The eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries transformed Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” to fit its typology of race.
People of color were at the lowest rung of the totem pole, with Southern and Eastern Europeans — Jews, Italians, Slavs — at the next lowest rung. This was conventional wisdom for polite society and was weaponized by Henry Cabot Lodge and other nativists by passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. This act radically curtailed immigration from non-Nordic countries favoring the so-called racial stock of Western and Northern Europe.
The closing of the gates to Jews had catastrophic consequences for our people during the 1930s and the period of the Holocaust.
Decades later, the civil rights movement was galvanized by Martin Luther King’s dream about a world in which his children “would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” A colorblind society and equal opportunity were the rallying cry of the 1960s struggle for equality for all, manifested by the civil and voting rights legislation shepherded by Lyndon Johnson and his allies.
Fifty years later, we are confronted by the new application of race directed against the white sin of slavery and white privilege, which have given untold advantages to whites, to the detriment of people of color. This simplistic view ignores the complicity of Africans who captured their compatriots, then sold them into slavery, and the fact that Asian-Americans have greater per-capita income than whites.
There is no doubt that Black people face conscious racism in redlining, traffic stops, and other forms of discrimination, which needs reform. And the murders of George Floyd and other victims of police abuse magnify this racism. But does the canon of white privilege believe that like original sin, all white people are permanently flawed?
Yes, according to the 2018 bestselling book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by sociologist Robin Di Angelo. She writes “When I say only whites can be racist, I mean that in the United States only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people.”
I guess Louis Farrakhan and his acolytes on Twitter can’t be anti-Semites in American society.
In Di Angelo’s training sessions, held in universities and corporations, whites genuflect for their inborn racial advantage at the expense of Black people. One dean at a graduate school expressed remorse that she advanced because of white privilege, as if merit were inconsequential.
So according to this viewpoint, we have to overcompensate to address these past transgressions. One of the luminaries of this field of critical race theory, Ibram X. Kendi, wrote that “the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” So if the meritocracy rewards Asian Americans and Jews disproportionately and racial disparities ensue, that’s racial discrimination, according to Kendi. Merit, a byproduct of a colorblind society, which has been the guidepost for Jewish success in our country, is devalued according to this viewpoint.
Kendi goes further in his racist ideology when he attacked Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s adoption of Haitian children, calling her and others “white colonizers who ‘civilized’ their children into the ‘superior’ ways of white people while using them as props in their lifelong denial (of racism.)” Aside from his inhumanity in preferring that these children be consigned to orphanhood and extreme deprivation, he conflates whiteness with colonialism, as if Chinese and the Japanese imperialism of World War II never took place.
This fits with the narrative of anti-Zionists who view Israel as a white colonial outpost of Western imperialism, ignoring the fact that a majority of Israelis are Sephardim or what progressives would call people of color. This partly helps explain the obsession of BDS supporters against Israel rather than against the many authoritarian countries in the world that oppress their own people, particularly minorities.
We Jews have been in the forefront of social justice, basing our vision on equality opportunity, the importance of merit irrespective of the color of your sin. We should not adapt this vision to fit today’s fashion of using race/ethnicity as a cudgel against these longstanding values. We, of all people, should recognize how race can be used for genocidal purposes including, more recently, in Rwanda.
We’re all created in God’s image and are not consigned to some rigid ideological construct. Let’s act that way.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.