By now we’ve all heard: ABC has suspended co-host Whoopi Goldberg from View after saying that the Holocaust “isn’t about race” because it was “white people doing it to white people”.
Scroll #whoopi on Twitter and you’ll see how this controversy is shot — as evidence of Whoopi’s anti-Semitism, the racist double standards of cancel culture, and as another whitewash of the Holocaust.
But Whoopi only said what most Americans believe: race is about skin color and Jews are white. After all, the US Census Bureau defines race in terms of color – “Black” and “White” are two different boxes – and Jews are expected to tick the second.
The irony of punishing Whoopi for expressing dominant ideas shows how confused we are about race and how it has historically been used to organize power and justify discrimination.
What is racing? It’s not a fact, nor just a matter of skin color, say sociologist Karen Fields and historian Barbara Fields in their book Coursecraft. It is an invented thing that people impose on others without their consent, as a matter of power.
Historically, race has been used to establish hierarchies that determine who matters most, who gets the nicest things, and who is allowed to do what in a given society, including living or dying. While race can be an illusion, the Fields argue, racism is not. It’s a social practice – something racist To do to others. Scholars may argue whether Jews are a distinct race or not, but that was not the question in Nazi Germany.
The 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws defined “Jew” not in terms of religious faith, but in terms of blood, as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents. These laws made being Jewish “innate, indelible and immutable”, the definition of racist ideology given by historian George Frederickson in his book Racism. The Nazis found inspiration for their racist laws in the United States, the world leader in racial law in the 1930s.
As revealed by James Q. Whitman in Hitler’s American model, the Nazis admired America for its success in “excluding certain races” from citizenship. Today in America, Jews may be considered “white”, but as David Roediger recounts in Work towards whiteness Jewish immigrants were not “white when they arrived” in America in the late 1800s. The WASP ruling elite racialized their perceived deficiencies – poverty, strange religious practices, oversized families – and categorized Jews, as well as Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants, as not white but “in between”.
It had little to do with skin color. Nor was it like the “harsh” Jim Crow racist exclusion that black Americans suffered, according to Roediger. It was also temporary: gradually, Jewish immigrants were able, thanks to labor reforms and the New Deal, to buy houses in the suburbs and “go white”. But assimilation has a price. It required Jews to conform to racial norms by changing how they dressed, what they ate, and even how they worshipped.
So it involved a lot of ambivalence and loss, as historian Eric Goldstein recounts in The price of whiteness. It’s understandable that Whoopi’s comments upset some at this time of rising anti-Semitism. American elected officials are making anti-Semitic remarks that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
The FBI reports that Jews are the main target of anti-religious hate crimes in America. And school leaders in some places have tried to whitewash Holocaust history, as seen last week at the college in Tennessee banning the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. Maus.
But Whoopi said things that most Americans believe and that reflect how the US government categorizes its citizens. Rather than condemning one person’s speech, we need to understand how racist logic structures our beliefs and our common institutions, and build solidarities to allow us to escape this system that holds us all captive.
There is another irony to this situation, with the Maus controversy also in the news at the same time. Maus concerns, among other things, Jewishness and race. The animal allegory represents Nazi racist logic. At one point, Spiegelman shows concern that his portrayal of his father is too much of an anti-Semitic caricature – a racist projection. And the epigraph of the book is from Hitler himself, on this subject: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”
Eileen Kane is a historian of modern Europe who works on the racialization of Jews. She teaches history at Connecticut College.
Lina Wilder specializes in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and performance studies. She teaches English at Connecticut College.