all things being equal? Ask yourself this: if you don’t think that you harbor prejudiced and biased feelings and perceptions, would you be comfortable walking down the stairs of a parking garage at night with three African-American youth with ball caps and hoodies walking seven or eight feet behind you? How about this nasty little thought experiment: You get on an airplane, and as you enter the cabin, you look left and see two black pilots both laughing; what do you feel?
Consider this: A group of armed black men with masks demand to be let into the Michigan State Capitol building and essentially threaten the governor on behalf of what they conceive of as their rights being infringed upon, does that irk you? (oh ya, those were white people; militia/separatist-types; no surprise there). Large groups of blacks can’t carry long guns into Capitol buildings and essentially strong-arm the Governors, that does not happen.
“The South shall rise again!” is not a nice and innocuous comment. Think about what those white supremacists who say that want to see happen.
It is precisely because Jews have suffered so much discrimination and hatred in most societies in which they have lived since, say, ancient Egypt, and certainly in Germany in the 20th century, that they ought to get what it’s like to be a second-class citizen; to be reviled by some; to be killed and see the murderer acquitted by an all-white jury; to see the coronavirus sweeping through poor urban communities like wildfire.
This is empathy. This is character. This is honor. This is social justice.
Christians ought to get this because they are raised with the example of Jesus. Some do; some don’t. John Pavlovitz is a pastor out of Wake Forest, NC. He wrote something interesting and hard-hitting on this very topic recently:
I personally would slice it a little thinner than that, noting that every one of us has prejudice in us, and can act with bias. We tend toward discrimination and tribalism; that is humanity’s dark side. The difference is how we manage that impulse. Jesse Jackson, of all people, said: “There’s nothing more painful to me than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
But Pastor Pavlovitz’s stark point is well-taken: we either are conscious of the role that individual acts of racism and—all-important in the criminal justice system, institutionalized racism—or we are ignorant of it. When people are ignorant of it, police body cams aren’t used, black people on welfare can seem to us “welfare queens” (coined by Ronald Reagan), and apartment rental applications get denied because “the person seems like they probably won’t pay the rent consistently.” Frankly, in America, we pay such lip service to virtue, K-12 education is so mediocre, and ethnic and socioeconomic groups are set against each other by the wealthy ruling class that it’s a wonder anyone develops the kind of insight, compassion, empathy, and love Pastor Pavlovitz and I are talking about. The kind of virtue needed to make America safe and equal for African-Americans (and others).
To poor whites, equality does not mean you will be inferior or otherwise disfranchised. It’s not a zero-sum game. What you should fear is economic obsolescence in the 21st century, and in that, you are bound to all who are in the lower- and middle social classes. It’s termed class solidarity and it would go a long way to ease inter-group tensions and partisanship.
Jews ought to get this because of the virulent anti-Semitism their ancestors faced both in Europe, and here in America. Yes, Jews in America tend to work their way up the “socioeconomic ladder” through hard work, cooperation, family cohesiveness, higher education, and intelligence. But, to go through such a crucible as a people and not have empathy for others who experience the same phenomenon is worthy of great criticism.
Indeed, America is distinctly characterized by having wave after wave of immigrants seeking opportunity and freedom, and the most recent group of immigrants—be they Italians, Irish, Mexicans, Cubans, etc.—seem to want to close the door to America right behind themselves! The fact that there seems to be a “permanent economic underclass” in this country flies in the face of America’s highest aspirations for justice, progressivism, and economic opportunity.
America is a terrible place to be downtrodden, a minority, or poor. Do you think the apple pie and the Rocky Mountains and the amber waves of grain are enough to console African-Americans, either then or now? How about the fact that professional sports is pretty much open to all ethnic minorities since, oh, the era of Jackie Robinson? Or music is fairly accessible to blacks since, oh, about the era of Chubby Checker or Bo Diddley? I think not.
My wife’s main point was, she was aghast witnessing some white people on Facebook who “just don’t get it” when it comes to seeing one incident after another that they are able to dismiss, neutralize, or normalize. Trayvon Martin happens and it’s not an indictment of whites with guns. Police officer Michael Slager shoots a black man through the back as he is running from him, and to many, it’s not an indictment of policing in America. Colin Kaepernick takes a knee to draw attention to social justice matters and it’s a big problem in the minds of a lot of white people. Blacks can’t say that “black lives matter” without certain whites making it an affront to white people. Donald Trump foments white grievance at rallies that are half-way to a Nazi rally, and it’s not noticeable to quite a few folks who see nothing amiss at those demagoguery-fests. Confederate flags fly in my state; not an insult to African-Americans. I am belaboring the point now.
My wife essentially exclaimed, “Wow, how to some of these white people not get what the hell is going on to blacks in this country?!” I totally see my wife’s point, and I’m proud of her tonight.
We are, all of us, “human—all too human,” as Nietzsche wrote. That predisposes us to be tribalistic, aggressive, and not particularly critical in our thinking. But, no white person alive today can claim that they don’t have all the facts they need to “get it.” That would be considered ignorance, and that is a moral issue.
If any Jewish readers are still not getting it, see how this feels:
“First They Came…” is the poetic form of a prose post-war confession first made in German in 1946 by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals and certain clergy (including, by his own admission, Niemöller himself) following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group. Many variations and adaptations in the spirit of the original have been published in the English language. It deals with themes of persecution, guilt, repentance, and responsibility, notes Wikipedia (LINK). The poem follows:
First they came for the Communists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists And I did not speak out Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews And I did not speak out Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me And there was no one left To speak out for me.
Dedicated to my dad.