Thursday, April 03, 2008

In defense of celebrating black identity

Cross-posted at DovBear's blog

In 1994, National Review editor David Klinghoffer wrote a refreshingly candid piece about Orthodox Jewish racism. Klinghoffer is a baal teshuva1 who was shocked by the casual racism he encountered in the frum2 world. I mention his article now because it hits upon some of the themes that Obama covered in his race speech. While not condoning bigotry in any form, Klinghoffer argued that some of the bigotry coming from Jews should be understood in the context of their experiences, a consideration he did not extend to American Jews who denigrate blacks.

I began to wonder what Klinghoffer, as a conservative, is saying about Obama now. It turns out that he has defended Obama, sort of, but from a perspective I find highly problematic. In a recent article, he argues, "The Bible makes it clear...that God has chosen some races to teach important lessons to the rest of the world.... [W]hatever unique contribution Africans have to give to the world, it is not racist to suggest that a black church, even a black theology, could be a vehicle for making that contribution."

I think Klinghoffer isn't exercising anywhere near as much caution as he should in using the term "race." The Torah talks about different peoples. The ancient concept of a people is not equivalent to the modern concept of a race. What we call race arose largely as a means of establishing differences where there needn't be.

Klinghoffer was addressing the charge that a "black church" should be considered racist in the same sense that most of us would consider a "white church" to be. But his answer was inadequate. The main purpose of black pride is to raise up a group that has been pushed down.

Whatever the white power movement may insist, whites do not fall into that category. Individual white groups might; there's nothing wrong with ethnically Irish or Italian or Polish people having their own organizations to express pride in their heritage. But an organization for white people is a different matter. Whiteness is an elusive concept that tends to be defined as whatever is left over after you've excluded "other" groups. In practice, it usually ends up excluding many Caucasians.

Some people try to apply the same argument to blacks. Why should we recognize black or African identity at all? Why not talk instead about ethnic Nigerians and Kenyans and Ugandans? In a perfect world, this argument might hold water. But blacks were brought to this country by force and stripped of their previous ethnic identity. No matter where they came from in Africa, they ended up as one group, today known as African American.

You might ask why Obama, who is not descended from slaves, should be considered a part of this group. It's a good question. I will answer it with an anecdote from several years ago. Tiger Woods insisted he was not black but "Cablinasian," an acronym he coined to highlight the many races in his ancestry. Gregory Kane, a black conservative who writes for The Baltimore Sun, retorted that Woods should be given "the cab test": "Stand him on a street corner in any large American city and have him hail a cab. If he gets one, he's Cablinasian. If he doesn't, he's definitely black" (Apr. 27, 1997, pg. 1B).

For the vast majority of people, even those of mixed ancestry, racial identity is not a matter of choice. It is something thrust upon them. Let's get real: when most Americans look at Obama, they see a black man. The notion that he chose to call himself black to advance his career is preposterous.

Whatever you may think of hip hop music or contemporary inner-city culture, African Americans as a group have made significant positive contributions to America. They are as much a legitimate cultural group as Jews, Italians, Irish, and all the rest that make up this great country. Group identity of any kind has a danger of turning into chauvinism, and often does. But that's the price we pay for having a heterogeneous society. The solution is that people should learn to respect differences, not that they should stop having differences.

1returner to the faith

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