Some (choice) notes on Jonathan Zimmerman’s #BlackOnCampus op-ed | #BlackLivesMatter to Blog#42

Jonathan Zimmerman’s reductionist essay, Take a cue from Ralph Ellison: Don’t demean minority students by overprotecting them,

revisits the old, and tired, argument that has been hashed and rehashed ever since Stanley Elkin published his Sambo Thesis of Slavery theory, back in 1959.  Zimmerman modernizes Elkin’s arguments by reducing what is the all too real struggle of Black college students to some infantile whining about hurt feelings.

In his essay, Zimmerman attempts to build his case by invalidating the mere idea that trauma from continual exposure to racism on campus might indeed be harmful. His two-fold approach to invalidation consists of using a Ralph Ellison quote as the bludgeon that smashes the aggrieved party’s argument, all the while throwing in cherry-picked portions of conclusions from well known educational and psychological research studies. This is the same tactic you see employed as a counter whenever Black Lives Matter is the topic of conversation and right-wingers trot out the “what about Black on Black crime” deflection. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t talking about Black on Black crime or the reason why it exists and, rather, are discussing Black Lives Matter and police brutality. Why? Because those people are racist and they know they don’t have a winning strategy in their unconditional support of police. Back to Zimmerman’s attempt at reducing real Black On Campus concerns to whining? Are Zimmerman’s valid arguments? No, they are not.

“They insist that overtly racist comments as well as “microaggressions” — smaller, day-to-day slights — take a psychic toll.”

First, whatever else Ellison may have said and written, there is no basis for the conclusion that he would have denied these young Blacks empathy for the racism they are subjected to.  Then, the term microaggressions is inclusive of all manner of racist behavior towards another. Racism is abusive. Abuse, whether it is short-term or over a lifetime, is documented to exact a psychological toll from anyone who is subjected to it.

Zimmerman writes:

Jason W. Osborne and other psychologists showed in the 1990s that African Americans often scored higher on self-esteem measures than did their white counterparts

But, in The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “racial” Crisis, Orlando Patterson explains:


When examined through the prism of Patterson’s very logical explanation, Zimmerman’s statement takes on the appearance of intellectual dishonesty in what appears to be the purposeful abridgment and stripping of any nuance from the study when describing the similarities in self-esteem between Blacks and whites, when it comes to academic achievement. If students are not losing self-esteem over their academic achievement in general, then Blacks are no different than whites in that respect. That says absolutely nothing about how Blacks feel about being Black in the midst of supremacist or subconsciously racist whiteness. As a Jew of a certain age, it is inconceivable that Zimmerman has nothing in his life experience that would help him identify with at least some of the Black fears he minimizes. Indeed, when one looks at his past writings, one finds “Anti-Semitism: an All-American Attribute,” on being a Christ-killer. Well, dear Jonathan, I wish you could channel some of that to pole-vault to “Anti-Black racism: an All-American Attribute. It’s really not that hard, when you put your heart into it.

But I digress… Not content to leave it there, Zimmerman employs a similar technique when he denies Black students the validity of their collective and personal experience by reducing their grievance to emotion which he then strips of value, all the while identifying on their behalf them what he deems a more correct claim for what he perceives to be a lack of opportunity for Black students. But, aside from the fact that, very kindly put, this is patronizing of him, Zimmerman’s claim is false. Black student protesters don’t lack opportunity. Studying at Yale is opportunity in and of itself. What those students lack, and are demanding, is the same respect and freedom from discrimination their white and Jewish counterparts now enjoy automatically or almost as a matter of course.

Zimmerman isn’t done yet, though. He also sets out to discredit the famous the white doll experiment, reducing it strictly to a self-esteem issue due to the racism they are exposed to. But as Professor John A. Powell of Berkeley University Law School explains, the experiment is far more nuanced:

The narrative before American Plymouth, in many ways, was that Blacks are not fit, that there is something defective biologically. But what we’ve moved into today, is a culture narrative. And so, it’s not that Blacks are unfit as a population or species, but that the culture is not fit. Those people don’t really belong. Those people aren’t the good Americans. They’re not like us.”

To the best of my knowledge and understanding, thinking on the white doll experiment remains unchanged and reflects a view that white cultural supremacy has specific and direct consequences on the psyche, starting during the earliest parts of the human development cycle. Given Zimmerman’s areas of expertise in academia, reading such patently false statements is especially alarming, as is such a heavy usage of purposeful lack of nuance.

Indeed, what Zimmerman aims for is the belittlement of Black college students by painting them as spoiled and oversensitive brats who, in the end, are complaining about not much:

“If you took away every racist insult at Yale, most blacks in America would still lack the opportunity to go there or to other elite colleges.”

One should point out that most whites in America don’t go to the Ivies and the complaints of this generation of Black students, oddly enough, don’t include a demand that all Black students be admitted to elite schools. What they are demanding is that schools work in earnest to change the racial atmosphere on campus.

After making unsubstantiated claims about the white doll experiments, Zimmerman goes for the jugular:

“And who can measure feelings, like anger and humiliation? Unlike structural inequalities, which you can document with data, emotions are by definition subjective. They become trump cards, no matter what other facts are in evidence.”

You can’t measure feelings. Case dismissed? Well, not really. Again, shame on Zimmerman for this. We actually can measure feelings like anger and humiliation. We do it all the time through psychology and, when perceived serious harm has been done, the courts, as in the case of David Attali, a former Jewish NYPD officer who filed a discrimination lawsuit against the department for treatment that is not at all dissimilar to what Black college students are protesting against. Whether it is antisemitism or anti-Black racism, the toll on those who are on the receiving end is quantifiable. Denying it is the kind of racist that is best explained by white Americans’ widely held belief, conscious or subconscious, in the Magical Negro narrative that Black people have superhuman physical and mental powers that enable them to withstand physical and mental challenges that people of other races cannot.

America is far from having begun to deal with the sickness that is racism. Anyone who isn’t what used to be called W.A.S.P. could be the target of microagressions.  For Semites, whether they are Arabs or Jews, David Attali is a prime example that seeming whiteness is no protection against racist microaggressions that Blacks cannot escape by virtue of their external appearance.

While Zimmerman may feel shielded by his position of relative privilege, as a Jew, he is no more or less protected than any “other” citizen in America, no matter how vocally he may identify with those he thinks of as the majority. Assimilation hasn’t changed much except, in recent years, a segment of the Jewish population seems to have shifted its allegiance from the progressive cause. At a time when we are witnessing so much proof that racist brutality is commonplace, and at a time when unity and a resumption of the struggle for civil and human rights is renewed, it is really sad to read such ugly screeds as Zimmerman’s.

The un-ennobled Jew in James Baldwin’s conclusion in his essay on Black antisemitism is a dead ringer for Jonathan Zimmerman:

If one blames the Jew for not having been ennobled by oppression, one is not indicting the single figure of the Jew but the entire human race, and one is also making a quite breathtaking claim for oneself. I know that my own oppression did not ennoble me, not even when I thought of myself as a practicing Christian. I also know that if today I refuse to hate Jews, or anybody else, it is because I know how it feels to be hated. I learned this from Christians, and I ceased to practice what the Christians practiced.


David Attali’s NYPD case:

Supplemental readings:

Race and The Schooling of Black Americans, Claude M. Steele, April 1992


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *