By: Mark H. Lazerson
Having smashed the numerous legal barriers impeding formal racial, ethnic, and gender equality, the 1960s civil rights revolution left many Americans expecting more racial and ethnic harmony. Many realistically believed that the prophecies of civil rights’ martyr Reverend Martin Luther King of an America judging its citizens by the content of their character and not their ascribed identities was now within reach. And indeed there has been unimaginable progress, which is best captured by growing white acceptance of Afro-Americans as actual and putative marriage partners. Between 1980 and 2008 black and white intermarriage rates tripled.
And between 1990 to 2008 white approval of interracial marriage between family members and close friends rose from 35% to 75%. Confirmation of this quiet interracial revolution is seen every day in advertising images of interracial couples and interracial children. Perhaps these unspoken changes foretold Barack Hussein Obama’s first presidential victory, where in a feat accomplished by no other Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide election, he also corralled a majority of the nation’s white voters. His presidency along with the universal acceptance in both Britain and North America of Prince Harry’s marriage to his black fiancée should have constituted a new chapter in America’s post racial history.
But paradoxically the post racial president himself dashed such hopes. A few months into his presidency, when asked about the recent arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates in front of his home, President Obama unaware at the time of the facts said, “The Cambridge police acted stupidly.” The next day he reminded the country how “race remains a factor in our society” and of the reality of “African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.” A few years later he seized upon a violent incident in a Florida condominium that left a black teenager dead following a scuffle with a young volunteer Hispanic security guard having a German surname, to pontificate: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”
So how can it be that when the vast majority of white American whites are willing to invite blacks into the most intimate spaces of their lives that they are accused of living in a racist country? And it is not only the former president who says this. Most of the mass media, opinion-shaping intellectuals and writers, the Hollywood media machine, universities, and other elites who shape public narratives about race share his views. So how can these elites be so oblivious to reams of data demonstrating the exact opposite?
This is just one many similar questions that political correctness in recent decades has tried to censor. But now they are courageously and lucidly answered in Identity and Prejudice, authored by former Princeton University professor of economics Farrell Bloch. Bloch’s brief answer to the previous question is that an opinion-molding elite is pushing multicultural identity politics to replace the universal values for which America has long strived.
Well-footnoted and argued, measured and balanced in tone and carefully non-polemical, Bloch allows readers to draw their own conclusions. But not just about questions concerning white prejudice or discrimination about blacks, issues that constitute only a small part of the book. Rather the author is far more ambitious, casting a larger net that really makes it a book about the very disparate responses and reactions to bias and discrimination depending upon the ethnic or racial group.
While civil rights protections have been intended to be a shield to protect the weak, increasingly they are used by some groups as a sword to vitiate democracy. Framing the issue in this way he considers not only AfroAmericans, but Caucasians, Muslims, Asians, Hispanics and of course Jews, still targeted by the world’s oldest, most successful and protean hatred: antisemitism. And because antisemitism today inevitably implicates Israel, Bloch notes how many of those ever sensitive to bias of any kind apply a different yardstick to that country and its Jewish victims. Regularly they demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state and rationalize the murder of its civilians by Arab terrorists.
Jews also provide a good example of radical differences among minority groups in the response to discrimination against them. Here Bloch makes an original contribution in trying to solve the puzzle of why some self-identified Jews – those who may attend synagogue, send their children to Jewish schools, and may even be Israeli citizens — are openly opposed to Israel, not to specific policies of the government but to its very existence. While acknowledging that some of these Jews are swayed to oppose Israel for the same arguments that lead non-Jews to oppose it, he uncovers eight possible sources embedded in what he deems “peculiarly Jewish characteristics,” although he concedes that the last five categories may also influence the attitudes of non-Jews to Israel.
They are: “(1) Benefits that accrue within the wider non-Jewish society; (2) objections based on unusual interpretations of Judaism; (3) excessive self-criticism including bearing disproportionate liability for conflict; (4) sympathy for others; (5) accepting a stricter standard of behavior not required of other groups; (6) a somewhat sheltered life that cannot imagine the passionate militancy and potential violence underlying opposition to Israel in particular and Jews in general; (7) factors associated with advanced education; and (8) an expressed overreaction as a means of criticizing Israeli leaders.”
While Bloch’s discussion of all these points is too extensive to summarize here, it is worth commenting on a few to underscore his argument showing how Jews often react differently to bias and discriminatory attacks launched by outsiders, an approach at loggerheads with the Muslim attitude of brooking no public dissent from within their community when criticized by the non-Muslim majority, no matter how egregious the acts committed by their members. But rather than repulsing attacks against Israel, some Jews choose to find fault with it instead. Perhaps hoping that if only Israel changed its ways, the Arabs would tolerate a Jewish presence on land that all of Islam considers holy.
This posture may serve to ingratiate Jews among the non-Jewish majority because they will appear less parochial in defending what may be regarded as narrow, sectoral interests. And as the sizeable Tikkun Olam (repair the world) crowd regularly demonstrates Jewish scripture does offer some support for those Jews concerned about the vulnerable other,, the “stranger in their land,” although it is a stretch to consider Palestinian Arabs as the weakling within the perspective of the larger Israeli-Arab conflict. After all, they enjoy various kinds of political and financial support from 300 million others living in 22 Arab states , as well as from 35 additional Islamic states, the UN and the EU .
A corollary of this last theme is the argument that Jews’ historic victimization and oppression requires them unlike others to be especially wary of treating others unfairly. And then the Prophet Isaiah’s quote taken out of context about “Israel being a light until the nations” also serves to further justify the behavior of those Jews who desert their community claiming loyalty to a higher goal. The advanced education point also merits a brief discussion because of the disproportionately high number of highly educated Jews, especially those who have studied at elite universities, where anti-Israel sentiment is palpable. Even when these Jews are Jewishly involved, regular interactions with the many elites who view Israelis as comfortably-off white oppressors of poor, brown-skinned people makes it difficult for them to not join the choir against the Jewish state.
In conclusion Identity and Prejudice provides a sharp, intellectual weapon to protect against encroaching political correctness. Do place it on your bookshelf!
Mark H. Lazerson is a Visiting Research Professor of Organizations, Department of Management, University of Bologna, Italy and a New York attorney.