I know I’m not supposed to say that. I know there’s a school of thought that black people can’t be racist, but I am. My racism has nothing to do with my use of the word “Wypipo” or “Becky.” It is not related to my reluctance to consume Caucasian potato salad. I’m racist because I live in America.
A few weeks ago, late at night, I was sitting outside in my car in one of the most crime-ridden cities in America. I was in a neighborhood that probably wouldn’t be described as upwardly mobile—a black neighborhood. As I was entering an address into my GPS, two young black men, neither more than 21 years old, walked up to either side of my car and knocked on the window.
My heart was beating fast as I pondered my options. Finally, I rolled down the window. I knew I had been caught slipping and figured that my only choice was to give up my shit and save myself. I mustered all the bass my vocal cords could offer, put it in my voice, and asked what they wanted.
“Hey dawg,” one said. “You got Rick number?”
It turns out they were members of a fraternity I’m also a member of. They wanted to know if I had a mutual brother’s phone number, a brother who had promised them they could use his tent to tailgate during homecoming. I made the call, let them talk to our mutual friend, and they were on their way.
Now I know, because I have seen the FBI statistics, that most crimes are committed by white men. Still, like most black people, I don’t assume that white people are criminals. The gut reaction I felt came from the preconceived notions implanted by a society that demonizes young black men. It was racial prejudice.
Although I have never sentenced a defendant to jail, shot an unarmed person, underfunded a black school, or denied a person a job because of his race, I realize I am not immune to the same propaganda that fuels the anti-black sentiment embedded in the American DNA. I live in a racist country, and I would be foolish to think some of it hasn’t rubbed off on me.
Black people are racist, too. We uphold white supremacy, too. We think light-skinned girls are prettier. We send our best and brightest to predominately white colleges. We complain about black businesses but say nothing when the checker at Walmart is mean and can’t do rudimentary math, or when the McDonald’s ice machine is broken.
And here is the important part—black people’s role in white supremacy exists mainly because white supremacy continues to exist. The black plantation overseers and the tiny number of black slaveowners existed because slavery existed. Black police officers who remain silent about police brutality are cogs in a wheel that white supremacy built. The well-off black people who opposed Dr. Martin Luther King did so because they had seen white supremacy’s wrath.
There are, however, different levels of racism. It is the effects of racism that black people fight against, not the inner feelings. Joking about white people’s rhythm is different from perpetuating disproportionate police violence. Calling someone a “colonizer” isn’t as harmful as handing out jail sentences that are 20 percent longer. Black people don’t have the power to perpetuate the kind of racism that we ultimately fight against.
That’s why I understand why people say black people can’t be racist. Slavery, Jim Crow, and police brutality would still exist without black people. Because we don’t possess much societal privilege, our internalized and externalized racism has little effect on society at large. Still, we live in America and participate in a system built on white supremacy.
I am not an oppressor, but make no mistake about it—I’m racist.
I know I’m racist.
And I’m not ashamed to say that.
Jewish people are racist.
I know I’m not supposed to say this.
Last week, Lakers’ superstar LeBron James apologized for posting rap lyrics that mentioned “Jewish Money” on Instagram. A few days prior, Temple professor and commentator Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN after giving a pro-Palestinian speech at the United Nations. Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory was pilloried after she recently told the New York Times “while white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy, ALL Jews are targeted by it.”
Mallory’s, LeBron’s and Hill’s comments re-ignited a loud debate about anti-Semitism in the black community. But more curiously, when some pushed back by asserting there is racism in the Jewish community, or by objectively criticizing America’s unequivocal support for Israel, those people were immediately painted as anti-Semites.
Mallory was condemned for using the words “white Jews.” Even when I pointed out that the perceptions behind LeBron’s post came from the undeniable fact that Jewish people have higher average income than any other religious group in America according to Pew Research, I was warned that I should “be careful.”
On Thursday, the New York Times published a letter from Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine. Pogrebin addressed some of the issues that have caused a rift in the upcoming Women’s March, writing:
Many anti-racists continue to insist that only people of color can be oppressed and that most Jews, being white, benefit from “white skin privilege.” Yet somehow our “privilege” didn’t save the 11 people massacred in a Pittsburgh synagogue this fall by a man with the same color skin.
According to the Times, Vanessa Wruble, another activist involved in the Women’s March Movement, said she was “taken aback” when Mallory informed her that Jewish people need to confront their own role in racism.
First, let’s be clear. Judaism is not a race. It is a religion. And even though there are definitive cultural, sociological and anthropological markers, there are Jews of every color and ethnicity.
Secondly, let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that Jews don’t benefit from white privilege. They definitely do. Despite what many people think, white privilege doesn’t guarantee anyone wealth, success or a better life. It simply removes the obstacles that people of color have to face. The criminal justice system that targets black men and women does not put the Jewish community in its crosshairs. Predominately Jewish public schools aren’t underfunded at the rate of majority black schools. Jewish people aren’t disproportionately killed by police. They don’t earn less than white people with the same education and experience. They aren’t arrested at three times the rate of whites for the same rate of marijuana use. No one grabs their purse on the elevator when a Jewish kid comes on.
Jews are, clearly, also targeted by white supremacists.
But there is no need to play the oppression Olympics. Two things can be true at once. Jews are individually and collectively the subject of hate speech, bigotry, and prejudice—and Jewish people are beneficiaries and upholders of the American system of white supremacy.
They are the subject of insipid conspiracy theories. They have experienced anti-Semitic violence around the world. Many of the hate groups that want to send black people back to Africa have even more animus toward the Jewish community.
And still, the Jewish community upholds white supremacy.
You. Cannot. Live. In. America. And. Not. Be. Racist.
Whether it is because of skin color, assimilation or culture, Jewish people benefit from a system that targets and oppresses black and brown people. Unlike those other cultural and ethnic minorities, the Jewish community has agency and power. They are the highest earners in an economic system that perpetuates wage disparities for black children with the same parental backgrounds, education and living situation as white children.
One of the reasons racism still exists is because it is too easy to declare “I’m not a racist” instead of confronting hard truths. That’s why so many white people insist that one of their best friends is black. Many of them are more willing to stab themselves in the retinas with a rusty screwdriver to prove they don’t see race than confront their own prejudices.
Racism is pervasive. It is everywhere. The failure to acknowledge the omnipresence of racism is racist. There are Jewish people who are white. They navigate the world under the umbrella of whiteness, and when it rains on people of color, they often get to stay dry.
I am, however, familiar with the tactic employed by people who would rather bury their head in the sand than listen to criticism. Black people are frequently criticized for that as well.
We are often accused of ignoring “black on black” crime, single-parent homes and educational shortcomings. Even though crime, family dynamics and educational opportunities are complex issues of history and socio-economics, there isn’t a church service, community meeting or barbershop conversation where black people don’t acknowledge they need to do better in these areas. We don’t deny our issues, even if you don’t ever hear a black person admit it. (If it is something black people need to handle themselves, why would you?)
Yet, people who tell us to acknowledge our problems bristle when told they need to confront their own racism. White feminists do not expect black women to exclude or protect black men from biting discussions about sexism but clutch their pearls when anyone points out that white women have participated in racial atrocities from Black Wall Street to Emmett Till. They won’t utter a word when activists say the black community needs to confront homophobia and transgender issues, but reject the notion that their communities are complicit in anti-blackness. Apparently, our doorsteps are the only ones that need sweeping. Theirs are spotless.
I have frequently thought about that night I was sitting in my car. I wonder if that’s how people see me when I walk into a convenience store late at night or jog through their neighborhood. I ask myself if I had the same momentary dread police feel when they “fear for their lives” or when white people call the police on innocent black people.
But ultimately, those ponderings are all conjecture. I am a black man. I do not possess the social equity to Rumplestiltskin my internal prejudice into systematic racism.
That’s why if it is fair to question Tamika Mallory’s association with the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan (who has made many anti-Semitic statements); it is fair to question every association the leader of any organization has had with a racist. No one should make excuses for Minister Farrakhan, but if he should be condemned, then shouldn’t white leaders have to condemn any association with the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America or the entire Republican Party?
Even though Mallory is one of the most well-known activists in the country, she does not have any true impact on the lives of the Jewish community. As popular as Marc Lamont Hill is, he does not hold any weight in international Israeli-Palestinian policy. LeBron James, one of the richest and most powerful athletes in the world, still has his NBA checks and endorsement deals signed by white men.
That’s why anyone, including Jewish people, who ignores or dismisses the structural advantages in every facet of this society is either dumb, disingenuous or deflecting.
The Jewish community is not racist because they are Jewish. People in the Jewish community are racist because they live in America. But the privilege and power they enjoy cannot and should not be ignored. This entire country needs to confront the racism within its ranks. Just because someone is a target of bigots and racists does not absolve them of the responsibility to look within.
And I should know.
Because I’m a racist.