James Baldwin's Essay "Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because they're Anti-White" 55 Years LaterRoundup
tags: Jewish history, racism, African American history, James Baldwin, antisemitism, Black-Jewish Relations
Terrence L. Johnson (@tljohn44) is a professor of religion and politics at Georgetown University. Jacques Berlinerblau (@Berlinerblau) is a professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. Their new book is Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue (Georgetown University Press).
James Baldwin’s landmark essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” is alternatively nuanced and strident, exacting and scattershot, hopeful and fatalistic. It’s fairly prophetic too. As we mark the 55th anniversary of its publication let us acknowledge that, in spite of all the outrage (and confusion) the piece created, it was prescient in many ways.
Way back in April of 1967 Baldwin surmised that by being white,Jewish-Americans—even the many Jewish-Americans committed to social justice—were ensnared within a brutal system of what we now call “racial capitalism.” The economic asymmetries that the system engendered would, in Baldwin’s augury, doom the civil rights coalition that these minority groups had heroically forged. Too, these structural inequalities would corrode any authentic empathy Jews and Blacks may have felt for one another.
“Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” is far more subtle and internally tensile than its title suggests. The subtleties and tensions, however, were lost on countless Jewish leaders. Instead, some saw “a passionate justification of Negro anti-Semitism.” One rabbi dubbed Baldwin a “Negro extremist . . . who has allowed his hostility to whites to run into extra-hostility to Jews.”
When we teach this text in our “Blacks and Jews” class, we point out that Baldwin is actually performing something of an intellectual false flag operation. His essay reads like a sermon, albeit a secular one (see below). He appears to be attacking one thing (i.e., the Jews), yet his true targets lie elsewhere.
The piece is a symphony of rhetorical misdirections, winks, and toggles. African-Americans, Baldwin argued, perceive Jews as white and thus no different from white Christians. But he also affirmed that Jews are certainly not Christians; they too have run afoul of the “old, rugged Roman cross.” Yes, Baldwin alleged that Jews in Harlem are inconsiderate landlords, butchers, teachers, and police officers. But, no! Not all of those offenders are Jews. Thinking aloud, Baldwin recognizes that few Jews scale the corporate heights of General Motors, Mobiloil or Pepsi-Cola where white people rule.
Jewish readers in 1967 might have learned so much more from the essay than they actually did. Blacks, after all, certainly had a rich perspective on the inhumanity of white Christians. If Blacks perceived Jews—Jews!—as indistinguishable from the latter, then what might this say about the moral standing of the Jewish-American community? Did the perception not recommend introspection, a course correction?
The question was mostly ignored (and still is). It was easier for Jews to linger on Baldwin’s oversights. He overlooked, as Whoopi Goldberg recently did on The View, the fact Jewish-Americans had been racially assigned in many different and contradictory ways (e.g., white, non-white, European, non-European, Semitic, Caucasian, Hebrew, Asiatic, Levantine, etc). He overlooked that the majority of world Jewry is non-white. He overlooked, to borrow a phrase from Cynthia Ozick, that “There are black Jews. There have been black Jews for millennia….[they] can be seen giggling and wriggling in any cluster of Israeli schoolchildren.” How could Baldwin have strolled down 125th Street in Harlem without seeing a Black Jew?
The “Jews as white” hypothesis could be overlooked and dismissed on those grounds. But that dismissal could not alter a fundamental truth. In a country beholden to a rigid Black/white binary, most Jews were now white. When given the opportunity, the majority—though certainly not all—of American Jews, passed. Only in recent years have Jewish communities begun to ponder the implications of this collective move for their Black compatriots.