Sunday, July 26, 2009

African Americans, Jews, and Assimilation: A Response to Anonymous

Next week is “Relationship Week,” a week of discussing relationships between African American men and women, over here at soulbrother v.2, and I am busy at work planning and preparing for what I hope to be an insightful dialogue. However, I would like to use today to wrap-up some business left over from this past week.

One of the main reasons I created this blog was to create conversation and dialogue around issues and events I found of interest or importance to the African American community, whether those joining in the conversation or dialogue agree with me or not. And thus far, thanks to you, I have been relatively successful. I get many comments expressing many diverging viewpoints.

But I’m sometimes frustrated by those persons commenting as “Anonymous” because besides from leaving a reply on the comment board, I am not able to contact them further to follow up and continue the conversation.

I received one such comment this week. [Click here to read the original post.] It is the longest and most comprehensive comment I have ever received. I am posting the comment below in its entirety not to call this individual out, but to provide a reference point for my comments which follows.

I have to split this because of character limits, so it is in 2 parts

Part 1:

1) Readers should know a bit about whom they're reading, so I'm a middle aged, white Jewish male, eastern European ancestry.

2) To blackwomen..., the accounts I've read said that Gates showed both his university ID (the house is owned by Harvard) and his driver's license, which has his address. They also said that Gates went around back and entered the house through the back door. While there, the cabbie tried to force the door, and that this is what the neighbor saw. This is not to excuse what happened, just to show that the neighbor was not reporting Gates but someone else that she did not recognize.

3) I think all groups other than the ones that came over from the UK have had to scrub their rough points off before being accepted fully into the middle or upper classes, starting with the Irish, and continuing through all the other European ethnics.

Tangent: Once upon a time, until some time after WW1, what we now describe as ethnic differences were once considered racial ones (with all the genetic implications of that word). Ever wonder about the apparent redundancy in the phrase 'race, creed or color'? Growing up, as I did, in the 60s and 70s, race and color were pretty much synonymous. Well, people (e.g., Th. Roosevelt) used to speak of the English race, the Irish race, the Swedish race, the German race, etc., etc. Nazi ideology had nothing on this perspective in terms of the basic analytic framework, just the bloody mindedness of the conclusions drawn from it. WW2, as well as the tensions during WW1 between those of English descent and those of German and Irish descent put an end to this line of thought, at least among respectable folk: there was a reason that (someone named) Eisenhower was head of army, Nimitz head of the Navy, to show that this war was against Germany, not Germans or the 'German race'.

Anyway, all those now considered white have given up cultural traits once considered distinctive, in return for being given a seat at the table, i.e., entry into the middle and upper classes. It's called the melting pot, or assimilation. At the same time, what is considered mainstream, or at least near mainstream has expanded to incorporate parts from these immigrant cultures. I can see it in the history of my own family; it's not just between my immigrant grandparents and myself, I can see the difference in each generation since them, becoming more at ease with, and more similar to, what is considered the mainstream. At the same time, I don't think anyone, certainly from the northeast or old industrial mid-west, who is famliar with different white ethnics, would have any difficulty pegging me or even my kids as Jews; even though no one in the family has been bar/bat mitzvahed (with all that entails and implies) in over a century.

It appears to me that this tradeoff is finally spreading beyond those of European ancestry, to those of East Asian ancestry, and perhaps beginning to extend to (some) whose ancestry is from sub-Saharan Africa, even those descended from American slaves.

I express no value judgement about this process/tradeoff. I am just observing that it is typical for all the previous immigrant groups that have managed to make their way out of the poor immigrant ghettoes to which they were initially consigned.

4) I don't know if the distinction between racism and racialism is useful, but it certainly exists. So long as racism had the force of law, it was much more difficult to reduce its consequences. Despite the ravages of things like deindustrialization and crack on poor and working class communities, many of which are predominantly African American, the black middle class is larger and, I think, more secure, than it has ever been before. The last generation has seen progress on issues of race, painfully slow certainly, but it would likely not have been possible without the dismantling of the legal framework. Lacking legal supports, what was racism is softening into racialism. How's that saying go? "I'm not where I want to be, but thank God, I'm not where I used to be."

Again, a similar process occurred for Jews in Europe. Once Jews had legal rights in western Europe, following the Napoleonic Wars, they began to enter mainstream society often even without converting. With more, and more regular, experience of Jews, prejudices against them slowly declined. Of course, events intervened, but ...

I am not suggesting that the experience of African Americans has been similar to Jews. Rather I am looking to history to see if it contains any useful lessons, and to draw informative parallels, and it is Jewish history that I'm most familiar with.

If it came across that I was trying in any way to 1-up African Americans, I apologize. I don't think the experience of suffering Jews and African Americans in the U.S. is or has ever been in any way comparable, and the only reason for comparing the European experience of Jews to the experience of African Americans is perhaps for some sick drinking game.

I was trying to address 2 issues raised in the original post, and doing it as well as I can, given the limitations of my experience. One is the racism/racialism distinction. The second was the one raised in this passage:

Basically the theory provides a very narrow prescription for complete personhood. It informs me how I should speak, how I should dress, how I should conduct myself, both in public and in private. And if, after following that prescription to the tee, I am approved by a panel of those who would be my peers, I can join mainstream society and culture with all the rights and privileges thereof. I have earned a place at the table. In other words, check your right of self-definition at the door.

The public side of this is something that all ethnic groups have had to come to terms with, wearing a mask in public to hide differences, or anything else distinctive. This has implications in the long run for the private side, which I hinted at in my comment, but I don't think it has much to do with self-definition in the short run. We may not like it, but many of us wear masks, and don't feel that they define us (perhaps confine us, when they are on, like tight shoes, but that's another issue).

Of course, police have always treated African Americans differently, entering houses without permission or warrants, beating, killing, etc., etc. Of course this is part of the racist structure of our society, and it weakens the public/private distinction made in the post. What this incident shows (as if we didn't know this already) is that our society does not yet accord African Americans the same respect and rights that it does to whites, even ones who behave according to all the rules one can imagine applying to whites, and more.

I don't have any clear thoughts about what to say next, so I'll end now.

As an undergraduate, I spent my senior year working on my honors thesis under the direction of a Jewish rabbi who taught Jewish History and Culture at the university. At the time, Jewish and African American relations had taken a turn for the worse, and I could not figure it out given that during the Civil Rights Movement we were primarily allies, and I also sensed similar histories.

One of the first observations I made was that thousands of years ago, Jews made sure their laws and customs remained intact whatever the situation the Jewish people as a nation found themselves in. That was achieved through the codification of the Torah.

To explain this further, the Jews had a document which took control of the telling of their history, which acted as a prescription for daily conduct down to the most minute detail, and most importantly, which bound them together as a people.

No such document exists for African Americans. Our ancestors originated from various locales throughout Africa, from various tribes. There was no one tradition, one cultural heritage, one common history, but many. However, within the peculiar institution of slavery, many of these local heritages, many of these local traditions, many of these local histories were lost, plowed under by a culture and civilization who early on realized that complete and utter subjugation could not be achieved over a people who know themselves, who knew their history and their place within the history of nations.

And following the inevitable demise of that peculiar institution, no group of people attempted to assimilate into the mainstream society more than African Americans. However, we were rejected at every turn. So, we turned inward and, for better or for worse, developed our own traditions, our own customs, and began, for the first time, to research and write our own history.

Some of those coping mechanisms we developed within that enclosed space instigated by exclusion and discrimination were positive. They allowed us to survive under the most oppressive conditions. But others were negative.

But we hold these traditions, we hold these customs, we hold this history particularly dear; it is part of us, and we are part of it, and we hold in great disdain anyone or anything which attempts to damn the river that flows between.

However, now that the doors to the mainstream society and culture are finally opening, we are asked to disavow that sustaining culture as conditions for entrance. We are asked to deny a rich vibrant culture and history running alongside and within the national culture and history. But it is this culture and history that we cling so desperately to, that sustains us even in the face of a great many hardships.

I will stop now. I have perhaps gone on far too long given the medium. However, this exegesis of the similarities of Jews and African Americans and the subject of assimilation is wholly incomplete, but it is a beginning.

So, Anonymous, if you would like to continue this conversation, just drop me a line at and we can continue. Perhaps, this is the beginning of a very fruitful dialogue.


msladydeborah said...


This is the type of dialouge that we need on race. Not the finger pointing you do this and we do that. A dialouge that brings up the individual ethnic stories and see how each race has evolved. Or not evolved depending on how you look at this.

It is interesting that you are going to write on the subject of black male and female relationships. I am thinking of working on a series regarding how we define racial idenities.

Charles J said...

If I am not mistaken Max you said this in the original post of that message, but I had to restate this.
Out of all the races when it comes to assimilation around the world Black people cannot fully assimilate. Italian, Greek, Irish, Russian, Jewish etc etc. All groups can change their name, lose an accent and they are into mainstream culture. Blacks do not have that luxury.

I am glad that we are living in a day and time where slowly but surely the thought of assimilation and the "melting pot" theory is being dismantled.

RiPPa said...

I didn't read the original post. But for the sake of brevity, I must say that the Jewish guy is on point in approaching this from a historical perspective.

I would also say that the breakdown of African culture as it relates to the defendants of slaves is correct. Somewhere along the line in order to assimilate while we all wore masks we're lost much of our cultural identity.

Essentially, almost as is the case opf every ethnic group, we've bough in to the culture of Americanism. What's funny about this, is that I was just having a conversation with a long lost cousin yesterday who he and I grew up as kids in the Caribbean before moving to New York City at an early age. We both came to the conclusion that we, as West Indians have lost ourselves in this land that is America through assimilation.

Yobachi said...

Just found your blog because your sidebar brought some incoming feed to my blog; and I was checking my reference links to see where today's traffic was coming from.

Anyway, I read a little bit of this post, and I like the topic.

I'll check in this week when I have time, and probable do a quick post, at least, about what you're doing this week over here.


uglyblackjohn said...

Only Blacks and Asians lack the ability to fully assimilate.
Eveyone else can fake da' funk.

But "Anon" makes a lot of very good points.
Things like; education, speaking in SAE, having a two-parent household and lacking a prison record are noy synonymous with being "white".
Many of the social traits we presume to be Black are just coping mechanisms from a past era.
There comes a point when we must graduate to the next level.
Just because that level seems to be enjoyed by mostly whites doesn't make that level inherent or endemic to whites.
These traits had to be learned by these whites too.

Keith said...

Great post. It was very insightful. That's one thing I really love about your blog. It always give me a lot to think about.

Related Posts with Thumbnails