by Seth Sandronsky
May 21, 2003
Separate and unequal. I mean the relations that blacks and Jews have had with Uncle Sam. The politics of this has (not) always been clear.
In the May 15 San Francisco Chronicle, columnist Annie Nakao penned a piece titled “African Americans, Jews and uncommon ground.” She is, safe to say, a “liberal” in the uniquely American sense of the term. That is, Nakao supports a government safety net for people who need help in the marketplace.
She mentioned Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. They “found work, mostly in New York's sweatshops,” facing challenges that included anti-Jewish discrimination. This hampered their life chances to get better jobs and attend excellent schools, etc.
A personal note is in order here. People in my family taught me about this experience. They had lived it.
Further, Nakao stated that the children of these Jewish immigrants “generally moved up to the middle class over time.” She sidestepped the “how” of their story. The details are useful.
Nakao’s implication is that the second generation of Jewish immigrants basically pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. The Horatio Alger story. There was no hand from the government for them as they moved to suburban America, right?
Whoa. Not so fast. Well, what about Jews and Uncle Sam’s help in America after the Second World War?
In particular, we turn to a key factor increasing upward social mobility for many male American Jews of immigrant parents. The fact of the matter is that Uncle Sam did intervene for them in the marketplace following depression and world war. And these actions did make a big difference.
Take the nearly eight million Americans, mainly males, who benefited from the GI Bill. Government affirmative action? If not, then the term has no meaning.
Contrast this history with the current view of Uncle Sam lending a hand to politically powerless people attempting to enter the institutions of our market society. To this end on May 4, columnist George Will cast doubt on the legitimacy of racial inequality and affirmative action: “[I]s discrimination even pertinent? The "diversity" rationale for some racial preferences, as in college admissions, has no necessary connection to any suffering.”
Will is a self-described “conservative.” In George W. Bush’s America, a conservative is one who opposes government intervention to help people without political power. They are more often than not blacks; could it be any other way in a nation conceived in the slavery of people stolen from the African continent?
Recall that it’s now a sign of market faith for most politicians and pundits to back policies that cut government assistance for the powerless.
Presumably, such a “hands-off” stance will free up the market to work its miracles. In this way, goods and services will flow more freely between firms and consumers, benefiting society.
Such fundamentalism also holds that any deviation from such market-friendly policies does more harm than good, weakening the public’s personal responsibility. That’s the ideology of most Democrats and Republicans, anyway. Case in point is former President Bill Clinton’s ending of federal welfare payments to the nation’s poorest people.
We return to America after World War II. The color line was alive and well. Take the policies of Uncle Sam in denying black veterans from receiving the GI Bill, and much more due to them.
“The military, the Veterans’ Administration, the U.S. Employment Service, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) effectively denied African-American GIs access to their benefits and to the new educational, occupational, and residential opportunities,” author and scholar Karen Brodkin Sacks has written. As a result of this institutional racism, blacks’ social mobility suffered. It would be wonderful if such a blight on the nation were a thing of the past, indeed.
But such is assuredly not the case. Not even close, unfortunately. What to do?
Well, meaningful discussions of relations between blacks and Jews should include their many differences and similarities. That should be a source of strength for both groups and the individuals within them. All the more reason to reveal rather than conceal the history of their relations with Uncle Sam.
To move forward from the present, we must be open and honest about the past. Anything less is a path for backward movement. And that’s not the direction that blacks and Jews should go.
Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento/Yolo Peace Action, and an editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento's progressive newspaper. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org