Antiracism and Antisemitism

with Bari Weiss

Last month, the Manhattan Institute invited Bari Weiss and me to participate in an online discussion about the relationship between two growing trends in the U.S.: antiracism and antisemitism. It was a productive and at times provocative conversation. We ranged from midcentury antisemitism in Chicago to the recent conflict in Gaza, from Gayle King and Michelle Obama to Alice Walker’s regrettable antisemitic statements.

In other words, we had a lot to talk about. You’ll find a video of the conversation below, as well as a short transcript where we address the uncomfortable issue of antisemitic and anti-Asian acts perpetrated by Black people.

GLENN LOURY: Okay, so here is what the defenders of the current movement of antiracism, I think, are going to be quick to say. There are systemic and structural dynamics at work, not only the attitudes of individual persons or expressions of enmity or hatred at the level of people dealing with each other that are at play.

We could give some examples of it. The rise of incarceration and of the heavy hand of punitive response to social disfunction and bad behavior could never have progressed as far as it did through the end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century if the people on the butt end of it had not been of color, had not being Black and brown people. The political system would have responded very differently in the event that they had more sympathy for or identification with the people who were suffering. It was very easy to see them as others and then to allow not any single act of oppression or discrimination, but an entire systemic structure of law and policy to go way beyond the point of diminishing returns with the consequence of criminalization, et cetera, et cetera.

They're going to say that the economic overhang of generations of dispossession, enslavement, discrimination, Jim Crow and so forth still manifest themselves in the lives of people. These too are not individual acts of discrimination or hatred. These are systemic dynamics. They're going to say you can't get at the consequences of this structure and this history without, first of all, acknowledging it, without accepting the fact that it is deeply, deeply racial and is embedded within the expectations and the outlook of American society, and fighting it in ways that require you not to look away from race or to be neutral about race.

This is what they're going to say. I'm not making this argument on my own account. I'm simply reciting what I know they're going to say. I want to hear how you respond to it. Without deep structural intervention that goes far beyond what the anti-discrimination laws of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act and so forth require still has an agenda that remains incomplete. I haven’t reached the question of antisemitism yet, but I am talking about systemic racism here. I'm wondering how you respond to that.

BARI WEISS: I guess how I respond is, first of all, by acknowledging the fact that I believe that this country was born in an original sin. And that sin, unlike in Europe, did not have to do with hating Jews. It had to do with slavery and the oppression, dehumanization, over enslavement, second-class citizenship over centuries against Black Americans. That's true. That's true. The question is, how do we remedy that? Do we remedy that by basically taking the old—not to be glib—but the old caste system that has existed not just in America, but let's say in Western civilization for thousands of years, in which, you know, Brad Pitt and Jon Hamm are at the very top and the Black transgender disabled woman is at the very bottom.

And that has been with us for a very long time. Is the solution to that to flip it on its head and say, in order to repair that longstanding historical oppression, inequality, et cetera, et cetera, we need to kind of flip it on its head. And we need to essentially punish the Brad Pitts and Jon Hamms and give a major leg up to the people who were once at the bottom.

I just fundamentally believe that we should be fighting for a world in which there are no caste systems, in which people are judged based on their individual merit and character, in which we move away from the social construct of race rather than reifying it. I don't see how you look at history and believe that making people absolutely fixated on their immutable characteristics and telling them that those immutable characteristics have incredible power, that that leads to anywhere good. And that's what I see happening at its most dangerous. Would you agree with that?

Yeah. I substantially agree with it. I agree that the the cast of mind that sees the disadvantaged situation of African Americans—I speak of African Americans, you could extend this to other groups, but let me speak of African Americans—that sees our overrepresentation amongst those at the bottom of society and poverty—in prison—underrepresentation at the top of society, so many places where there are relatively few Blacks. A cast of mind that sees that circumstance in terms that you were describing, in terms of essentializing the race of people and sees all of these disparities as, in one way or another, an expression of white supremacist domination is extremely dangerous to the liberal project. Because it does pit us against each other at the end of the day.

I speak now as an economist, as a social scientist. It seems to me that disparities between groups—one thinks of Thomas Sowell's extensive writing on this question—are everywhere. Everywhere in the world that you look, you don't see even representation of various ethnicities and racial-ethnic groups, in positions of power or wealth or within the professions or whatever. You see disparities. You see inequalities. I think these are inevitable, given that groups are themselves distinct with respect to their traditions and their culture and their habits and practices and so on. Not everyone is going to be represented to the same degree in entertainment or in athletics or in the sciences or in the professions, so forth and so on. Not all the groups. And there's no reason to expect that that would be so, even in a society that is absolutely completely fair.

So I do worry about this and I have taken up some effort to try to articulate my concerns. I also think that one consequence of a fixation on group disparities understood to be the necessary consequence of oppression or racism is that the groups that do well come under suspicion. Their success will be thought to be the flip side of the disadvantage of the groups that do poorly. If African Americans that are underrepresented in this or that venue because of systemic racism and Jews are, let's say, overrepresented in those very same venues, how could it be otherwise but that the overrepresentation of the Jews is somehow the bitter fruit, the necessary consequence of that very system of oppression that excludes African-Americans?

And that delegitimation of the success of groups that do well is very, very dangerous, it strikes me. It does fuel resentment, envy, and a kind of antipathy that can easily express itself in violence. So yes, I have these concerns.

Just to pick up on what you're saying, Glenn, I think if everything is viewed through this kind of flattening, two-dimensional, racialized lens, it makes sense, for example, that when Jews are attacked by white supremacists, as they were in my hometown, in the synagogue where I became a bat mitzvah in Pittsburgh—the most lethal attack on Jews in American history—or when mobs march in Charlottesville with tiki torches, shouting “Jews will not replace us,” everyone could acknowledge and see that for what it is. There's moral clarity on that subject because the victimizers are white supremacists. They're from the bad group. And we don't need to have a Talmudic debate about what "Jews will not replace us" means.

But what happens when the attackers themselves come from groups that, in this view of the world and in reality, are themselves also victims? What happens when the attacker is a Black teenager in the streets of Brooklyn, or to take the example of Asian-Americans, there is this torquing, there's this contortion in which we need to frame all of the attacks going on right now, the horrible spike in hate crimes in cities like San Francisco and New York City as being the work of the neo-Nazi bands that are trolling the streets of Manhattan and San Francisco?

No. I mean, it dumbs everything down, and it just veils the truth in a way that I think is incredibly dangerous. Just from inside the Jewish community, it's a moral gimme to condemn neo-Nazis. It becomes much harder to condemn someone like Ilhan Omar or to condemn someone like Tamika Mallory, an acolyte of Louis Farrakhan, who basically has gone from being one of the leaders of the Women's March to now she's in a Cadillac commercial which kind of tells you everything …

This is America [laughs]. But I hear you.

It's like in this system of thinking, people get cancelled and never work again for a microaggression. And yet you can be an acolyte of Louis Farrakhan and appear in a commercial for a luxury car. That kind of tells you something about the placement of antisemitism or Jew hate and how it ranks in this view of the world. It doesn't count. That's the point.

Yeah, I agree with what you're saying here. I am thinking. I grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ‘60s. There were Jewish landlords and shopkeepers in the neighborhood where my family was living. There was a part of town, Maxwell Street on the Near West Side of the city that was called, unselfconsciously, Jewtown. That's what they called it—I'm sorry—because if you wanted to buy a suit and you wanted it well-tailored and you didn't want to spend a lot of money—I'm sorry, forgive me—you went to Jewtown to buy the suit.

I'm cancelling you for everything you're saying right now [laughs].

This was the 1950s and ‘60s. This we me growing up as a kid reporting to you the view from the Black ghetto.

I'm kidding.

I know. I'm not defending myself. I'm just saying Louis Farrakhan has a home in Chicago. I mean, this is ground zero. You know who Nathan Glazer was, the great sociologist?

Of course.

Of course you do. I can remember having a conversation with him about this 30 years ago, where he was saying, “You know, In the fifties and sixties, when I was growing up as a kid, there were a lot of working class Jews in the center of urban America. They were landlords and shopkeepers. They were also artisans. And they were just cab drivers and truck drivers.” He says a big thing that happened over the 25 years after is that Jews moved out to the suburbs, Jews moved up the ladder of social status in America and were replaced by other groups—relatively recent immigrants and so forth—in that position. Cheek by jowl on the streets of a big city. And so resentment of rich Jews, resentment of Jewish landlords who want their rent—why shouldn't they want their rent?—resentment of the shopkeeper who's cutting a corner because he or she is trying to make a buck would be attached to the Jewishness of the shopkeeper. And Nat was pointing out that, well, whereas that was the case a half century ago, much less and much less and much less so today. So the very nature of this conflict is shifting.

And do you think that that position is now being played by Asian Americans?

Yes, to some degree. I mean, there are many, many different kinds of Asian Americans. So be mindful of the complexity of it. But Blacks are moving out of the inner city as well. Most Blacks are living in the suburbs these days. It's a completely different landscape than it was in the mid-twentieth century.

But what I was going for is you've got underdogs here. You've got people who feel like they're on the losing end of American history. They're embittered. One of the reasons I think people are not so quick to point out the racial coloration of some of the anti-Asian and anti-Jewish violence is that they don't want to punch down. They don't want to “blame the victim.” They want to be understanding of the frustration and of the anger and so forth. So it becomes difficult.

And moreover, the larger narrative of Donald Trump—the advent and the demise of Donald Trump, the whole struggle about Donald Trump—seems to play into this, doesn't it? That is to say, the president is a racist, he's a head of a racist movement. The people who fall for him are white supremacists, we have to see them as outside the orbit of any kind of moral respectability. And when that narrative resonates with an anti-Jewish attack, people will seize upon it. When that narrative runs across an anti-Jewish attack, runs into conflict with it, people would downplay it because it doesn't advance the underlying storyline. I don't know if you would agree with that or not, but so it seems to me.