Crown Heights Affairs

In a taxi a few nights ago, the estimable headline news service which scrolls along those little TV screens informed me, "Crown Heights Braces for Racial Violence." Bracing, bracing, still bracing...

Racial violence of ticker tape proportions is not coming, good thing, but Crown Heights did make its way into the news with the story of a Hasidic youth Macing a 20-year old black college student and then beating him with a nightstick. Some retaliatory acts were taken by black youths who threw rocks at Hasidic homes as well as a bus load of Hasidic school children. Community leaders - those most vague and indefinable of authority figures - came together, showed solidarity, and things calmed down. At least until July when the weather is hotter and everyone gets their Do The Right Thing game-faces on.

I've wanted to tackle the black-Jewish-Brooklyn dynamic for a while, especially in the wake of my roommate's thoughtful and very solid writing on his own encounter with an instance of Hasidic racism. However every time I start I decide, inescapably, that I am wholly unequipped to tackle this debate without coming off ignorant and bigotted in some unintentional way, until I have a much firmer grasp of the context and history.

Until that day, I want to bring James Baldwin in for his opinion. In his 1967 essay "Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White" Baldwin writes, "the root of anti-Semitism among Negroes is, ironically, the relationship of colored peoples--all over the globe--to the Christian world."

Baldwin argues that it is Christendom which has instigated hate between Jews and blacks because Jews have been able to take part in the Christian world and act like white Christian men because they are white. While blacks, victimized in history as Jews have been, are not allowed that privilege: "[The Jew] is singled out by Negroes not because he acts differently from other white men, but because he doesn't."

Below are some excerpts from the essay. The full essay here.

"The root of anti-Semitism among Negroes is, ironically, the relationship of colored peoples--all over the globe--to the Christian world. This is a fact which may be difficult to grasp, not only for the ghetto's most blasted and embittered inhabitants, but also for many Jews, to say nothing of many Christians. But it is a fact, and it will not ameliorated--in fact, it can only be aggravated--by the adoption, on the part of colored people now, of the most devastating of the Christian vices.
Of course, it is true, and I am not so naive as not to know it, that many Jews despise Negroes, even as their Aryan brothers do. (There are also Jews who despise Jews, even as their Aryan brothers do.) It is true that many Jews use, shamelessly, the slaughter of the 6,000,000 by the Third Reich as proof that they cannot be bigots--or in the hope of not being held responsible for their bigotry.

It is galling to be told by a Jew whom you know to be exploiting you that he cannot possibly be doing what you know he is doing because he is a Jew. It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter. Nor can it help the relationship between most Negroes and most Jews when part of this money is donated to civil rights. In the light of what is now known as the white backlash, this money can be looked on as conscience money merely, as money given to keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.

One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro's suffering. It isn't, and one knows that it isn't from the very tone in which he assures you that it is. "

"The Jew's suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world and the Jew is recognized as a contributor so the world's history: this is not true for the blacks. Jewish history, whether or not one can say it is honored, is certainly known: the black history has been blasted, maligned and despised. The Jew is a white man, and when white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to their native savagery. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was not described as a riot, nor were the participants maligned as hoodlums: the boys and girls in Watts and Harlem are thoroughly aware of this, and it certainly contributes to their attitude toward the Jews.

But, of course, my comparison of Watts and Harlem with the Warsaw ghetto will be immediately dismissed as outrageous. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is that while America loves white heroes, armed to the teeth, it cannot abide bad niggers. But the bottom reason is that it contradicts the American dream to suggest that any gratuitous, unregenerate horror can happen here. We make our mistakes, we like to think, but we are getting better all the time."

"What is really at question is the American way of life. What is really at question is whether Americans already have an identity or are still sufficiently flexible to achieve one. This is a painfully complicated question, for what now appears to be the American identity is really a bewildering and sometimes demoralizing blend of nostalgia and opportunism. For example, the Irish who march on St. Patrick's Day, do not, after all, have any desire to go back to Ireland. They do not intend to go back to live there, though they may dream of going back there to die. Their lives, in the meanwhile, are here, but they cling, at the same time, to those credentials forged in the Old World, credentials which cannot be duplicated here, credentials which the American Negro does not have. These credentials are the abandoned history of Europe--the abandoned and romanticized history of Europe. The Russian Jews here have no desire to return to Russia either, and they have not departed in great clouds for Israel. But they have the authority of knowing it is there. The Americans are no longer Europeans, but they are still living, at least as they imagine, on that capital."

"All racist positions baffle and appall me. None of us are that different from one another, neither that much better nor that much worse. Furthermore, when one takes a position one must attempt to see where that position inexorably leads. One must ask oneself, if one decides that black or white or Jewish people are, by definition, to be despised, is one willing to murder a black or white or Jewish baby: for that is where the position leads. And if one blames the Jew for having become a white American, one may perfectly well, if one is black, be speaking out of nothing more than envy.

If one blames the Jew for not having been ennobled by oppression, one is not indicting the single figure of the Jew but the entire human race, and one is also making a quite breathtaking claim for oneself. I know that my own oppression did not ennoble me, not even when I thought of myself as a practicing Christian. I also know that if today I refuse to hate Jews, or anybody else, it is because I know how it feels to be hated. I learned this from Christians, and I ceased to practice what the Christians practiced.

The crisis taking place in the world, and in the minds and hearts of black men everywhere, is not produced by the star of David, but by the old, rugged Roman cross on which Christendom's most celebrated Jew was murdered. And not by Jews."

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