The Sterling Shuffle: Unpacking White Jewish Racism


By Sikivu Hutchinson

Every Sunday for the past several years the mug of real estate mogul and L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling has commanded prime ad space in the Los Angeles Times. Touting Sterling’s philanthropy, these ads often feature grinning photos of prominent African American politicians, religious leaders and other glad-handing public figures who’ve received hefty donations from his financial empire. After TMZ revealed a recording of Sterling’s racist comments about black people to girlfriend V. Stiviano, President Obama and other dignitaries were swift to condemn him. On Monday it was “shockingly” revealed that Sterling, who is Jewish, went the extra mile with his racism in the recording, contending that “the blacks are treated like dogs” in Israel to Stiviano. Responding to her criticism of this claim, Sterling reiterated that “the black Jews” are “less than” white Jews and that that is the way it should be.

Anti-black racism among white Jewish people is a seldom discussed, controversial aspect of the complicated arc of black-Jewish relations in the U.S. Yet, Sterling’s comments are noteworthy because they not only highlight the white supremacist bent of Israeli anti-African sentiment but the social construction of Jewish whiteness. Echoing rancher Cliven Bundy’s recent references to blacks thriving under slavery, Sterling expressed the paternalistic view that he “supports” blacks on the team by giving them clothes, houses and cars. He then blasts Stiviano for comparing anti-black racism and discrimination to the Jewish Holocaust.

Implicit in this shutdown is the notion that Jewish suffering under the Holocaust precludes consideration of how white Jews have benefited from institutional and systemic racism.
The illusion of lockstep black-Jewish solidarity on liberal political coalition-building has long masked the reality of white Jewish privilege and investment in white supremacy. This is especially relevant to Sterling (who tellingly changed his name from Tokowitz to the more Anglicized Sterling) because he is a multi-millionaire developer who has also been the subject of two federal racial discrimination lawsuits involving tenants of color. In her book How Jews Became White Folks, Karen Brodkin notes that Jews contrasted themselves with the specter of a “mythic blackness”. Deeply ingrained racial stereotypes of shiftless, lazy, culturally pathological and mentally enslaved blacks—versus “hard working” immigrants streaming through Ellis Island in search of opportunity—have always been a subtext of the American dream. Hence, “mythic blackness” implicitly signified social dysfunction and downward mobility—i.e., the antithesis of American notions of rugged individualism and bootstraps uplift. This divide allowed Jewish, Irish and other reviled, provisionally white ethnic immigrants to highlight and capitalize on their (relative) whiteness. As Salomon Gruenwald notes in a review of Brodkin’s book, “Jews did not become white because they succeeded in spite of racism, rather, they succeeded because of white racism. Economic and social shifts following WWII reconfigured whiteness in such a way as to allow them—particularly Jewish men—the entitlements that being white brought (like the G.I. Bill and access to the suburbs).”

The long term economic legacy of these entitlements has been amplified in the post-civil rights era. African Americans of all income levels are hyper-segregated in urban communities heavily impacted by foreclosure, joblessness, predatory lending, subpar schools, racist policing and mass incarceration. And, relative to white working class homeowners, even the most wealthy African Americans are segregated into neighborhoods that have high poverty rates. As the most segregated racial group in Los Angeles, the socioeconomic divide between blacks and white Jews couldn’t be more profound. Like other European Americans in the post-World War II era, Jews took advantage of New Deal FHA, VA and GI Bill loans (which were denied to African Americans) to flee South L.A. and East L.A. neighborhoods and move to wealthier enclaves in West L.A. and the Valley. Once upon a time, predominantly Mexican American Boyle Heights was a thriving Jewish enclave. New Deal era affirmative action policies for white people, coupled with the Great Migration of African Americans from the South, facilitated white Jewish upward mobility and assimilation. As Ryan Reft writes on the transformation of Boyle Heights, “the Great Migration led others to rewrite the rules that kept whites separated from non-whites. As a result, definitions of whiteness shifted. Jews now found themselves increasingly included as part of the metropolitan area’s…conception of whiteness, and many took advantage of new housing opportunities.”

Sterling’s racist references to shiftless black untouchables are simply yet another snapshot of how caste, ethnicity and the bootstraps mythology play out in “post-racial” America. And in a country in which the racial wealth gap is most powerfully reflected in corporate real estate and apartheid-level access to private space people of color in particular shouldn’t be shocked or surprised.

The Sterling Shuffle: Unpacking White Jewish Racism
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18 thoughts on “The Sterling Shuffle: Unpacking White Jewish Racism

  1. 1

    Hi Sikivu,

    Donald Sterling is certainly racist, and the response he is getting is well deserved.

    Regardless, your discussing this describing it as “Anti-black racism among white Jewish people” is un-focused and a huge sweeping generalization.

    Your response to this one prick’s racism reminds me greatly of XKCD 385 a cartoon demonstrating the sexist fallacy of many claims.

  2. 2

    I can confirm such attitudes from attempts at joint Roma-Jewish civil rights activism. We’ve also been hearing this from the two Mizrahi (Ex-)Jewish members of our freethought group. Their parents emigrated from Iran to Israel, hoping they could finally live as equals, only to find that they were still second-class citizens to white Ashkenazi people. And when they moved on, they encountered the same problem within the Jewish community in Switzerland which ultimately motivated them to leave the religion.

    What was interesting was that they didn’t see the Ashkenazi’s colorism as a primary phenomenon, but as a secondary consequence of an underlying siege mentality which was particularly common to Jews of Eastern European origin. Basically, they trusted no one outside their own narrowly defined group, and used whatever preconceptions were around to justify this mentality vs. each foreign group (or made something up if there wasn’t a readily available stereotype). Gypsies are dirty, natural born thieves, black people are inferior savages, Swiss people are really just German Nazis (okay, they may have a point), all Americans regardless of ethnicity are evil imperialists (never mind that that’s totally schizophrenic since the U.S. is Israel’s closest ally) , all Middle-Easterners are terrorists, even Indians are terrorists at heart, and ethnic Jews from the Middle East and Africa are just opportunistic appropriators of the Jewish identity.

    Whatever the motivation may be, I think they’re miscalculating. If white Jewish people believe that other whites will ever accept them as their own, then no matter how white they act, they’re sadly mistaken. Adopting white supremacy as an identity may provide them with temporary benefits for a generation or two, but ultimately it just makes them useful idiots for their own enemies. Because at present, the true white powers may need them as foot soldiers in their proxy war with the Gulf Arabs in Palestine/Israel. But once they’ve outlived their usefulness, they’ll be in for a very rude awakening.

    Based on what I hear from white Europeans and Americans, antisemitic racism is still every bit as strong as colorist or antiziganist racism. When the day comes, they’ll find that alienating their natural allies may not have been such a good idea. Because none of us, including white Jews, are strong enough to fight white supremacy (and its Middle-Eastern counterpart) on our own. It doesn’t matter if the Holocaust against Jews, the Porajmos (the Nazi slaughter of Romani people), or the enslavement of African Americans was the greater crime. It’s not a contest.

    What matters is that we achieve equality and prevent such atrocities from happening again. But we won’t succeed if every group that achieves temporary equality in some place leaves the others behind. In this case, the phrase “the bigger the high, the bigger the fall” is very accurate. For all of us.

    (Hmph, I’m supposed to be on maternity leave, not writing internet comments. You guys didn’t see me.)

  3. 3

    “un focused and a huge sweeping generalization” backed up by historical precedent. Did she say, each and every Jewish person was racist? No…but she put the phenomenon referred to in a historical context that you cannot dispute

    1. 3.1

      Thank you. Never ceases to amaze how folks want to deflect critiques of the systemic advantages conferred on whites by structural racism/white supremacy into the “I’m not racist because my grandfather marched next to MLK” territory.

      1. I made this point in a comment here that never got out of moderation, so I’ll try once more. At least in my own experience, there is no Jewish cultural or religious basis for racism; quite the opposite. Most US Jews are democrats, most Jews vote and contribute in support of social justice. Sterling is a racist individual, and he may be a cultural artifact, but that culture is one of white privilege.

        BTW, Sterling changed his name when he was 25 years old, and living in an era when overt antisemitism was far more common. Two of my uncles (unrelated to each other) changed their names pre-WWII when they began their careers as salesmen and when skilled trades and universities were mostly closed to Jews.

        1. “BTW, Sterling changed his name when he was 25 years old, and living in an era
          when overt antisemitism was far more common. Two of my uncles (unrelated to each
          other) changed their names pre-WWII when they began their careers as salesmen
          and when skilled trades and universities were mostly closed to Jews.”

          Name-changing to whiten/Anglicize has never been a privilege that people of African descent could utilize to achieve racial assimilation or social mobility. Hence you just made one of the points of the article. Amazing how folk keep trying to tap dance around the history of the social construction of whiteness in the postwar U.S.: Jewish people are and were beneficiaries of white supremacy and white privilege, utilizing mainstream notions of whiteness and the black racial Other to their social advantage. In the late 1940s prominent Jewish developers in L.A. (i.e., the California City and Weinstock companies) and New York (i.e., Levittown) employed racist rhetoric about African Americans to enforce racially restrictive covenants which prohibited blacks from buying or renting in suburban subdivisions that white-Americans “bootstrapped” their way into. These legacies inform the racial landscape of modern segregation and the racial wealth gap, such that the majority of L.A.’s European American Jewish communities are concentrated in affluent areas on the Westside and the Valley while blacks and Latinos are largely consigned to South L.A., East L.A. and the East Valley. For further elucidation read Brodkin’s book.

          1. I’m not denying that many Jews tried to ‘pass’ in order to improve their incomes, but that didn’t make them any less Jewish, at least in my mind. The personal info was added, again, to counter a point you were making that name changing was somehow a symbol of Jewish oppression of Black people. (Sterling “tellingly” changed his name).

            And you don’t even bother addressing the main point I was offering. Of course, you don’t have to, but it’s hardly fair. Black people ‘pass’ all the time. I wouldn’t research anecdotes and point to the ones who exploited white privilege and claim it’s a racial and cultural symptom. And I wouldn’t point to Black anti-gay sentiment in that way either. You’re overgeneralizing in order to describe Jews as racist.

  4. 4

    wtfwhatever is so appropriate a prefix to you, dude.

    Jewish racism, especially regarding Black Americans, is not a thing? Get real.

    Never mind that most of this article is about how Jews (and others) benefited from WASP racism against Blacks. Are you saying they (I could say “we” here, by including myself, since my ancestors are from the “wrong kind of White categories) didn’t?

    I was going to suggest you failed to even read it, or failed at comprehending it, but I see you also fail to comprehend 2-panel cartoons.

    1. 5.1

      You’ve just described most of the world’s religions. Jews just have a popular vernacular expression for it. And specifically with Jews, it doesn’t mean what you appear to think it means, which I assume is something like entitled above all others, or God loves them best, or some such silliness. It means Jews are here for a purpose and nowhere is that purpose concerned with racism.

  5. 6

    I think it is important to remember that Sterling’s life experience as a billionaire is so atypical that he is probably not the best model for analyzing the issue. I suspect that his racism flows, at least in part, from the general disdain that the privileged “1%” have been cultivating. When you build obscene wealth on the backs of people who work for a living, you develop rationalizations as to why you’re deserving of the position you have.

    That said, anti-black prejudice among Jews is definitely a real phenomenon. Some of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve had have been listening to fellow Jews attempt to give advice or “support” to blacks and come off has horribly condescending. Having thought about this issue a lot, I think it goes to show that humanism is a better model for organizing the fight against racism than even well-meaning/liberal religion.

  6. 8

    This is tricky in part because “white” isn’t a fixed category (and neither is Jewish). Sometimes being Jewish feels like passing for white: a random stranger who glances at me probably sees a white woman, but sometimes I’m told I “look Jewish,” or hears my German Jewish family name, and that can come out as either “you’re one of us” or “you’re not really one of us,” depending on the other person. But most of the time I have white person privilege, which includes the ability to not see or pay attention to some of these problems. And saying “but I’m not really white, it’s not me” is like men who respond to a real complaint about what specific other men have done with a “not all men” derail: if it’s true that if I didn’t do that harmful thing, it’s not about me and I can shut up about it.

    Being Jewish doesn’t magically make me not part of a culture that is permeated with racism, and particularly anti-black racism.

  7. 9

    Black people in this country have always been “useful” to immigrants who need somebody lower than them on the socioeconomic scale to look down on, especially those who can pass for white. In that respect, the Askinazi (Eastern European Jews) were no different than the other immigrants from Europe than came in the late 19th – early 20th century. Where the story becomes complicated is the large number of Jews who fought (and died) for civil rights and those who now exploit their work as cover for their own racism. I was raised being told that Jewish immigrants empathized with Black people in America because they saw them as an oppressed class, similar to how Jews were treated in Europe. We are supposed to take pride in the fact that other ethic groups were racist, but not us. Of course, it was hogwash. Jews can be just as racist as everybody else, we just don’t have a reputation for it. Unfortunately, most discussions about racism within a particular group give systemic racism a pass. Just so long as we can have a scapegoat, whether it’s a person (in this case Donald Sterling), or group (in this case Jews), we can ignore the racism we all participate in to some extent.

  8. 10

    Adding an anecdote to this bonfire:

    My landlord was a Jewish woman from Europe who probably would have died in a concentration camp except she threw herself from a moving train, survived, and was hidden by a farmer until WWII ended.

    Fast forward to the 1970s, when I invited a fellow med tech to my apartment to sit on the balcony, have wine and cheese, and watch the ambulances zoom into the ER entrance of our workplace. This same woman confronted me the next day in the hallway, bristling with indignation, and told me to never, ever invite another one of “those people” into the building or she would get rid of me cancel my lease and throw me to the streets.

    I’m clueless*, so I asked “what people”? (I had some free clinic associates who were scary-looking hippie freaks and thought she had seen one of them)

    She was sputteringly angry but managed to get out “those .. those blackniggerpeoples!”

    I was gobsmacked. This woman whose life was saved by the kindness (and deaths) of strangers (some of them black US soldiers, stevedores and others), who was given entry to the USA because of her experiences, was foaming at the mouth angry because I invited a pigmentally enhanced co-worker into the building, still in her work whites and lab coat! It was OK to have a black guy living in the basement apartment as a janitor, but not a black woman sitting on the balcony as a guest of a tenant?

    WTF? Golden rule? Apparently she never heard of it.

    I think I told her to mind her own business – I really can’t remember what I did or said.

    1. 10.1

      We are surprised when people who have suffered prejudice exhibit prejudice themselves. That’s part of our fascination with Jewish bigotry, I suspect. I’m even surprised when Jews are Republicans, let alone bigots. But your landlord was a middle class European and held the common prejudices of her era.

  9. 11

    […] While you responded very personally out of your sense of shared humanity, you failed to speak personally out of a shared sense of having a unique and personal heritage. While you made it clear (rightfully so) that race, religion, gender, or nationality should not impact how one's deeds are judged, I don't think our unique heritages can be excluded from the decisions we make. It is very hard to simply be "human," rather our humanity is borne out of our experience of life through the lens of our unique heritages, through our race, our religion, our ethnicity, our gender, our nationality. Of course there are many other aspects of our personal identity than these heritages which are passed down to us by birthright (though at times chosen by our own will). Yet, issues surrounding discrimination are more often than not embedded within the canopy of our unique heritages and how we struggle as a society to accept, tolerate, and ultimately embrace our unique differences. That is to say, Mr. Silver, that while you may want to only respond out of your shared humanity, your Jewish, white, and male heritages play an important role in this issue, especially since the offender was another white Jewish man. And even if you don't want to respond out of those heritages, others will view this issue in those terms.  […]

  10. 12

    I worked at expensive restaurants in the NYC area for a long time and I have to say wealthy Jews were by far the most explicitly racist people I’ve ever met.

    One Sunday afternoon I was bartending when a group of local heart surgeons showed up, they weren’t going to have dinner here they were just waiting for the another (cheaper) place to open up for dinner (they didn’t have a liquor license). These guys started the NIGclang comments immediately non-stop and kept trying to get me to join in. After a couple minutes I couldn’t take it anymore and walked into the kitchen and said I’m not doing this. The sous chef said how hard can it be and went back behind the bar, 2 minutes later he came back with a pissy look on his face and said he was going to call Chef (the owner) and get them kicked out.

    Now we were trying to get 4 stars from Valerie Sinclair at the time and kicking out a band of local heart surgeons wasn’t going to help. We decided to send out our big burly dishwasher to bartend and told him to start talking about his large extended family. It took a little while but they finally left, which was a shame because we had slapped a jacket on the busboy and was going to send him out if they complained and wanted to speak to manager, Louis spoke no english, it would have great.

    The interesting thing is the hypocrisy of this bunch. I had worked in a funky Cajun restaurant with a black chef and staff and the same entitled assholey people I had encountered at the high end places who had grabbed every opportunity to look down at the servers were all bonhomie engaging with us at the Cajun place.

    It reminds me of that thing someone is doing in SA selling nights at a hovel in a Botswana ghetto so the customer can get an authentic “night of misery” experience.

    I am The Pale Scot, WP isn’t allowing me to post as myself, sorry bob, whoever you are.

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