The Thin Line Between Anti-Whiteness and Anti-Semitism

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted a series of anti-Semitic posts on Instagram, one of which included a quote ((saying that black people were the true Israelites) about Jews falsely attributed to Adolf Hitler. Nick Cannon was dropped by ViacomCBS after making anti-Semitic comments on his Canon’s class podcast. Both have apologized.

These instances have spurred further conversation about anti-Semitism within the black community. While we should work to eradicate bigotry in all its forms, the history between the Jewish people and African Americans have made accusations of anti-Semitism less palpable in black communities. I wanted to explain a few reasons why.

There are a mix of reasons for this but if I had to make an educated guess, there are a few factors which are interrelated.

Saying the quiet part out loud, a lot of black folk grow up thinking Jewish people are just other white people. Many black folk aren’t around many Jewish people, and don’t the know the nuances of differences like Ashkenazi or Sephardic or Ethiopian Jews or Jewish people with European descent or others. Due to America’s legacy of racial segregation, black people (particularly those who live in urban areas) are living in neighborhoods where the vast majority (and, in some places, everyone) is black. Many black people also grow up in the church and our first associations with Jewishness is whiteness: the hegemonic, inaccurate depiction of Jesus as a white man. For many in the black community, the idea of anti-Semitism is diminished as a kind of “white on white” form of bigotry and, in problematic ways, can get looped into “black people can’t be racist” discourse.

Writer James Baldwin once wrote an essay on this entitled “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” In the piece, Baldwin links anti-Semitism within the black community to a mix of skepticism, envy, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism. In effect, it’s anti-whiteness—not hate for any individual white person based on the color of their skin, but “whiteness” as a social construct or racial hierarchy that menaces the non-white world.

Historically, the relationship between the black and Jewish communities have been a mix of solidarity and tension. Jewish people were disproportionately represented as allies in the Civil Rights Movement. Two of the Congress for Racial Equality activists murdered during Freedom Summer in 1964 were Jewish. In places like New York or Chicago, Jewish landlords and real estate agents were among some of the non-Black people who charged black people higher rents and engaged in red-lining practices. During the Black Arts Movement, many of the patrons of notable black visual and literary artists were Jewish. Record companies with Jewish execs were some of the first to sign Black musicians. And some put black artists in the same exploitive contracts or allowed white artists to copy their music as other companies did. If you are in the Hip Hop community, you are likely abreast of the longstanding discourse about the censoring of black artists who make anti-Semitic or non-anti-Semitic critiques of Jewish record execs promoting the most violent and lascivious rap music (as opposed to more “conscience rap.”)

Many African American’s find themselves in an honest political conundrum: how can I be anti-racist (specifically, against anti-blackness) without being anti-Semitic? How can we say that there are powerful Jewish people who exploit black people without being accused of further spreading the anti-Semitic trope of the global Jewish cabal? In Baldwin’s more biting words, “It is galling to be told by a Jew whom you know to be exploiting you that he cannot possibly be doing what you know he is doing because he is a Jew.” How can black progressives hold competing (in perception or reality) political commitments like racial solidarity and protesting for the human rights of the Palestinian people without being perceived as anti-Israel?

However, many of us in the black community haven’t done the research to understand how unique and longstanding anti-Semitism is and how it came about (which even includes a deeper understanding of concentration camps). The hatred and scapegoating of Jewish people existed long before Africans were enslaved on these shores. Like anti-blackness, anti-Semitism has a specific history that needs to be learn in order to truly gauge its deleteriousness.

Following the overgeneralized conception of “Jews are white” can blind black folks from understanding how the comments (in part or in whole) from Jackson or Cannon are anti-Semitic. On face value, pointing to Hitler as an authority should be legibly taboo. Whether you agree or disagree about Canon asserting that the “real” Semitic people are black, we should be able to understand how equating empathy and compassion to melanin is just a reverse of the pseudo-science that rationalizes white superiority (not to mention the implications it would have for lighter-skinned Africans, or African Americans, the majority of whom have some European ancestry because of slavery).

But setting these prominent recent examples aside, there are ways in which Jewish people have become tools (sometimes casualties) in the dialogues and diatribes of black political identity formation (whether Pan-African or specific to African Americans).

Black people across the diaspora have shared experience of having their histories, cultures, religions, languages, etc. erased during European colonization. Most are taught in education systems which explicitly or implicitly, intentionally or unintentionally convey two things:

1. Black history started with slavery
2. Everything that is good about human civilization was created by white people.

Both of these things are lies, and much of black political identity is invested in dispelling these lies. A part of identity formation is looking back to where you come from so you can define who you are. Though there are many obvious upsides to looking at the past and excavating the true history of African and indigenous contributions to world civilization, one downside is that black people can fall into some of the same mythologizing that plagues not only “white” history, but any formation of historical record.

In the long-fought discourse on the distinctions between history and memory, facts can be gained and lost, contextualized and misappropriated, unearthed and hidden—not solely based on their veracity, but for their serviceability. Mythologies spring from facts, yet they can destroy truth (fact and truth aren’t always the same, just like a photo of flower isn’t a flower).

Since I’ve been on Facebook (got on around 2007), I’ve seen folks post that black people are the real Jews, the real Asians, the real Muslims, the real Christians, the real Native Americans, that all Africa is Egypt, that all of Africa is Ethiopia, etc (even though the logic would follow that black people are the real Europeans too, but I don’t see that posted).

We can acknowledge that humanity came from Africa, while not erasing the histories of other ethnicities, cultures, etc. We can fight the falsehood of white supremacy without spreading and accepting half-truths, mistruths and (at times) disinformation uncritically.

The bitter, tragic irony is that much of contemporary discourse that tries to assert cultural superiority—which undergirds part of the anti-Semitism within the black community—is saturated with Eurocentric logic. I get scared that some prominent black folks who want to teach black pride and history (and are certainly justified in doing so) are doing so to supplant the myth of white superiority with the greatest hits of Pan-African history and presenting it as the sum total.

The irony is this is exactly what whiteness is: a curated list of European and U.S. accomplishments where the best parts are socialized to all white people, the worst parts are compartmentalized to specific groups (white people didn’t commit the Holocaust, Germans did), and any areas of collaboration or gradual innovation between races is erased (or formerly non-white racial groups are absorbed into whiteness).

I write all this to say there is a paradox embedded in how anti-Semitism is understood within the black community; a paradox that creates a thin line between anti-whiteness and anti-Semitism.

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