Tag Archives: Race

Who Is a Jew?

This article reminds me of that Margaret Cho bit where someone approaches her and says: Are you Chinese or Korean?  I can never tell you Asians apart!  And Cho replies: Why would you need to tell us apart?

Great Britain has embarked on that perennial question: Where does a “People” end and an individual’s belief system begin?  And, perhaps more singularly interesting when it comes to Judaism, where does a community end and “A People” begin?

Schools in the UK can base admissions decisions on religion, but not on ethnicity or race.

So is Jewishness a race?  Or is it a religion?

In an explosive decision, the court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”

The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.

“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined.”

Two interesting questions here.  It seems the difference between a religion and a race connects intimately with which affiliations are by choice, and which affiliations are intrinsic.  For instance, while a rabbi may push me away with his left hand while pulling in with his right, I am capable of “becoming Jewish,” as defined by the Jewish community’s assessment of my relevant ideology.  But, try as I might, it would be impossible for me to be accepted as “Asian,” simply because there’s a phenotype associated with the Caucasian/Asian divide that simply isn’t present at the Jewish/Gentile cleavage.

The second question comes from how the court approached this question.  When the court first asked how the community determined who was a member, that interpretation of “Jewishness” proved “explosive.”

Noting that some Catholic schools “use baptism as a baseline for admission,” the article suggests no similar baseline for Judaism.  Indeed:

[T]he Court of Appeal ruling threw the school into a panicked scramble to put together a new admissions policy. It introduced a “religious practice test,” in which prospective students amass points for things like going to synagogue and doing charitable work.

That has led to all sorts of awkward practical issues, said Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, because Orthodox Judaism forbids writing or using a computer on the Sabbath. That means that children who go to synagogue can’t “sign in,” but have to use methods like dropping prewritten postcards into boxes.

Evidently even if the judiciary arm of the state did look to Jewish assessments of “Jewishness,” there’d still be some controversy.  Not surprisingly, denominations that differ along ideological lines also differ across definitions of who’s in and who’s out:

The case has stirred up long-simmering resentments among the leaders of different Jewish denominations, who, for starters, disagree vehemently on the definition of Jewishness. They also disagree on the issue of whether an Orthodox leader is entitled to speak for the entire community.

What’s interesting is that the court completely disregards how the individual defines himself.  It makes sense that when asking about a categorical inclusion (or exclusion) with regards to a community, that the court would look only to how the community determines how membership gets defined.

But this inflicts a categorically racial analysis on the whole question.  Religion is a personal, internal choice.  If the court really wanted to know whether an individual is categorically Jewish, they would look to see how coherent his beliefs are with some monolithic Jewish system, no?  Whereas if the state begins from the proposition that what characterizes a person as Jewish is somehow external, non-fluid, or determinative only by community acceptance (or not), then the state begins from a presumption that Jewishness functions as a race.

What do you think?



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On Post-Racism

Skip Gates’s friend, fellow Harvard prof Lawrence Bobo writes about Skip’s arrest:

Maybe this “situation” had something to do with Harvard University and social class. It is possible that one element of what happened here involved a policeman with working-class roots who faced an opportunity to “level the playing field” with a famous and successful Harvard professor. But even if class mattered, it did so mostly because of how, in this situation, it was bound up with race.

Perhaps the police were racist, or perhaps the majority of break-ins in this posh Cambridge neighborhood fit the description police received of Skip breaking into his home. We cannot fault law enforcement officers for noticing a pattern and making assumptions based on that pattern. If statistics say “arrest this man,” and that man has been so ham-handed as to disregard procedures that would protect him from statistics, e.g., using his key, then the police are merely doing their job in the best way they can.

I know many terrific policemen, but there is—statistically—some selection bias to those who choose a dangerous, low-paying lifestyle whose primary reward is (forced) respect from everyone they encounter. Prof. Bobo’s article suggests that policemen were looking for some enhanced degree of deference from a black man than they would expect from his white counterpart.

Even before the charge were dropped Tuesday, I knew in my bones that this officer was wrong. I knew in my bones that this situation was about the level of deference from a black male that a white cop expects. I say this even though I did not see the events themselves unfold. What I do know with certainty is that the officer, even by his own written report, understood that he was dealing with a lawful resident of the house when he made the arrest. That same report makes it clear that at the time of the arrest, the officer was no longer concerned about the report of a “burglary in progress” involving “two black males.” No, by this point we’re talking about something else entirely.

Obviously Prof. Bobo had this argument in mind and was simply waiting for a vehicle. I appreciate that the same statistics supporting the police officer’s assumptions also support Bobo’s argument. But anyone who encounters a policemen who reasonably presumes his culpable behavior will be frustrated by the amount of deference the officer expects.

In fact, any group of people who statistically over-encounters The Law likely has reason to make arguments similar to Prof. Bobo’s. My father used to drive a Rolls Royce that we once recovered from a police towaway lot—it had been parked in a legal zone and was wrongly towed, I might add—to find that an anonymous officer had slashed the entire interior of the car to shreds. It wasn’t race but class that motivated the vandalism, but who were we to ask the station to pay for damages? The last thing any driver needs is a hit on his license plate because he crossed the wrong officer. And, perhaps closer to home, who hasn’t been surprised that nearly every hypothetical in any Criminal Law textbook includes a victim who presses charges after she identifies her attacker, who fled after he heard sirens chasing him?

I feel for Gates, I really do. It doesn’t take many Lilly Ledbetters to make a member of a class typically senstive to statistics empathize with other statistically-victimized groups. Bobo’s larger point merely suggests that the “post-racism” many have touted as a positive externality of Obama’s shining, hopeful presidency is as fleeting as Obama’s promises to deviate from Bush’s detainee policies.

Let’s be honest. Don’t we all recognize patterns? Wouldn’t we prefer that public officials are perceptive enough to pick up on statistics and make certain assumptions across a series of extremely-similar situations? I want public officers who think before they draw their guns. For my tax dollars, that means educated, psychologically-sound officials who are perceptive. That means they are quick to chase before their target has even begun to flee, that they anticipate violence and correctly massage a situation to avoid it. Perceptiveness requires attention to patterns, and I will not judge an officer who acted cautiously but non-violently in response to provocation identical to a pattern he has seen time and time again.

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More on Race and That Other Stuff

Insulted by the WaPo calling Sotomayor “Souter w/ a salsa beat,” Andrew Cline asks: What if she were white?

Of the nine paragraphs in the New York Times endorsement, five mention her race and sex. Were Sotomayor a white male, the Times would have 55 percent less to say about him.

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote yesterday that Sotomayor was “Souter with a salsa beat.” Because Sotomayor is Hispanic we can assume she comes “with a salsa beat”? How is that not an ethnic stereotype? What if Sotomayor doesn’t like salsa music? If she were black, could we say she is Souter with a hip-hop beat?

See my opinion on the race stuff here. More immediately I think Sotomayor is qualified, I just don’t like her opinions. If she didn’t bring this reggaeton to the table the Times would likely focus those five paragraphs on her jurisprudence. And that would likely be a much stronger indictment than all of this “affirmative action” finger-pointing.

Like Obama, Sotomayor is an eminently qualified candidate in a sea of similarly qualified individuals. Both offer inspiring stories that put them over the edge. I see nothing wrong with that. I agree that an inspiring story brings more to the table than a little extra Latin on a resume — which, incidentally, appears in droves on the resumes of both BHO and SMS.

I’ll say it again: Focusing on someone’s jurisprudence and record carries a lot more weight than focusing on his or her race. Conservatives should stop engaging in these mini-trials re whether “diversity” is criteria enough and should start discussing those criteria that are actually, empirically relevant. The latter category is indictment enough. The former is not. Eye on the ball, people! This kind of issue blurring is what fractured conservatives in the first place!

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Are we all a little racist?

At the risk of asking the unpopular question: Doesn’t it feel like politics have turned into a witch hunt?  

Republicans accuse dems of playing “affirmative action,” e.g., acknowledging and focusing on differences traceable to “race” rather than on what we all have in common.  Democrats’ “racism” cries started when Obama became the big POTUS contender and continued until, well…I’ll let you know when it ends.  And it’s totally deserved.  Look at us.  How many times has the word “Hispanic” been uttered just today?

The point is that all we’re doing is focusing on race.  Racism is just that: focusing on what’s different among us.  Even many of Sotomayor’s biggest fans are primarily enthused because she brings the “Puerto Rican voice” to the table.  In his nomination introduction Obama himself focused on her backstory rooted in “diversity” rather than on her huge, valuable qualifications.

It’s just as racist to imagine that support for Sotomayor and support for Obama come from different places.  Both are eminently qualified individuals among eminently qualified individuals.  Both have extremely inspiring stories, and, indeed, I love the idea of promoting those high achievers who overcame adversity.  But call it what it is.  The American dream is all about celebrating ambition in the face of hard times.  Though I don’t like Obama, I love that we elected a black man.  I intensely dislike some things about Sotomayor’s jurisprudence and philosophy, but I love the idea of a woman reflecting the quickly-increasing Hispanic demographic in the States.

In other words: I’m a little bit racist, because I recognize that there’s some benefit to focusing a little bit on race.  I’m a little bit sexist too, because I’m glad Obama nominated a woman instead of a man.  As a white, non-hyphenated-American woman I realize that my position is unpopular.  But look at us.  All we’ve done is talk about race for the past year.  And we’ve spilled an enormous amount of ink pointing fingers at colleagues, shouting “racist” in a terrifyingly McCarthy-esque way.  

Let me just be the first to ask: Can’t we move on to the next topic?  All this witch hunting doesn’t prove we’re past it.  So either admit that you’re a little focused on race, or stop talking so much about it.  Either way, next topic, please.

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