As I was coming of age, the well-intentioned would say, “I don’t see race” to signal that they did not judge people by the color of their skin. The problem with that approach was that if you did not “see race,” you ignored part of what made an individual unique and, societally, you risked overlooking historic inequities grounded in race.
Perhaps the meaning of these words spoken by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, was misconstrued: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King certainly was not saying to overlook race, but to look beyond race when judging people, and instead focus on the values that guide their lives.
This brings me to “Are Jews White? It’s Complicated,” a column I wrote in December 2016. Month after month since it was published, that column has ranked among the most-viewed items on the Atlanta Jewish Times website; indeed, it attracted the second-most page views in the whole of 2020. From time to time, I have wondered whether some of those pulling it up online are using its content to justify their anti-Semitism.
Re-reading that column and taking into consideration all that has transpired since its publication, I find reason to reframe the question.
I suspect that more of us are aware of and personally acquainted with “Jews of color,” a catch-all that by varying definitions includes African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Sephardim, and Mizrahim; though not all may self-identify as such. Estimates of this population range from the 12 to 15 percent in a May 2019 study by researchers from Stanford University and the University of San Francisco to the 6 percent cited in a 2013 Pew Research Center report. Whatever the figure, the phrase highlights, for American Jews and non-Jews alike, the diversity in a community too often and too easily stereotyped as white and/or Ashkenazi.
My 2016 column began with a story told by playwright Alfred Uhry, whose Atlanta trilogy (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Last Night at Ballyhoo,” and “Parade”) deals with issues of assimilation, anti-Semitism, and racism. Growing up in Atlanta in the 1940s, Uhry was told, “We’re not white; we’re Jewish.”
Uhry said much the same last month, as the keynote speaker for the inaugural Janice Rothschild Blumberg Lecture, sponsored by The Breman Museum, the Southern Jewish Historical Society, and The Temple. “We Jews were not quite white, not like the echelon we wanted to be in. And black people certainly weren’t white. So we were all kind of ‘other,’” he told an online audience.
I am white and of Ashkenazic descent. I do not pretend to know what goes through the mind of an African American when a police car passes by or when they feel suspicious eyes on them as they walk in a store. Nor did I need to have “the talk” with my sons, as Black parents do, about how to handle interactions with the police. Without venturing into the fraught worlds of wokeness and intersectionality, these are realities experienced by a minority of Jews in America, but from which the majority are spared.
“Are Jews White? It’s Complicated” was written several months before Charlottesville, Va., where a khaki-clad, tiki torch-carrying mob marched, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” But the white nationalists, supremacists and other breeds of bigots can look at a “Jew of color” and, without knowing their religion, hate them first for the color of their skin.
The Jewish community has been an active voice in the multireligious, multirracial, multiethnic chorus calling attention to incidents in which African Americans have been killed in questionable circumstances by police and, in some instances, by civilians acting in an extra-judicial fashion. The Jewish community is engaged in self-examination and discussion about the role that race plays in its synagogues, schools and other communal institutions. Atlanta is home to numerous clergy, groups and individuals working in this space.
In December 2016, I framed the question as, “Are Jews White? It’s Complicated.” Today I would amend that to read: “Are Jews White? Yes. And No.”