During my “Jim Crow and the Holocaust” class, I am continually coming across new texts to add to an ever expanding bibliography or work that looks at the intersections between Jim Crow in the United States and the Holocaust in Europe. Recently, I read James Baldwin’s “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,” which appeared in The New York Times on April 9, 1967, two-months before the Six Days War and a year before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Terrence Johnson and Jacque Berlinerblau point out that upon its publication Baldwin’s essay received backlash from the Jewish community with Rabbi Samuel Silver, in a 1971 piece about Baldwin’s conversation with Margaret Mead in A Rap on Race, calling Baldwin a “Negro extremist . . . who has allowed his hostility to whites to run into extra-hostility to Jews.” Johnson and Berlinerblau point out that Baldwin’s essay is complex and he is working within both a Black religious tradition and making a pointed critique not of Judaism and of Jews but of Christianity and the role Christianity plays in “racial capitalism.” As they write, Baldwin “wanted to identify white Christianity’s singular role in producing and propagating anti-Blackness and anti-Semitism.”
Throughout his life, Baldwin sharply called out Christianity and white evangelical supremacy. In 1963, as he stood outside the burned out shell of St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, he said, “I don’t even think they’re Christians. And I know they’re not because I know . . . I was raised Christian. My daddy and my momma were very religious. And they knew that white Christians were not Christians because of the way they treated Black people. And the Christian church in this country has never, in my experience as far as I know, been Christian. . . . The record proves . . . the Christian church is bankrupt.” When writing about the Moral Majority in his final essay, “To Crush a Serpent,” he wrote, “They have taken the man from Galilee as hostage. He does not know them and they do not know him.”
As I initially read Baldwin’s essay, I kept thinking, “He’s playing into The Protocols of the Elders of Zion stereotypes of a Jewish controlled world economy.” However, he undercuts this throughout the essay by pointing out the ways that assimilation works, especially if one is phenotypically white and able to pass a white, Christian American. Following a lengthy opening where he points out his experiences with Jewish owned business, landlords, and more discriminating against him and others for being Black, Baldwin upends the trajectory, partly by pointing out that he doesn’t know with certainty whether everyone he mentions was Jewish. He key thrust debunks the Jewish world domination conspiracy theory because he states, “I think they [the institutions] are controlled by Americans, and the American Negro situation is a direct result of this control.”
He continues by pointing out that even though the Jewish business owner leaves Harlem and goes “to a clean neighborhood, miles from you,” with the money the citizens of Harlem spent at the business, that “[i]t is not the Jew who controls the American drama. It is the Christian.” At the core of “racial capitalism” isn’t a Jewish conspiracy, it’s the intersections of Christianity and capitalism, something that Baldwin even gets at in his conversation with Margaret Mead. Talking about a picture of a young Jewish boy looking at his shoes, Baldwin notes that by the time he saw the photo, he knew that the Gestapo had taken the boy and killed him all “in the name of Christianity!” Mead pushes back and says that she doesn’t think he should make this connection, but Baldwin persists, pointing out Rome’s signing of a concordat with Hitler and their support of Italy’s attempt to colonize Ethiopia and more. He doesn’t point out Hitler’s reliance on Christian rhetoric, but that is another factor we need to remember.
Baldwin saw, clearly, the ways that Christianity supported white supremacy, and even though he did not use the language, he clearly understood the fascist connections between Christianity and white supremacy, this becomes clear in his comments to Mead about the Nazis acting “in the name of Christianity.” In this manner, he reminds me of Lillian Smith, notably her essay “The White Christian and His Conscience” where she points out these intersections and notes that nowhere is hatred for the Nazis greater than in the South, partly because of religion. Baldwin concludes by writing, “The crisis taking place in the world, and in the minds and hearts of black men everywhere, is not produced by the star of David, but by the old, rugged Roman cross on which Christendom’s most celebrated Jew was murdered. And not by Jews.”
Along with all of this, Baldwin keys in on the ways that language works to create heroes or villains out of individuals who actively stand up and resist oppression, and he ties this discussion in with the ways that history works to either illuminate or erase the past. Baldwin states, “The Jew’s suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world and the Jew is recognized as a contributor so the world’s history: this is not true for the blacks. Jewish history, whether or not one can say it is honored, is certainly known: the black history has been blasted, maligned and despised.” We see the maligning of Black history even today as we face legislation that calls for educators to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts,” a term they use as cover for teaching the history of African Americans, the Diaspora, Asian Americans, Latin Americans, and more. We’ve even seen this thread in relation to Jews and the Holocaust when public officials say things like, “Additionally, we recognize there are not two sides of the Holocaust.”
The issue becomes compounded not just when we eliminate the contributions and history of individuals. When we use language to either valorize or demonize individuals, we continue to marginalize individuals, positioning them not as equals but as inferior others in need of reprimand. Baldwin points this out when he contrasts the ways we talk about the Warsaw Uprising and uprisings in places such as Watts and Harlem. Following his thread of Jewish assimilation into white, American society, Baldwin writes, “The Jew is a white man, and when white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to their native savagery. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was not described as a riot, nor were the participants maligned as hoodlums: the boys and girls in Watts and Harlem are thoroughly aware of this, and it certainly contributes to their attitude toward the Jews.” If one sees this rhetoric deployed, just think about the ways that media cover events in Ferguson, Minneapolis, and elsewhere, then the person labeled as a “rioter” or a “hoodlum” or a “vandal” will, while still probably seeing themselves as pushing back against oppression, take on those labels and internalize them, just as police and whites will internalize them and use them as justification for violent actions.
Baldwin recognizes that some will push back against his comparison between Warsaw and Watts and Harlem, and he provides them with two specific reasons for their backlash. First, he writes, “while America loves white heroes, armed to the teeth, it cannot abide bad niggers.” Baldwin encapsulates what he notes earlier about the ways we define “uprisings” and “riots” or “heroes” and “savages.” However, this is only one point, because he continues by noting that that at the root of all of this “is that it contradicts the American dream to suggest that any gratuitous, unregenerate horror can happen here.” For me, this is the key because, I have written about constantly on this blog, when we see something like Nazi Germany, we say, “They’re horrible. We’re not like that.” Yet, we refuse to assist until attacked. Yet, we lynch Black men, women, and children. Yet, we had a German American Bund. This projection onto Germany allowed us to ignore our own sins, our own shortcomings, our own violence.
We continue to do this. This is what all of the bills and rhetoric around CRT, LGBTQ issues, and more set up. They position the United States as infallible, as exceptional. We know, though, that that is not the case. However, when you indoctrinate a populace with that idea, inflating the collective ego with exceptionalism, you pave the way for more atrocities to happen here. You legitimize it while still trying to maintain the high ground by saying, “We’re not as bad as them.” The dangers of blinding ourselves and not reflecting on the plank in our own eye leads to self-destruction and the destruction of this 250 year experiment of democracy.
There’s more that I could write, but I’ll leave it here for today. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.