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by Myriam Miedzian Photo credit Pax Ahimsa Gethen
SLAVERY WAS AN OPPRESSION unique to black Americans, who are and have since the end of slavery been the victims of systematic and extreme racism. Other groups have suffered as well, but not remotely as severely. That is why the “People of Color” (PoC) phrase is problematic. It lumps together anyone with slightly darker-than-Caucasian skin color. Latinos from many lands, Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians,Dr. Myriam Miedzian (myriammiedzian.com) is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents. She is a former philosophy professor who writes frequently on social, cultural, and political issues, and is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence, among other books. An earlier version of this article was published by the Huffington Post; the author has revised it for Jewish Currents. Her last article for us was “Learning from the Trump Tragedy.”
Indonesians, and Indians are all included as PoC, on the grounds that they are bonded together by racist discrimination. But while Asians, for example, have been discriminated against in the U.S. — putting Japanese Americans in camps during World War II is probably the most flagrant 20th-century case — they do not share in the history of slavery or horrendous post-slavery racism, which prevailed throughout the U.S., most savagely in the South, until the civil rights movement put an end to at least some aspects of it. Yet racism continues to oppress black people in a unique way: The other groups included as PoC are not generally victims of police brutality, as African Americans are, or likely to be arrested on the slimmest grounds, as was Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was when he was having some trouble opening the front door to his house — and millions of their men are not locked up in American prisons.
Some Asians, including Indians, are among those who have taken issue with being included as PoC. On BDG, a website for LGBT People of Color, Janani, a young American from India asks, “Why do we keep using the phrase ‘communities of color’ as targets of police and state violence when we primarily mean Black and Latino folks?” Lumping everyone together as POC ”can mask our actual racial situations.” Among differences, Janani mentions, Indians have been the victims of colonialism, but they were not brought to the U.S. as slaves.
Almost every Asian country has suffered from colonialism enforced by violence and in some cases warfare that has taken native lives in the millions. Many Asian Americans carry this tragic familial history with them. Still, lumping all these diverse histories together makes little sense.
THE VIOLENCE IN CHARLOTTESVILLE brought to the fore the fact that the PoC concept may be problematic for Jews. Many of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville carried antisemitic signs such as “Jews are Satan’s Children” and “Jewish media is going down.” Reporters heard comments like “the fucking Jew-lovers are gassing us.” The leaders of the groups that organized the march have all come out with statements such as “never ever remove the bright shining light off of the Jew, for it is the Jew that is the true enemy of all humanity on this planet!” (This one is by “Commander” Jeff Schoep of the National Socialists.)
In spite of all this, in discussions of Charlottesville antisemitism is sometimes neglected. A recent conference I attended was typical: It included a multi-cultural and racial panel, but the talk was all about racism, with no mention of antisemitism. The same is true on TV, radio, and in the press: Antisemitism is rarely the primary focus.
I am far from alone in my frustration. When I asked a woman who works for a leading Jewish organization how she felt about this omission, she responded, “It drives me crazy.” When my local Jewish community center held a Charlottesville meeting, over three hundred people showed up. They were deeply upset and frightened by Charlottesville and by the increase in antisemitic acts around the country. I haven’t done a survey, but I would be very surprised if most of them didn’t feel deeply frustrated.
Since Jews are not People of Color — the oppressed group — antisemitism gets scant attention. This in spite of the fact that year after year, the FBI Uniform Crime reports reveal that Jews are by far the most frequent victims of religious hate crimes — in 2015, 52.1 percent were committed against Jews, followed by 21.9 percent against Muslims — and in spite of the fact that until well after World War II, many neighborhoods had real estate covenants excluding Jews. Hotel and restaurant signs saying “no Jews or dogs admitted” were not uncommon, and there were country clubs, corporations, and universities that quietly did not admit Jews. While this was not remotely on the same level as the prejudice that black people faced, antisemitism in the U.S. — with the murder of six million European Jews in the 1940s as backdrop — should not be ignored.
An alliance between white and black working-class people might make more sense than the PoC grouping. While poor white Americans may not suffer racial discrimination, they are hardly beneficiaries of white privilege. Some are far more economically oppressed than some People of Color, with inadequate employment and jobs without living-wage pay. Many work two or three jobs to make ends meet, have no medical coverage, and can’t afford decent housing or daycare for their children.
IN HIS BOOK, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance — whose parents moved from Jackson, Kentucky to industrialized Middletown, Ohio when he was a child — tells us that after reading William Julius Wilson’s book, The Truly Disadvantaged, about inner-city blacks, he wanted to write Wilson a letter to tell him that “he had described my home perfectly.” Both poor blacks and poor white Appalachians migrated north to factory jobs. When the factories closed down, a majority of both groups became unemployed, underemployed, and “truly disadvantaged.”
There are already numerous black organizations that focus on discrimination and the economic oppression of blacks. But in order to get their demands acted upon, they need broad political support, which they can only obtain through alliances with white voters.
Isn’t it time to drop the misguided People of Color hodgepodge? How about a Truly Disadvantaged Alliance (TDA)?