Where do Jews fit into critical race theory?

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Fred L. Pincus | Special to WJW

In the midst of the continuing national controversy, Jews have debated whether or not critical race theory is “good for the Jews.” Opinions are wide-ranging, from those who think critical race theory is antisemitic to those who are developing a Jewish version of critical race theory.

A central tenet of critical race theory is that racism/white supremacy has been an integral part of American institutions since our nation’s founding. Rather than being a problem of individual white attitudes, critical race theory proponents argue that racism is structural or systemic. White people are the dominant/oppressor group with power while Black people and other people of color are the subordinate/oppressed groups.

This, of course, brings up important questions: Are Jews white? If so, are they oppressors with white privilege? Must Jews fit into this oppressor/oppressed binary?
Jewish critical race theory critics answer all these questions with a resounding “No.” For example, Commentary carried an article titled “No, Jews Aren’t White: We’re Our Own Thing, and Whatever Privilege We Possess is Conditional.” Author Liel Leibovitz wrote, “Jews are just Jews, a difficult realization that has driven haters to distraction throughout the generations.”

Several Jewish writers have argued that critical race theory can be extended and used to better understand the Jewish experience. They have proposed developing a Jewish critical race theory just as Latinos and Asians have.

In the 2020 issue of Social Identities, for example, Daniel Ian Rubin argues that Jews occupy a “space between” whites and people of color. Although Jews have been largely recognized as white since the end of World War II, “they found themselves further separated from other minority groups in the U.S. even though they still were not fully accepted by white society (nor are they fully accepted today).”

Sociologists have described Jews as a “middleman minority” group that lacks power over the non-Jewish elite above them but that has power over the people of color below them. Jews are both oppressors and oppressed. This is not something that is unique to Jews since, for example, Asian people, many of whom currently own businesses in Black communities, can also be described as a middleman minority.

There are other issues raised by Jewish critics of critical race theory as evidenced by an opinion piece by David Bernstein, founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, in The Daily Phil newsletter. According to Bernstein, critical race theory promotes antisemitism through its promotion of the Jewish privilege trope, its failure to give Jews credit for being successful in higher education, its promotion of “equity” rather than “equality,” its attempts to limit discussion about the nature of racial conflict in the U.S. and its critique of the Israel/Palestine conflict,

It’s certainly true that the powerful, privileged Jew has been part of a worldwide antisemitic trope for centuries, and it’s also true that antisemitism continues in the Trump years and beyond. Jewish critical race theory scholars like Rubin would agree with that. None of this is inconsistent with the fact that Jews have privileges that people of color lack.

The critical race theory emphasis on equity rather than equality is also important to understand. The term “equality” usually refers to a competition where everyone lines up at the starting line and the “best” people cross the finish line first. The term “equity” emphasizes a competition where the winners are representative of the race/ethnic/gender distribution in the population.

For a variety of reasons, Jews have been quite successful using meritocratic criteria for college admission, once discriminatory quotas were gradually removed in the first half of the 20th century. They are overrepresented among the winners in the higher education race.

Unfortunately, these same meritocratic standards have not worked well for Black and Hispanic people because a variety of discriminatory factors including segregated housing, underfunded schools, discrimination in the labor market, etc. Meritocratic standards yielded unequal results. That’s why critical race theory scholars emphasize equity rather than just equality.

In terms of the criticism that critical race theory limits discussion of American racism, it’s not the supporters who are banning books from schools, passing laws restricting how schools can teach about racism and calling for a two-sided discussion of slavery.

Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, has warned Jewish educators that insisting on a more “balanced” treatment of slavery could also result in demands for teaching a “balanced” view of the Holocaust. Greenblatt said, “Put simply, you can’t teach the Holocaust without understanding its origins in unchecked bias and how such hatred then can be implanted in a society.”

Finally, since the issue of “legitimate” criticism of Israel vs. antisemitic criticism has been broadly discussed elsewhere, I’ll not deal with it here. Suffice it to say that exactly where the line should be drawn continues to be contentious.

Critical race theory, and its Jewish variations, are a useful way to understand the continuing racial conflict in the United States and the role Jews play in the “space between” as a middleman minority.

Fred L. Pincus is emeritus professor of sociology at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a founding member of the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah.

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