Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Rep. Steve Cohen

On a voice vote, late in the day on July 29, 2008, the U.S. House passed the historic resolution apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow, one sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen, a Jewish American representing a majority-black Memphis congressional district.
That news has been all over the place, though that quote comes from which has the actual language of the bill.
Cohen made this comment: "I hope that this is part of the beginning of a dialogue that this country needs to engage in, concerning what the effects of slavery and Jim Crow have been, I think we started it and we’re going to continue."
I was going to reply there about the unfortunate aspect of Cohen being white. I doubt a black representative could have gotten something like that through, so the black community of Cohen's district seems to have benefited from a reformist attitude that accepts white dominance. (We're not a post-racial society, so I'm going to ignore the "colorblind" argument even though Cohen seems to be a great Representative and enjoys popular support in his district for good reason.) So, while it's a great bill, and Cohen is to be commended for it, it's very important to remember that this is only the beginning of the discussion to which Cohen is trying to contribute. But there's something else.

White and Jewish are not the same thing; Cohen is both. Jews have a long history of involvement in others' struggles. The obvious and most relevant example here is Jewish involvement in the Black Civil Rights struggle in America. It's something of which many Jews are very proud. Despite our failures to be the best allies at all times, I'm usually proud to be Jewish when stuff like this happens. But there's a reason for it that isn't purely altruistic. Jews are often hoping that by making a better world, it will also be a better world for Jews. It would be unfair to say that such behavior is tainted, but it is wrong that Jews feel the need to fight indirectly against antisemitism in this way. Especially when socialist Jews pit themselves against religious Jews or anti-war Jews pit themselves against "neocons" (often a loaded word, and I mean it that way here).

We should remain the best allies we can be (that includes recognizing that we're not "owed" anything in return), but we should also recognize that Jews are still oppressed. Our oppression has only sometimes (going back through history, all the way too the Inquisition and further back) included economic oppression, so the fact that Jews are doing okay financially shouldn't mislead us. We still have great difficulty talking about Jewish oppression. Usually, we get labeled as shrill neurotics if we're at all "uppity." See Abraham Foxman or Alan Dershowitz. Or we might be labeled as neurotically obsessed with past oppressions. I've seen that logic applied to Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel and to people born the 70s.

So I began by positioning Cohen as white and privileged and moved to position him as Jewish and oppressed. (His black constituents may even sometimes collude in Jewish oppression.) Both descriptions are true, though neither are the complete truth.

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