Black and White and Jew All Over: Eric L. Goldstein’s “The Price of Whiteness”

Haim Watzman

If, like me, you are a Jew who grew up in America in the second half of the twentieth century, your Jewish identity was molded by a set of what seemed like self-evident propositions. First and foremost, Jews are different from other people in that they belong to a community that was both a nation and religion. That means you could be a Jew even if you didn’t buy into the God and mitzvah stuff. Second, only racists and Nazis maintain that Jews are racially (that is, biologically) distinct in any significant way from other people. Indeed, “race” is a bad word used mostly by people who want to deny equal rights to Jews, blacks, and other minorities. Third, Jews straddle the great racial divide in American society. We are white of skin, but black in spirit. Sharing a history of oppression and slavery with the blacks, we have a peculiar ability and duty to emphasize with their plight-empathy that the blacks appreciated at first, but strangely stopped appreciating as the century progressed.

Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006) is a fascinating account of how Jewish identity in the United States was formed in the context of American race relations. In the process, Goldstein shows that our self-evident identities are self-evident only in the framework of the peculiar American experience. That’s one reason why American and Israeli Jews so often miscomprehend each other’s sensibilities.

(Goldstein and his book were awarded a Choice Award in the framework of this year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. My book, A Crack in the Earth, received an honorable mention.)

We often forget that when Jews first started arriving in the United States in relatively large numbers, at the end of the nineteenth century, race was not a bad word. Not only not a bad word but, in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, race was science. Respectable scholars, and the public in their wake, maintained that humanity was divided into biologically distinct groups that differed in their native characteristics, abilities and intelligence. In this context, Jewish leaders sought to define their people as an ancient race with its own unique gifts.

But in the racial rankings, blacks were, of course, inferior. So, as Goldstein shows, anti-Semites sometimes sought to classify Jews as a black race, or at least as something different than totally white. In reaction, Jews, especially in the South, sought to assert their racial whiteness. At the same time, they were concerned that racial discrimination against blacks would legitimize similar discrimination against Jews.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Jews were accustomed to viewing themselves as a distinct race, and indeed had a hard time viewing themselves in any other way. But this identity became more and more problematic given the black-white divide. Furthermore, the rise in immigration from Eastern Europe brought greater diversity into the American Jewish community and made it harder for acculturated American Jews to project an image of belonging to a race akin in its virtues and mores to white America. Jewish leaders no longer wanted their people to be seen as a distinct biological entity, but rather as part of the greater American public. “At a time when cultural differences were seen to be markers of race, distinctions of dress, language, and custom all threatened to highlight Jewish racial difference,” Goldstein explains, so Jewish leaders sought to make Jews into Americans. This happened when my maternal grandmother was growing up in Cleveland; now I understand a lot better her insistence on being wholly American, and that by being American she was being a Jew.

World War II brought another change:

As long as Jewish racial status had remained problematic in American culture, Jews faced continual dilemmas about how to assert their whiteness without adopting forms of white racism that sat uneasily with their own self-image as a persecuted people. But as white Americans’ fears about the racial status of Jews began to recede, so did much of the tension surrounding the Jewish approach toward African Americans. In fact, for many Jews pursuing social acceptance during this period, whiteness and racial liberalism often became two mutually supporting aspects of their emerging identities.

Furthermore, Nazism discredited racial classifications. American social scientists rejected the doctrine that any significant biological distinctions existed between human beings. Jews began to prefer the term “ethnic group” to “race”; the new state of Israel’s diverse population of Ashkenazim and Sepharadim was cited as evidence that what Jews shared was culture, language, and religion, not skin color and physiognomy. So in the world my parents grew up in, Jews were proud Americans who opposed racism; in my generation, we were part of a pluralistic nation that included many ethnic groups that shared a common history.

Goldstein’s epilogue addresses the generation of our children, who are growing up in the age of multiculturalism. Blacks no longer seek cultural integration into white society but rather to stress their own unique heritage. The Jews have followed suit.

Much has changed since 1945, when Jews still worried that their Jewishness might keep them from being accepted as full members of white society. Today, many Jews fear that their thorough implication in that society may sever some of their strongest ties to Jewishness. Jews no longer have the language of “race” to express these deep attachments, but instead rely on the echoes of Jewish racial identity, a discourse of “tribalism,” which gives voice to the feelings of loss Jews are experience in a world resistant to seeing them as a group apart.

In other words, as Goldstein concludes, Jews no longer necessarily want to be seen as part of the white world, because the benefits that once accrued to that association are no longer salient.

The Price of Whiteness shows how much Jewish identity is influenced by the political and cultural milieu in which we live. Awareness of how Jewish identity has evolved over time can help us understand other generations better-and also other societies, like Israel’s, in which Jewish identity is shaped by a different set of forces.

*****

I’ve also written about two of the other Sami Rohr prize books. See:

The Family as Text: Tamar Yellin’s “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”

Standing Between: Ilana M. Blumberg’s “Houses of Study”

Next week: Yael Hedaya’s “Accidents

Note: Minor edits to this post were made on 20.6.08-hw

5 thoughts on “Black and White and Jew All Over: Eric L. Goldstein’s “The Price of Whiteness””

  1. Interesting I am an example of the prototypical white anglo/ saxon ,tracing the family back in this country to 1657. Then I upset the applecart by marrying a girl whose paternal grandfather was a Jew from Minsk Russia,paternal grandmother was a German Lutheran from Cleveland, a maternal grandfather from Parma,Italy and a maternal grandmother who was from somewhere in Ireland(both Roman Catholics) Two of my children have married a Philipino American and a second generation Chinese American respectively. So there isn’t much room for identity ;thus it is with some difficulty that I view the Jewish conundrum.So I must view my little family as American multi-racial and hope I have instilled what it means to be an American sans lapel pin.Race has no meaning to me as the importance of skin color pigmentation. It is only important to those who want to say ” look I’m different than you” to wit I say;so what!
    My children and grandchildren should be proud of their heritage but in the end and over time we are all going to be end products of a greater racial and ethnic pool

  2. Haim, your discussion of jewishness and whiteness is pretty interesting. I think you should follow it up with a discussion of jewishness and ‘arabness’.

    Isn’t it ironic that in America I certainly can’t say ‘Haim isn’t white, he’s jewish’, but in Israel it is perfectly acceptable to say ‘Haim isn’t arab, he’s jewish’, even if Haim came from an arab country, spoke arabic and had a darker skin tone.

    As you pointed out, these boundaries between self identifying groups, such as whites, jews and arabs, are synthetic and artificial constructs, and the reasons behind group inclussion or exclussion are political rather than scientific.

    So what’s the story behind jewish and arab mutual exclusivity?

  3. Identity is a fascinating subject – each of us wants distinction as an individual and for those who are on the divide with parents of different ethnic/race groups there is a choice to be made.

    Obama is no more black than he is white, but he chooses to be identified as black. “White” is such an amalgam that it offers no distinction in itself. At one time that was very much desired so to “pass” was a ticket to success and something to be kept a deep secret – a main theme of that remarkable musical Showboat. But these days ethnic distinction is prized so the tide has turned in the other direction. How many whites proudly claim to have a native-American in their ancestry?

    I think a big reason for the success of Jews in so many fields is the fact that the individual is prized, exemplified by the way the individual at a bar or bat mitzvah is invited to hold forth on what he or she thinks before the congregation. The whole thrust is “you are valuable as yourself, but responsible to others” If that is integral to the psyche then what amazing things are possible! So many Jews stood up to defend blacks legally in the bad old days and what a perfect way to assert the self and also responsibility to society! Self-doubt and insecurity are our worst enemies. Identification with a group of any kind is an attempt to put insecurity at bay but that association with a group in itself is not enough.

    In the movie Dumbo, the racially stereotyped crows spoke the truth to Dumbo when they said “You’ve got to BELIEVE you can fly!”

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