Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
from “Pluralism and Its Discontents: The Case of Blacks and Jews,” by Cheryl Greenberg

Twen­ty years or so ago, not too long after I first start­ed teach­ing at the col­lege where I am still a pro­fes­sor, one of my colleagues–the woman who start­ed the institution’s Jew­ish Stud­ies Project–tried to start a Black-Jew­ish dia­logue on cam­pus. It was not suc­cess­ful. One rea­son, I think, was struc­tur­al. In my mem­o­ry the idea for the dia­logue did not emerge from a shared sense of need, but rather with the desire of the white Jews’ on cam­pus to “do some­thing” about Black-Jew­ish rela­tions. I don’t mean that Black peo­ple on cam­pus didn’t also feel the need for dia­logue, but, as far as I know, no one actu­al­ly asked them how they under­stood the need and so noth­ing about what they thought, felt, and under­stood was incor­po­rat­ed into the ini­tial dis­cus­sion about how the dia­logue should be struc­tured or what its goals ought to be.

I remem­ber sit­ting in a room with about eight or nine of my white Jew­ish col­leagues and maybe three or four Black col­leagues from across cam­pus and watch­ing the dia­logue fall apart before it ever real­ly go start­ed. One of my Black col­leagues, used a term to describe those non-Jews who were crit­i­cal of Louis Farrakhan’s anti­se­mit­ic rhetoric, espe­cial­ly if they were Black, that was the struc­tur­al equiv­a­lent of “nig­ger lover,” though it car­ried nei­ther the ven­om nor the his­to­ry of that term. The word my col­league used was Judaio­phile, and my col­league meant by it peo­ple who were not Jew­ish who defend­ed Jews because they had a “love” for Jews that, while they were not entire­ly aware of it, went against their own self-inter­ests. Jews, he sug­gest­ed, were lucky to be able to count on peo­ple like that. Respons­es to this asser­tion con­sumed the rest of the meet­ing, which was the last one we had.

Greenberg’s essay, pub­lished in Insider/Outsider: Amer­i­can Jews and Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ismwhich is long, fas­ci­nat­ing, and well worth read­ing care­ful­ly, begins with these two sentences:

Blacks and Jews, once part­ners in the strug­gle for civ­il rights and racial jus­tice, have more recent­ly become estranged. Par­al­lel­ing the rise and fall of that coali­tion is the rise and fall of plu­ral­ism as an ide­al for struc­tur­ing Amer­i­can social life. (55)

This is an excerpt from the first cou­ple of pages:

Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, the most recent attempt to address the diver­si­ty of America’s (and the world’s) peo­ples and his­to­ries, chal­lenges tra­di­tion­al his­tor­i­cal under­stand­ings and rede­fines the Amer­i­can land­scape of racial, eth­nic, and reli­gious groups. Root­ed in a cri­tique of tra­di­tion­al pow­er rela­tions that favor white male elites and their world view, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ists argue instead for under­stand­ing the world as a cacoph­o­nous mul­ti­plic­i­ty of voic­es and experiences.…Because mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism received its focus and ener­gy pri­mar­i­ly from the lat­er phas­es of the mod­ern civ­il rights move­ment, it has tend­ed to address racial dif­fer­ences. While most def­i­n­i­tions of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism includes not only race but also class, gen­der, and sex­u­al­i­ty as fun­da­men­tal social cat­e­gories, they nev­er­the­less exclude or finesse oth­er cru­cial social divi­sions and (I believe) still enshrine race as first among equals. Posit­ing race as the great­est divide may cer­tain­ly be valid; my point here is that the most com­mon ver­sions of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism can there­fore all be sub­ject to a sim­i­lar cri­tique of down­play­ing oth­er dis­tinc­tions in favor of racial ones.

But lit­tle can be gen­er­al­ized about mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism beyond its com­mit­ment to dethron­ing the while male voice. The term mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism itself is con­test­ed and is embraced by those with dif­fer­ent and some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry visions of society.…

Yet despite this appar­ent inde­ter­mi­na­cy, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism as a soci­o­log­i­cal con­cept is ground­ed in a par­tic­u­lar his­to­ry that gives it much of its con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance. Since the nation’s found­ing, Amer­i­cans have debat­ed how to absorb diverse pop­u­la­tions, a debate that reached a crescen­do with the immi­gra­tion of east­ern and south­ern Euro­peans and the migra­tion of south­ern blacks to urban areas in the north. For the tra­di­tion­al Anglo-con­formists or “mono­cul­tur­al­ists,” white Protes­tant West­ern Euro­pean (and male) cul­ture, norms, and val­ues defined the best of Amer­i­ca. For them, assim­i­la­tion to this norm was the only alter­na­tive. In the ear­ly years of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry a new­ly pop­u­lar­ized image of Amer­i­ca as the melt­ing pot replaced the tra­di­tion­al­ist notion with anoth­er that posit­ed a new and unique Amer­i­can culture–still a mono­cul­tur­al vision–this time shaped by con­tri­bu­tions from many eth­nic, nation­al, and reli­gious groups. Along­side this cul­tur­al par­a­digm, oth­ers posit­ed plu­ral­ism, which called for the recog­ni­tion of the unique cul­tures of dif­fer­ent groups who were to retain their dis­tinc­tive­ness in pri­vate while con­form­ing to the pre­vail­ing (mono­cul­tur­al) norm in public.

.…Regard­less of its the­o­ret­i­cal vari­ants, the pop­u­lar under­stand­ing of plu­ral­ism is per­haps best exem­pli­fied by World War II movies like Bataan, whose all-Amer­i­can fight­ing force includ­ed Jake Fein­berg, Felix Ramirez, F. X. Matows­ki, Bill Dane, Jesus Katig­bay, Wes­ley Epps, and Yan­kee Salazar.

 Stand­ing against this vision of the ide­al soci­ety were nation­al­ists: Zion­ists, fol­low­ers of black nation­al­ist Mar­cus Gar­vey, and oth­ers who object­ed to the assim­ila­tive nature of pluralism’s pub­lic life. Although most of these ear­ly groups insist­ed that their vision of an extra­na­tion­al home­land in which to nur­ture and sus­tain their dis­tinc­tive­ness did not con­tra­dict their com­mit­ment to Amer­i­can val­ues, by the 1960s the sep­a­ratist Black Pow­er move­ment and oth­ers inspired by it repu­di­at­ed the inte­gra­tionist goal alto­geth­er. They argued that inte­gra­tion required cul­tur­al geno­cide and in any case was impos­si­ble to achieve giv­en the impen­e­tra­ble bar­ri­ers of the Amer­i­can racial state. Thus was mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism born. At its most basic lev­el it was plu­ral­ism with­out the ele­ment of pub­lic con­for­mi­ty and with­out pluralism’s opti­mism of ulti­mate inclu­sion for all.

The fact that mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism has been used to pro­mote con­flict­ing polit­i­cal agen­das, how­ev­er, should not pre­vent crit­i­cal analy­sis of the more nar­row­ly and explic­it­ly defined anti plu­ral­ist the­o­ry that emerged as the most recent par­a­digm of social rela­tions. What is Jews’ rela­tion­ship to it and to pre­vi­ous par­a­digms? Because they had no place in the Anglo-con­formist view, Jews them­selves helped cre­ate and pro­mote alter­na­tive the­o­ries that both rec­og­nized their dif­fer­ences from main­stream white Amer­i­can cul­ture and val­ued their unique con­tri­bu­tion to soci­ety. Thus it was Israel Zang­will who pop­u­lar­ized the expres­sion “melt­ing pot,” in his 1908 play by that name, and Horace Kallen who pio­neered (with oth­ers) the con­cept of cul­tur­al plu­ral­ism. Both these schemes rec­og­nized Jews’ con­tin­ued minor­i­ty or out­sider sta­tus, as indeed Jews them­selves did. Both also rede­fined the notion of out­sider from unwant­ed alien to val­ued soci­etal contributor–part of the mul­ti reli­gious, mul­ti­eth­nic poly­glot that shaped Amer­i­ca. But mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, putting race first as it does, removes Jews from the out­sider com­mu­ni­ty they had helped to legit­imize. Instead Jews have become “Euro-Amer­i­cans” with their cul­tures and con­tri­bu­tions sub­sumed under that broad head­ing (and their vic­tim­iza­tion by oth­er Euro­peans there­by effaced). Now out­siders are racial minori­ties: African Amer­i­can, Asian Amer­i­cans, Native Amer­i­cans, and His­pan­ics (that last a prob­lem­at­ic cat­e­go­ry in itself since it does not define a sin­gle ances­try group at all, but that dis­cus­sion is best left for anoth­er time). And Jew­ish social sci­en­tists, who had tremen­dous con­trol over the cre­ation and shap­ing of plu­ral­ism, have far less pow­er over mul­ti­cul­tur­al the­o­ry to which they have come lat­er and more hes­i­tant­ly. Under mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, then, Jews are as left out as when assim­i­la­tion­ists described their ver­sion of inside and out­side. (55–60)

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