By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.
I have found myself many times engaging in the Jewish-black comparison. I guess it is suggested to us often by those who like to say it is our black culture and not the socio-economical structure of exploitation what has kept us from achieving what they think we should achieve: a bourgeois life, a seat in the theater of neoliberal exploits, an excellence that is not demanded of others.
So, yes, I have caught myself often wondering about the differences between Jews and blacks, or more precisely, between the Jewish and black holocaustic experiences. I use the term holocaust purposefully, as it has become entangled with a singular meaning: the mass murder of Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
Doubtlessly, the Jewish people has suffered discrimination for centuries and their identity was also imbued with a plethora of negative meanings, their very names turned into shorthand for all the ills of various societies throughout history, as despots a plenty needed a scapegoat to placate the fury of hungry mobs, and satiate the greediness of elites.
The Jewish people have also endured the physical marking of their bodies. Not just the literal markings in the killing camps of the previous century, but the construction of a Jewish body that could be identified at a glance. The “Jewish nose” would be a prime example.
Blacks are more readily identifiable. As Toni Morrison would beautifully, painstakingly put it:
These slaves, unlike many others in the world’s history, were visible to a fault. And they had inherited, among other things, a long history of the “meaning” of color. It was not simply that this slave population had a distinctive color; it was that this color “meant” something. This “meaning” had been named and deployed by scholars from at least the moment, in the eighteenth century, when other and sometimes the same scholars investigated both the natural history and the inalienable rights of man—that is to say, human freedom.
But both groups sustained the onslaught of race science that picked their bodies apart and found all kinds of differences, whose meaningless seems now laughable, with the paramount white body. Difference was always seen as either lack or excess. The same way the Old World once looked at a different system of government and structure of society and concluded that different meant inexistent, hence, conquerable, civilizable.
There is a common history of murderous discrimination against and strategic othering for economic exploitation of blacks and Jews. However, those stories are told in uncannily distinct fashions and our compassionate gaze is doled out quite differently to each group. Why the history of the barbaric treatment of blacks in the United States far from compassion elicits judgment of the victims?
Perhaps it has to do with the painful ease of telling the cusp of the story of the Jewish people – the 20th century Holocaust –, almost as a parable of how a history of unfairness and prejudice could turn out very badly, and make us all complicit in a unfathomable crime. Maybe even the clear delineation of dates contributes to the manner this story is told in a way that forces us to take sides.
Perhaps it has to do with the ease of identifying the culprits, of assigning blame, even of determining how tainted others who did not commit the crimes directly are and how much guilt is shared by those who didn’t act expeditiously enough, the countries that remained on the sidelines.
Perhaps it has to do, when it comes to finding ways to atone for sins and pay restitutions, with the relative ease of demonstrating who benefited from the exploitation, which companies should be penalized, which countries should pony up while avoiding the excessive punishment of the Treaty of Versailles’ variety that winded up pushing Germany into the craze years later.
Perhaps, yet again, the certainty of the time period, and the ease of determining not only who was alive then, but also who was ripping the benefits established a clear line of restoration. The collective guilt was such that the world gave the Jewish people a country based on some mythical rights and without considering the rights of those who were there – this is the part with which I certainly don’t agree.
Perhaps it has to do with the swiftness of justice, or at least the launching of an unambiguous campaign to hound, find, try and convict most severely those who were involved. It was never soon enough for the victims and their families, but certainly much sooner than we have seen in the United States with those who murdered or re-enslaved blacks.
Perhaps it was just the concentrated magnitude of the crime in time and space – and this is not a pun, I wouldn’t dare. I believe the existence of concentration camps, such a foci of evil and depravity, would have alone made the case for the brutality of Nazism if we had never found any other evidence. The added element of the brevity in time of such massacre just sealed it.
In comparison, the black holocaust has too many strikes against it.
It went on for too long…it’s still going on.
There are too many culprits – countries, companies, individuals – over too many centuries. There have been many mass murders and a longstanding massacre but not one single historical period to which we could easily point and assign blame. In a monstrous sense, the barbarity was not concentrated enough.
The continuous postponement of justice, in clear opposition to the swiftness of persecution and prosecution of Nazis, has made the historical accounting – to say nothing of the financial, economic one – ever more impossible, ever more seemingly unfair, as we would be “punishing” the innocent descendants, and not those who committed the misdeeds.
I contend that the actual reason we do not want to engage in a historical reckoning of the use and abuse of blacks in the United States and devise a serious program of restitution is a lot simpler, and it is the same that enslaved them in the first place: money.
We do not need to prosecute the sons and daughters of slave owners. We don’t even need to hold directly accountable the descendants of those who exploited black conscripts or profited from their exclusion from the real state market just last century – as we were wringing our hands in despair and horror about the evils of Hitler.
All we need to do is to account for how much of their current wealth and that of many companies that pose as models of society can be directly traced to that exploitation, and devise a way to distribute some of it to the people who actually built it.
Forget slavery, since we seem to believe that was too long ago. Let’s just make restitution for the exploitation of blacks during the last century – if we just did the numbers for the same period for which Germany and the companies that took advantage of them make restitutions to the Jewish people, we would rebirth many black communities in America.
I wonder how much outrage we would be showing about the plight of Jews under Hitler if we were the ones having to pay for the restitutions.
We fret about “punishing” innocent descendants of criminal parents out of their wealth; but do not have a second thought about restoring to the innocent descendants of innocent slaves some of the wealth they helped create but couldn’t enjoy or leave to their offspring.
That is the irony of the mantra of hard work will make you rich in America. Were it true, the sons and daughters of slaves would own the country.
There is some awry causticness in the notion that the length and dispersion of the exploitation of black people make their suffering irredeemable and the culprits somehow, if not blameless, just plain untouchable, quasi excused.
Race, the detailed construction of blackness is still affording benefits as the locus of evil and abnormality. And, as soon as consciousness was perceived to be rising, as soon as the global South got the inkling that we are all one, another useful concept raised its head: colorblindness.