Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Soon after reading that article about blacks at Stuyvesant, the dog-walking podcast of the day was an interview with the author of Our Black Year, a new book about "buying black," Maggie Anderson. Because this was public radio, there was of course no 'OMG reverse racism' commentary. But what did emerge was that to "buy black," practically speaking, meant boycotting not Muffy Muffington's cupcake shoppe, but stores located in predominately-black communities, but owned by Arabs and other not-quite-white minorities. Groups that inadvertently benefit from America's anti-black racism, but that are not precisely the beneficiaries of white privilege. It was, in a sense, the Stuyvesant story all over again. It's a great shame that there are so few blacks at the high school. But offering them a bigger piece of that particular pie means taking away not from wealthy or upper-middle-class whites, but rather from middle and lower-middle-class Asians and Asian-Americans.

If I pick up on this issue more than most, it's without a doubt because a) I'm Jewish, and b) I study Jewish history. This is a boat Jews have been in quite often, although, as the examples above indicate, it's hardly particular to Jews. Nor, for that matter, is it particular to the black-white divide in America. When France ruled over Algeria, French Catholic colonizers manipulated Jews' "natural" place as intermediaries between the indigenous and colonizer populations... even though many of the Jews there were also indigenous. While not everything had been peachy prior to the French invasion, much of the "natural" Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment was basically anti-French sentiment, because the divide-and-conquer French colonizers had opted to raise Jews a notch in the colonial hierarchy.

But this is just a thing - in places where there's one group with power, and one most-scorned Other, groups that are neither serve all kinds of convenient functions. In the eyes of the most-marginalizeds, they're a proxy for those in power. When the moment comes to revolt against the Oppressor, an intermediary is a far easier target. And those in power - well, at least until the revolution comes - can rest assured that the intermediaries don't pose any real threat of usurping their own place.

As I was trying to formulate these thoughts, commenter Micha pointed me to this Ta-Nehisi Coates post, about how African-Americans view Jews. Coates's assessment, that blacks see Jews as just another subset of whites, makes sense intuitively. But it fails to get at something a bit deeper, which is that Jews, for many blacks, and, quite frankly, for many non-blacks, the subset that defines whiteness. According to stereotype, Jews are nerdy, rich, whiny-despite-abundant-privilege. And which subset of the population gets to see itself represented in sitcoms, rom-coms? Whites? Or maybe New York Jews?

And, once again, this both is and is not a Jewish thing. It's also an intermediary thing. Intermediaries are viewed as more white than whites (using "white" as a stand-in for the group in power), but that doesn't mean they fundamentally are.

There's something kind of bad-taste-leaving about the post, though, in that Coates describes Jews as somehow imagining up a marginalized status, where no such status exists. Even though Coates concludes that we ought to respect even imagined marginalization. I mean, Jews were, in recent-ish memory, in the West, victims of racially-motivated genocide. It's all kinds of preposterous to conflate fears of anti-Semitism (from blacks or anyone else) with cries of "reverse racism" against American whites. It comes from such a different place. Anyone who thinks American Jews have had it as bad as American blacks is of course a fool, but does anyone think this?

As for how to deal with the "intermediary question," that's a bit beyond what I could accomplish with a single blog post. But I think it's important to find a way to address it that a) isn't equating the experience of intermediaries and most-marginalizeds, yet b) identifies and rejects the popular belief that intermediaries are in fact the oppressor.


J. Otto Pohl said...

Jews have been middle men minorities in a number of places historically. But, I think they have moved up the social scale in the US now. So most middle men minorities in urban areas would probably be not be Jewish. Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Persian, Indian, Pakistani, Arab are all probably more likely. I think a lot of Korean owned shops moved into historically Black neighborhoods during the 1980s.

Phoebe said...

For once, we're in agreement. As I mentioned, the intermediaries the author of the book about "buying black" referred to were not Jewish. It's not that Jews now never have that role in the U.S., but other groups do at least as much these days.