Sunday, August 9, 2009

America's Racial and Ethnic Divide - and the Jews

Two recent events have reinvigorated the national conversation about race and ethnicity in America. The first was the nomination by President Obama, and subsequent confirmation by the Senate of Judge Sonya Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court seat being vacated by retiring Justice David Souter. The second was the arrest of Henry Lewis “Skip” Gates in Cambridge, MA for disorderly conduct, the involvement of President Obama by telling the world that the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly,” and the subsequent ‘Beer Summit’ at the White House. These events have reinvigorated the conversation about race and ethnicity in America, renewing talk about what it means to be a member of a minority group, and especially about the politics of ethnicity.

One would have thought that the election of President the First Black (actually, mixed-race, but he prefers to identify as a black man) President of the United States would settle for once and for all the question of whether there is a force called racism that holds some Americans back from what they might achieve because of nothing more than their skin color or what their name sounds like. Unfortunately, it seems otherwise; Obama’s election has only intensified the debate over the meaning of race. This is surely because Obama’s race was as big a factor in his election as his tall, good looks, his Harvard education or his gift of oration. And I mean in the positive sense. I seriously doubt that a significant number voted for Senator John S. McCain III because of Obama’s race; those who voted Republican most likely did so because of their conservative values since during the election most conservatives (accurately) saw Obama as a ‘Hard Left’ Democrat and not as a ‘Moderate’ as his campaign tried, successfully, to portray him. On the other hand, it is verifiable through polling data that large numbers of voters cast their ballots for Obama at least partly, and in many case primarily because he is black. Certainly, black and other ‘non-white’ voters got caught up in the excitement of the possibility of having the first non-white president. But for many whites, too, Obama’s race was a positive; they wanted desperately to see themselves as personally expunged of the stain of racism, so they cast their lot with Obama.

All other things aside, if Obama’s election had put aside or once and for all the notion that America is a racist country that oppresses its citizens of various races, then his election would have been a positive thing. But predictably, this did not happen. The idea of racial minorities being automatically oppressed by the intolerant majority is so central to certain key power centers in American political life that even the election of a black president could not make people stop to think about the true nature of racial prejudice (or lack thereof) in America.

Jews are an interesting case in the racial/ethnic divide of America. First of all, few outside the Jewish community even think of the Jews as a distinctive minority group. We’re seen as just another barely-identifiable religious denomination within the majority white population. Even those who regularly interact with Jews who are particularly distinctive, such as Orthodox Jews, often don’t think of us as a ‘minority.’ Some who do recognize Jewish distinctiveness nevertheless claim that Jews can move comfortably in and out of their Jewish-ness since they possess, as it’s sometimes called, ‘White Skin Privilege.’ (For the purposes of this discussion, let’s put aside that there are many non-white Jews; most Jews in the US are, after all, of white European ancestry.)

Jews, too often don’t see themselves as a distinctive group unless and until they feel they’ve experienced ‘religious discrimination.’ This often takes the form of some public affirmation of the majority Christian faith: for example, when someone invokes the name of Jesus in a public event, or when aspects of Christmas holiday observance surface.

Recently, a member of the local Jewish community made a fuss about the appearance of banners proclaiming ‘Jesus Lives…First Presbyterian Church’ on all the streetlight standards in the block surrounding that church in downtown Colorado Springs. (The church takes up the entire city block.) The city, as a revenue-raising policy, rents space for hanging banners on streetlight standards. There are various banners with messages commercial or otherwise hanging from standards all over the downtown area, but only ‘Jesus Lives…First Presbyterian Church’ is objectionable. To this individual, it reveals the deep bias on the part of the city.

Every November, Christmas decorations begin to appear all over; businesses offer holiday greetings to their customers, and people greet one another with ‘Merry Christmas.’ Schools hold ‘Holiday Programs’ and ‘Holiday Parties’ which, although they often include mention of Hanukkah (and sometimes Kwanzaa), but are of course dominated by Christmas symbols and songs; I say of course, because the vast majority of citizens in our community consider themselves to be Christians of various stripes. Many of the most vocal Jews though, argue vehemently for the expunging of all serious religious references from public holiday observances.

Many Jews would also prefer that their Christian neighbors drop the impetus to evangelism from their religion. To be sure, many Christians do not evangelize but those who do, consider it a fulfillment of the Great Commission with which Jesus charged his followers. Jews who consider it a religious slight if their child’s teacher schedules a test on Yom Kippur (even if the child is the only Jew in the class), want to deny their Christian neighbors the right to tell their neighbors about their religious beliefs. Instead of wringing their hands over the danger of their children being converted by over-zealous Christian neighbors, I wish Jewish parents would invest as much effort in making Judaism a strong and positive force in their families. That, and using their children’s coming home and asking questions about their friends’ religion as openings for serious discussion of religion in the home.

I think the hyper-sensitivity of many Jews to the most benign public celebration or acknowledgement of Christianity, and their advocacy of an almost-militant wall of separation between public life and religion, betrays a deep insecurity with their status as members of a minority group.

I believe it is time for Jews to shed their hyper-sensitivity over religion. We should take joy in the celebration of our own religion, and acknowledge when our neighbors find a similar joy in the celebration of their own religion. We need not teach our children that our religion is better than others’ – only that it is ours, our special gift to one another and the world.

I think it is a good thing when our neighbors use their race or ethnicity as a source of pride, but it is corrosive to society when they look outward for every failure of every member of their group to succeed. I’m willing to accept Judge Sotomayor’s explanation of her ‘Wise Latina’ remark as intended to ‘buck up’ young Latinos and make them understand that their ancestry should not make them limit their dreams. On the other hand, I object strongly to her ruling as one of a three-judge panel on the federal Court of Appeals against the promotion of the New Haven firefighters on the basis that, since no blacks had scored well enough to get promoted, the test had to be inherently biased.

I also think that, while President Obama is probably sincere in his desire to remove racial barriers that divide Americans, he acted stupidly in publicly declaring that the Cambridge police had treated Professor Gates wrongfully – this in he same breath in which he had stated that he didn’t know the facts of the case. By all accounts, even before his Beer Summit Professor Gates and Officer Crowley had made amends one with another; I hope the President learned from their example, from the ‘teachable moment’ the two principals – and not the President – offered the county.

It’s not good to feel a reticence to talk about race and ethnicity; it is certainly part of our individual experience as Americans. But when we define ourselves and others primarily by racial or ethnic associations, we do our country a disservice and undo the uniquely American value of E Pluribus Unum.