2 February 2022
Racism, Colour and the Jews
A lack of understanding.
By Lynda Goetz
I have no personal axe to grind here. I am white, middle-class and (as far as I am aware, although my grandfather was an economic migrant from Hungary before World War I) with no Jewish blood. The media storm whipped up by Whoopi Goldberg’s comments on the Holocaust deserves discussion, however, particularly in the light of a number of other recent issues around racism and anti-Semitism.
Ms Goldberg, as most people are probably by now aware, made the comments, for which she has since apologised, on Monday’s episode of The View, an American TV programme. The conversation in which she was participating was about the controversial banning by a Tennessee school board of a book called Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. Goldberg insisted several times that ‘The Holocaust was not about race’ but about ‘Man’s inhumanity to Man’ and ‘how people treat each other’. In her apology she stated that ‘As a black person I think of race as something I can see’. She is not alone in her misconception.
Although ‘ignorance’ was a word which appeared numerous times in the social media storm which followed, it would seem to be a strange word to apply to the academics at Cambridge University; and yet they too appeared at one point to think of racism as ‘something they could see’. Last summer a new ‘Code of Behaviour, Grievance Policy’ and ‘Mutual Respect Policy’ were drafted to replace an existing ‘Dignity at Work Policy’ at the university. In it, apart from a shopping list of ‘micro-aggressions’ which were to be determined only by the subjective perception of the ‘victim’ irrespective of any intention on behalf of the perpetrator, there was a definition of racism which would have been understood by Ms Goldberg and so many like her but to which many others understandably took exception. Racism, it stated, was “a system where [sic] people from racially minoritised [sic] backgrounds are more likely than white people to face multiple obstacles in life, from being targets of direct or indirect discrimination and [sic] micro-aggressions.” This definition suggests that white staff or students could not be subjected to any racially motivated abuse, and that those from ‘minoritised’ backgrounds were incapable of any form of racial abuse. This arises from the American ‘Critical Race Theory’ which basically asserts that race is ‘a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour.’
Cambridge University, faced with ridicule in the press and a great deal of opposition from within the university itself, withdrew completely the ‘Culture of Change’ documents and indeed Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope has since resigned. The origins of these documents and the authority for them to be posted online without proper consultation were questioned, and the general intolerance within universities to views which oppose their Left-wing ideology is being challenged by the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill currently going through Parliament. Nevertheless, the fact that such an august institution as Cambridge University could conflate racism with Critical Race Theory makes it easier to understand how a Black person from the US, like Ms Goldberg, could make the same mistake. To her, it was somehow inconceivable, until confronted and she realised her mistake, that one white race could somehow be guilty of treating with discrimination another white race.
Unfortunately, the way racism has been discussed and reported recently has exacerbated and reinforced this thinking. Last week the BBC gave a ‘non-apology’ for their reporting of an incident where a bus full of young Jews out celebrating Hanukkah in November last year was attacked in Oxford Street by a group of Muslims. The way this was reported by the BBC suggested the young Jewish people had shouted racial slurs at the Muslims. This remains unsubstantiated. An investigation by the Executive Complaints Unit only partially upheld complaints about the lack of accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s report, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Campaign against Anti-Semitism both expressed dismay at the lack of a full apology and welcomed Ofcom’s decision to launch its own enquiry. At least one journalist expressed concern about anti-Semitic or at least anti-Israel attitudes at the BBC.
The extent of anti-Semitism within the Labour party brought about the downfall of Jeremy Corbyn and one does not need to be a historian to be aware that historically the Jewish race has suffered persecution down the ages. The rise of global anti-Semitism over the past few decades has been noted and reported on in a number of quarters and in 2021 various institutions have reported the highest number of incidents of anti-Semitism in the UK since such recordings began. However, many people do not regard anti-Semitism as racism, rather perhaps as religious intolerance. David Baddiel, the comedian who has written a book called ‘Jews Don’t Count’, appeared on GB news to discuss Ms Goldberg’s comments and this was one of the points he highlighted. As he pointed out, ’the Nazis were not interested in faith; they were interested in racial purity… The Nazis’ persecution of Jews was explicitly racial, rather than religious. “Judenpolitik” targeted not only practising Jews but also people who had converted to Christianity, and those with Jewish grandparents’.
The rise in anti-Semitism is in many ways very strange, given the heightened awareness of racism in general. Perceptions of what actually constitutes racism are also complex. In its most simplistic definition, racism is ‘prejudice or discrimination directed at someone of a different race – based on the belief that your own race is superior’. However, it has come to be accepted by many that ‘white supremacy’, ‘white privilege’, ‘structural racism’ and simply the way history has played out means that ‘reverse racism’ is not really possible – in other words that Blacks cannot be racist, even if they can experience ‘racial prejudice’. Racial prejudice is not considered, by many academics at least, to be racism, because of the systemic relationship to power. In other words, ‘Reverse racism is a myth because it attempts to ignore the power/privilege dynamic between the individuals/groups involved’. Whether or not you subscribe to these views, or whether you agree with the school of thought which considers that even if racism is ‘prejudice plus power’ it is still perfectly possible for races other than whites to have power in different scenarios, there is little doubt that the Holocaust was absolutely about racism. In a book entitled ‘I’m Not a Racist but…’ and subtitled ‘The Moral Quandary of Race’, Lawrence Blum, Professor of Philosophy and Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, examines the issue in detail. It makes for thoughtful reading. It does, though, focus on the United States concept and attitudes to race and as the author states in chapter 6 ‘Race’: A Brief History, ‘History shows, moreover, how the U.S. conception of race is virtually unique among conceptions of cultural and somatic diversity’.
This is something that here in Britain and in Europe we need always to keep in mind when considering racism. It is probably also the factor which should allow us, like David Baddiel, perhaps to understand where Whoopi Goldberg was coming from when she so forcefully expressed her opinion on the Holocaust this week.
Cover page image: Pixabay