From Lena Dunham to Trevor Noah, via Isaiah Washington

Lena Dunham compared her Jewish boyfriend to a dog in a New Yorker piece. Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart’s just-announced replacement, turns out to have tweeted bad sexist and antisemitic cliches. Isaiah Washington, when asked by Don Lemon about Chris Rock getting pulled over three times over seven weeks for “driving while black,” suggested Rock should “adapt.”

In his piece, entitled: The Petty Etiquette of Discrimination, Noah Berlatsky quotes sociologist, James Loewen: “In its everyday operation, segregation consists of a pervasive system of etiquette.” Berlatzky then explains:

That’s a counter-intuitive definition. Discrimination, especially the pervasive discrimination of the Jim Crow era, tends to be remembered as a matter of violence, not as a matter of manners. Jim Crow involved lynchings, beatings, and the KKK—politeness and etiquette seems like secondary matters at best. And yet politeness and violence are in fact intertwined and inseparable. Segregation was accomplished through an elaborate system of norms about when black and white people could meet, and how they could interact.

“Biracial segregation forms a complete set of definitions, expressing and codifying the relationship of dominance and subservience,” Loewen argues. This is ultimately enforced by laws and violence, when necessary—but often it’s more subtle, involving disapprobation, disapproving looks, cutting remarks, and (as Mark Twain described in Huck Finn) internalized shame. Institutionalized hatred is not just formal large-scale violence or legal rules. It is also the small-scale sneers and corrections and social coercion which normalize and justify that violence. Discrimination is, in brief, petty stuff. It’s etiquette.”

I completely agree with this portion of Berlatzky’s analysis and would apply to it the relationship between Jew and Gentile throughout American history, right up until the present day. I mostly, though not entirely, disagree with his conclusion. Had we not been living through the last seven years of a so-called “post-racial” America where we’ve added so many new names and slogans to our collective consciousness, I might be in a more forgiving mood. Were we not, years after the start of the War on Women, still powerless to even begin to plan to fight back, I might be more lenient, especially two days after the conviction and sentencing of Purvi Patel, in Indiana, for having suffered a miscarriage. The outcry, so far, has been minimal, with press coverage being more prevalent outside the US, than within. Had we not been seeing an explosion in anti-transgender hate crimes ending in death, I might not be as angry. Had we not, post-Todd Akin and “legitimate rape,” been continuing to devolve rather than learning and moving forward, I might, though most likely not, have found the stomach to turn a blind eye. Had we not been talking about Stop and Frisk, Walking while Black, Shopping while Black, Hands Up Don’t Shoot, I am Trayvon, and the non-existence of respectability, I might have considered keeping my mouth shut. Had we not been seeing and hearing about a virulent resurgence of antisemitism, I might not mind the self-deprecation bordering on self-hate. I *might* not. But I do mind. I mind a great deal.

Given his age, Mr. Noah’s sexist and racist comments remain noisome, but allowances can be made if they were merely youthful indiscretions. I have no quarrel with him yet. What I object to, in this case, is the near-unanimous closing of ranks by liberal commentators, including Jon Stewart, in defense of the behavior. Yes, Noah has a right to express himself. Yes, he absolutely has a right to be as sexist and antisemitic as he wants. It doesn’t mean it is OK. It doesn’t mean it needs to be defended by anyone. Given his age, Mr. Noah’s behavior can still be portrayed for what it was, sexist and racist, while still giving him wide berth for benefit of the doubt – without sweeping the bad behavior under the rug.

Had Lena Dunham’s boyfriend been an African American, there would have been no quiz in the New Yorker. Her attempt at humor is not only racist – one can be racist against one’s own kind – but it is terribly sexist. The rush to defend her, particularly from the liberal quarter, is emblematic of today’s new political correctness of only being overtly anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist. Is it any wonder that so many Jews have switched allegiances? Is it any wonder that progressive Jews, like me, feel completely alienated when it comes to any kind of discussion on Judaica or Middle East politics? Try reading the comment section in any of the popular news outlets’ sites on anything Israel-related, and you will see they are rife with overtly antisemitic comments. In today’s polarized society, there is almost no room for being a proud Jew and a progressive.

Which brings me to Isaiah Washington… If only the answer to racial profiling was driving a less ostentatious car! Floyd Dent, whose Cadillac was somewhat less ostentatious than Rock’s car, might have a lot to say about that. Los Angeles is the home to an inordinate number of BMW owners. Here, they’re almost a dime a dozen. Yet, if you own a Beemer and you’re Black, you will be stopped, and often. Washington’s admonitions to adapt are the flip side of Common’s suggestion that love is the answer, or the pronounced neoliberalism of, say, Jay-Z or Dr. Dre. Each presents a different facet of the problems of success, respectability and identity politics, and all three fall into the minefield that is race relations in today’s retro-racial society,

As one who is a kind of “other,” it saddens me to see how pride and identity are being squelched in favor of false ideals about success and respectability. While it may appear, on the surface, that those among us who are Jews have arrived at some exalted equivalent position of white privilege, it really isn’t so. In the end, no matter how mainstream we may look and sound, we are still Jews at the first sign of trouble. Similarly, it doesn’t matter how privileged a Black man or woman is; how high a position they might have attained. Prejudice, of one kind or another, lurks close by, overtly and barely covertly.

We must all remember, it isn’t our identity that needs changing. It is their respect that is still owing. In the words of great American anthropologist and writer, Zora Neale Hurston:

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

2 thoughts on “From Lena Dunham to Trevor Noah, via Isaiah Washington”

  1. Isaiah Washington has also argued (in extended debate with @Deray) that things would improve for African Americans if only they would stop referring to themselves as “Black.”

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