Thursday, May 22, 2008

express contempt for rural white ignorance, and give elderly jewish ignorance a pass

[Update: see the end of this post for Sarah Silverman's take on the issues discussed in this post]

As recent images of voters in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky have demonstrated, rural white Americans are often racist, xenophobic, ignorant people. Many are not, but as we are repeatedly told, many are.

What we are not repeatedly told is that many older Jewish Americans hold similar views.

As I’ve written before, Americans have been steered away from understanding and sympathizing with the problems of the white working class, and encouraged instead to either laugh at or heap contempt on them. On the other hand, when we hear about elderly Jewish Americans, we often receive other helpful, explanatory information, about such things as their traumatizing connection to the Holocaust and their fondness for Israel.

As a result of the different frameworks in which discussion of these two groups of people are commonly presented—one decontextualized, the other contextualized—we tend to hold the former up for contempt and ridicule as ignorant inbreds, and the latter for admiration and sympathy as the noble, stalwart victims of a horrifically traumatizing collective experience.

But as James Pence explains in the following minute or so, rural whites, along with other Americans, have been traumatized as well. Or “terrorized”--that might be a good word too:

Because it’s an election season, and because Hillary Clinton has been making open appeals to rural and working-class white voters, many selectively edited interviews of rural white people have been circulating online, over email, and in the corporate media. “I’m not a racist,” such interviewees often say, looking away from the staring camera. “But I’ll never vote for Obama, because he’s, you know, not one of us. Not white. If we’re not careful, next thing you know, we’ll be sitting in the back of the bus.”

Again, contempt and ridicule usually motivate the sender, poster, or TV pundit who's asking us to watch these people express their views, and the expected response is more contempt and ridicule. Rarely are we asked to understand the increasingly oppressive economic and educational conditions that help to explain such views.

Now that both Democratic candidates are campaigning heavily in Florida, I wonder if the response to the similarly racist and ignorant views of many elderly Jewish American voters will receive similar circulation, and similar scorn and ridicule. If so—if, that is, ridicule and scorn is okay for one group, but not for the other—then why is that the case?

Today’s New York Times offers an article full of potential fodder for emails, video postings, and TV interviews about the ignorance of many elderly Jewish American voters. In her article, reporter Jodi Kantor summarizes her recent interviews with such voters in Florida. As Kantor candidly reveals, many of the views they express are remarkably similar to those expressed by rural white voters. They’re also just as remarkably ignorant.

As Kantor writes, the following beliefs are common in this voting block:

Mr. Obama is Arab, Jack Stern’s friends told him in Aventura. (He’s not.)

He is a part of Chicago’s large Palestinian community, suspects Mindy Chotiner of Delray. (Wrong again.)

Mr. Wright is the godfather of Mr. Obama’s children, asserted Violet Darling in Boca Raton. (No, he’s not.)

Al Qeada is backing him, said Helena Lefkowicz of Fort Lauderdale (Incorrect.)

Michelle Obama has proven so hostile and argumentative that the campaign is keeping her silent, said Joyce Rozen of Pompano Beach. (Mrs. Obama campaigns frequently, drawing crowds in her own right.)

Mr. Obama might fill his administration with followers of Louis Farrakhan, worried Sherry Ziegler. (Extremely unlikely, given his denunciation of Mr. Farrakhan.)

It’s important to note that just prior to offering this list, Kantor tempers its evidence of blatant ignorance with some explanation for why such beliefs exist: “Because of a dispute over moving the date of the state’s primary, Mr. Obama and the other Democratic candidates did not campaign in Florida. In his absence, novel and exotic rumors about Mr. Obama have flourished.”

Had Obama campaigned in the state, Kantor suggests, he would have readily dispelled such misconceptions about himself. This suggestion begs a question—do a large percentage of older Jewish people in other parts of the country hold similar views?

For me, though, the issue here is not whether elderly Jewish American voters are as ignorant about a black candidate as rural white voters are. Rather, it's the disparate handlings of two similar voting blocks. I don’t think either group should be held up for scorn and ridicule because of their views, but one usually is, and the other is usually not. We also usually receive tempering explanations for the views of one group, but little such contextualization for those of the other.

Most elderly Jewish people are worlds apart from most rural white people, but both communities traditionally vote Democratic, and both harbor many uninformed views about a black presidential candidate. Including a common unwillingness to vote for him simply because he's black.

On this last point, Kantor also writes the following:

"The people here, liberal people, will not vote for Obama because of his attitude towards Israel," Ms. Weitz, 83, said, lingering over brunch.

"They're going to vote for McCain," she said.

Ms. Grossman, 80, agreed with her friend's conclusion, but not her reasoning.

"They'll pick on the minister thing, they'll pick on the wife, but the major issue is color," she said, quietly fingering a coffee cup. Ms. Grossman said she was thinking of voting for Mr. Obama, who is leading in the delegate count for the nomination, as was Ms. Weitz.

But Ms. Grossman does not tell the neighbors. "I keep my mouth shut," she said. . . .

Some of the resistance to Mr. Obama's candidacy seems just as rooted in anxiety about race as in anxiety about Israel. At brunch in Boynton Beach, Bob Welstein, who said he was in his 80s, said so bluntly. "Am I semi-racist? Yes," he said.

Decades earlier, on the west side of Chicago, his mother was mugged and beaten by a black assailant, he said. It was "a beautiful Jewish neighborhood" -- until black residents moved in, he said.. . .

Jack Stern, 85, sitting alone at an outdoor café in Aventura on Sunday, said he was no racist. When he was liberated from a concentration camp in 1945, black American soldiers were kinder than white ones, handing out food to the emaciated Jews, he said.

Years later, after he opened a bakery in Brooklyn, "I got disgusted, because they killed Jews," he said, citing neighborhood crimes committed by African-Americans. "I shouldn't say it, but it is what it is," said Mr. Stern, who vowed not to vote for Mr. Obama.

Some analysts see the widespread, stereotyping, scornful laughter commonly aimed at rural white folks as the last acceptable form of racism. This may be an accurate label, but since this laughter and scorn is not directed at all white people, but rather at a downtrodden class of people, a more accurate label is “classism.”

In fact, while I usually like Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show," I think “classist” is an accurate label for his participation, in the first two minutes or so of the following clip, in more of the same tired, decontextualized ridicule and contempt for rural white voters.

Here, then, is what I’m finally wondering. Since many elderly Jewish voters hold similarly uninformed views—views which, like those of rural white voters, could be accounted for by a more contextualizing framework for such stories—will Stewart and others hold them up for ridicule and scorn as well?* If not, why not? If one is okay, why isn’t the other?

*Of course, Stewart himself is quite openly Jewish, so he might be less likely than others to hold up Jewish elders for ridicule and scorn. Again, though, I don’t expect any other media outlets to do so either. And to be perfectly clear, I hope they don’t. I just wish they also wouldn’t do so with rural white voters.

[dnA at Too Sense responds to a video-report on rural white voters in Kentucky that appeared on Al Jazeera. As dnA notes, that network offers a somewhat more sympathetic, contextualizing understanding of the roots of white rural fear of a black president. And via Season of the Bitch, an article by Howard Salter from a month or so ago on the ironic spread of misinformation among Jewish Americans.]

UPDATE (9/30/08): Sarah Silverman opines (in her usual NSFWish way) on this topic:


  1. There seem to have always been two types of Jewish feelings on racism: one, which I identify strongly with, feels that as a part of a people that experienced genocide and racism, it's our job to fight it wherever it occurs (witness large Jewish participation in civil rights movement).

    the other, unfortunately, seems to have learned absolutely nothing other than the need to assimilate.

    I immediately got defensive on seeing the title of your post, though.

    Which, of course, is the same thing that happens to people when they hear rumors about Obama disliking white people.

    (BTW, does the whole Obama-hates-whitey thing remind you of the ever-present rumors that this or that or the other hip-hop star hates white people? Lauryn Hill is the first one that comes to mind...)

    and finally: blogged this here, and there's an interesting link in there to a Politico article calling Jews out on this very thing.

    and keep your eyes peeled on Racialicious for something on the topic as well.

  2. Macon D, are you Jewish? And/or are you in the rural white group?

    I ask because: I'd be much more interested in first seeing this kind of conversation among white Jews, rural white people, and people of color from various groups (in whatever way discussions like that would make sense) -- rather than having it started off with white non-rural Christians involved doing that white Christian liberal "benign mediator-critic" thing that comes up so often when talking about white Jews and race/racism.

    Your profile identifies you as white but doesn't say anything about these other 2 groups. So could you say more about where you're actually located in relation to these groups?

  3. Hi Michelle, I'm not Christian and I'm further to the left than liberal, but I'm also non-rural and non-Jewish.

    Would you mind letting us know if there's something about my post itself, or if you insist, about me, that has that objectionable "benign-mediator-critic" smell to it?

    If rural whites and Jewish folks want to carry on the conversation here in the comments, or transport it to other blogs, that's fine with me.

    Sarah, thanks for the link, that does look useful. I hope the defensiveness you initially felt upon seeing the post's title turned out to be a good thing.

  4. Macon, many white, well-educated wealthy people are isolated from poc's due to their economic status - or only know poc's who serve them -- hence they are as racist as rural whites. Let's not forget that ppl practicing hiring discrimination, denying bank loans, and providing inferior healthcare to blacks are all educated affluent whites.

  5. The discourse concerning the two groups of people is often troubling and the commonality of ignorance is even more depressing. Let us not forget that ignorance should be regarded as an condition, as opposed to a traditional excuse. That is to say, both rural whites and Jewish people often time subscribe to be a level of ignorance that is difficult to reverse. Hence the characterization of it as a condition. The question becomes: how are we to begin reversing the condition? If rural whites and Jewish people do not have the same values, and perhaps experiences of oppression, as other groups (i.e. African Americans) then Senator Obama could find himself in a compromising situation. That is, in attempts to affirm the vitality of one group, he might consciously or unconsciously alienate another. This is evidenced in the way in which Senator Obama, and indeed modern American presidents, deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When visiting with the Jewish community, Obama affirms the vitality of Israel which sends a message to the Palestinians that he "favors" Israel. Such discourse merely affirms the condition of ignorance that has become endemic of some Jewish people. They are ignorant to the fact that their perspective of Palestinian people contributes to the prolonged violence we have observed. Similarly, Senator Obama's characterization of his Pastor falls under the same umbrella of alienation as he, on the one hand, affirms the vitality of the historical perspective of African Americans, which is represented in his former pastor while engaging in pathological practices in the way in which he denounces Pastor Wright. Thus, Senator Obama may be in for an uphill battle as he tries to reverse the condition of ignorance which is so pervasive in this society.

  6. Gregory,

    I appreciate your statement here and what you said in the
    "prefer hillary clinton because she's White" thread. You're one of the few people I've seen making this point:

    Senator Obama's characterization of his Pastor falls under the same umbrella of alienation as he, on the one hand, affirms the vitality of the historical perspective of African Americans, which is represented in his former pastor while engaging in pathological practices in the way in which he denounces Pastor Wright.

  7. Macon D, thanks for the answer.

    You say you are not Christian, which I have learned can be an individual-level statement about belief. So one more question -- are you Christian-ancestry in your family, heritage etc even if you don't individually identify as Christian? (I ask because many white non-Jewish people tend to be Christian ancestry, since Europe was so Christian. But maybe your family and heritage is different than that?)

    I do think there is a sort of smell (good word!) to where you're coming from that felt to me like the white Christian or white Christian-ancestry vibe. This dynamic, to me, exists beyond individual identification as Christian-religious. I know this is kind of weird from a Christian perspective where individual choice is the thing; to me it is not individual but collective and about ancestry also.

    Anyway, the white Christian benign mediator-critic thing -- yeah, I don't know, I could be wrong, but there something off to me in the smell of your post. The content is ok, but the smell is off anyway.

    There's this thing that white Christian/white Christian-ancestry people tend to do when these issues come up -- it's very subtle and easily ignored because it usually isn't just content. I don't really know how best to name it/describe it though. Which is frustrating to me.

    And, sorry about the liberal part. I was unconsciously using categories from my girlfriend who is white, Christian-ancestry and raised Southern Baptist -- she means something by "liberal Christian" that probably incorrectly incorporates those who are to the left of liberal.

  8. Yes Michelle, like every other non-Jewish white American I know, there is some Christianity in my ancestral past. If you can't say any more about how or why that makes my post smelly to you, only that it does, then I guess I won't either.

  9. "I'd be much more interested in first seeing this kind of conversation among white Jews, rural white people, and people of color from various groups..."

    Michelle, can I contract you to deliver this message to non African-Americans? You know, the countless number of non African-American people who comment about African-Americans, in general, and their (our) relationships with other African-Americans as well as other socio-economic/ethnic groups.

    I trust that this is a pet-peeve of yours. So I would be interested in what transpired when you confronted someone who wasn't African-American running their mouth about African-Americans. Could you please supply a link to that discussion?

  10. Hey Nquest -- Well, you could contract me, I suppose, but from experience I would say I don't have the skills or abilities to make it worth it IMO.

    From experience, I would say I generally suck at delivering any message to the white segment of non African Americans, and it isn't my place to deliver messages to non white non African Americans.

    And, I also suck at confronting other white people about this stuff. I am too blunt or something. When I try, there is nearly always a backlash thing that happens -- so far what I see is that my attempts at confronting raise white/European cultural ego-defenses which seem to have neverending Energizer Bunny type energy to go on and on and the subject is changed and changed and changed. I don't do it right in the language or the energy or something. There's a whole thing I don't understand fully, about how saying it in culturally acceptable language means certain things can't be said. I tend toward directness, which I have found isn't generally a good thing in terms of delivering messages or stopping the Energizer Bunny dynamic.

    Sorry I don't have any links to show this dynamic, but I don't or can't think of any right now (will come back and post them if I can later). Seems to me right now that I haven't done this confronting thing for a while since noticing the dynamics that emerge when I try. It wasn't the last time, but in terms of preserved documentation I think I might have some semi-interesting email "whiteness" listserve discussions from the mid-1990s that show me before I started to figure out how much I suck at this stuff. But they are on a really old laptop with nonworking fan that I don't turn on anymore bc I am afraid it will catch on fire or something. Not online/linked in any case.

    The thing I am ok at pretty much is dialogue: direct mutual learning type stuff where people are bouncing off each other and figuring shit out collectively. But not suprisingly that requires a level of open-ness and non-ego-focus that is not usually found -- well, various places really -- but especially among non-African American (and particularly in that group, white people) doing what you are describing.

    So maybe it's a pipe dream and wrong as hell for me even to bring up the kind of dialogue I mentioned. It may actually be not possible because of what the non African American groups would bring into it.

    What I do know (and this is to Macon D as much as anyone) is that there would probably be things I would not say in such a dialogue if there were "non-rural" white Christian/white Christian-ancestry people there. Or, if I did say them, I would imagine it would create problems that could derail the discussion. But the more I think about it the more it seems like such a discussion wouldnt' happen anyway. I could be wrong on any side of this.

    But Macon D, I'm sorry anyway that I can't better describe this dynamic I mentioned! Someday maybe I'll be able to do it. It's frustrating to me have it so clear to me intuitively but not cognitively right now. I wonder if there are other white Jews who have descibed it and I just haven't see what they have said/written. Also, maybe there are or will be white Christian/white Christian-ancestry people who are able to describe it well, and not leave it only to others to address.

    Since IMO it's part of the actual working dynamic of how white supremacy operates, I would love for it to be as explicit and out in the open as possible. But that's jyst me and who knows if and how much it matters more generallyfor that to happen.

    Unless I have a better way of talking about this dynamic, though, I'm thinking probably I should limit my public comments on it and keep my current strategy of bitching incoherently to my girlfriend when it comes up.

  11. Michelle--I am Jewish (by ancestry, if not by faith), and I second you. The fact that Macon didn't get that Christian meant "gentile" (is there another way to say non-Jewish person of white Christian ancestry) only further tipped me off that someone's Yiddishkiet homework hadn't been done. But I digress. Of course some elderly Jewish people are racist. But so are elderly gentiles. What does come to mind is that Jewish people where overwhelmingly represented among the white people in the Civil Rights movement. So Jews born before 1960 can't be all bad.

    And I'll address nquest's point, I generally don't talk/blog comments from the peanut gallery about POC as I am not a POC, as I am rarely thrilled by what non-Jews have to say about Jews.

  12. Thanks Morgan! Well said. As a white Jew trying to be anti-racist (and frequently in those communities) I often find that gentile anti-racist white folks feel that they can have lots of opinions about white Jews from outside the community, in a way that they would never have opinions about other communities that they are outside of.

    Even though as you later say Macon D, that you aren't trying to misdirect anger at Jews (and I do believe that you are not doing this because I trust you), you have to realize when posting this the history of Jews as scapegoats. But anyway, in general I think you are great and agree with most things you say.

    I sort of felt like Michelle.... this hurts and it's hard to articulate why....because that is often the nature of Jewish oppression- we get confused about what the oppression is and isn't and those of us white Jews in the anti-racist community are often quite silenced. Many simply choose to give up their Judaism, finding that much easier that than trying to be both Jewish and a white anti-racist. I'm still trying though.

  13. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous, and for the trust. I am aware of the history of Jews as scapegoats, but I don't see how I should have altered this post in fuller acknowledgment of that. Also, rural white folks have long been scapegoats as well, though of course in different ways. Should I have more fully acknowledged that as well? Maybe by saying that the parallel pockets of racism are in both cases quite a sad irony, given what both communities have gone through in racist or classist terms?

    But then, again, the post isn't an effort to point out that racism in either community's case. It's to point out their differential treatment by the corporate media--rural white folks are a much more available, common object of derision in that arena than are elderly Jewish folks. That's not to say, of course, that either community deserves derision (though their high concentrations of ignorant racism do deserve attention).

    It would certainly be interesting and useful to hear more about how this post hurts those who identify as Jewish. And you're right, any such hurt is on my part unintentional.

  14. I can understand the point Macon is trying to make.

    the real problem Macon points out is the daring of media to criticize any community. I do not think it is right to even dare to say anything about white rural Americans because it is wrong. It is same as declaring war on that community.

    Macon is angry and has pointed out another community also holds similar view to rural white community but is not highlighted by the media.

    I can also give examples of many other communities who give very similar views. Including the Black community which feels Obama is not real Black. That is also racism.

    But more to the point. Media don't dare talk about Jews because next day one or another Jewish organization will come after you. They will be willing to spend their money to lobby and take "action" against you to ever repeating again.

    While the rural whites are not doing anything to protect themselves and have become easy target for media to make their point whatever it may be.

    Macon should go more direct and write to those media who ridicule the rural whites. Hopefully with the kind of money that Jews have to fight for their own cause. :)


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