Tuesday, November 01, 2005

EUGENE ROBINSON wrote in an October 25 Washington Post op-ed about Condoleezza Rice in the context of the pre-civil rights movement South she grew up in, but that she appears not to identify with:

Like a lot of African Americans, I've long wondered what the deal was with Condoleezza Rice and the issue of race. How does she work so loyally for George W. Bush, whose approval rating among blacks was measured in a recent poll at a negligible 2 percent? How did she come to a worldview so radically different from that of most black Americans? Is she blind, is she in denial, is she confused -- or what?

After spending three days with the secretary of state and her entourage as she toured Birmingham, where she grew up in a protective bubble as the tumult of the civil rights movement swirled around her, I have a partial answer: It's as if Rice is still cosseted in her beloved Titusville, the neighborhood of black strivers where she was raised, able to see the very different reality that other African Americans experience but not to reach out of the bubble -- not able to touch that other reality, and thus not able to really understand it.
I know very few black Americans who think of themselves fully as insiders in this society. No matter how high we rise, there's always that reality that Rice acknowledges: The society isn't colorblind, not yet. It's not always in the front of your mind, but it's there. We talk about it, we overcome it, but it's there.

When Rice was growing up, her father stood guard at the entrance of her neighborhood with a rifle to keep the Klan's nightriders away. But that was outside the bubble. Inside the bubble, Rice was sitting at the piano in pretty dresses to play Bach fugues. It sounds like a wonderful childhood, but one that left her able to see the impact that race has in America -- able to examine it and analyze it -- but not to feel it.

When Robinson writes, "I know very few black Americans who think of themselves fully as insiders in this society. ..." I understand what he means.

For a certain generation of American Jews -- those, like me, who were born before or soon after World War II -- the feeling of being an outsider in American society is a familiar one. Although I was born in the United States, five years after WWII ended, my parents were European Jews who left their native countries to escape the Nazis. I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust; and I was deeply affected by my parents' memories and experiences of what it meant to be Jewish in that world. It meant never feeling quite like you belonged to the society you live in. It meant feeling at least somewhat unsafe -- psychically, if not physically -- outside of the larger Jewish community. It meant identifying with oppression, which is why my parents felt such a strong emotional connection to the civil rights movement, which began when I was about five years old.

I don't want to make too much of this, or imply that the Jewish experience in America is comparable to the black experience in America. My parents came to this country fleeing from persecution and from genocide. In that respect, Jews are no different from any of the millions of other immigrants who came to the United States fleeing oppression and poverty. We chose to come here.

Also, the feeling of being alien to American culture is much more common in my generation. As virulent anti-semitism becomes more of a historical memory and less of a daily reality, and as younger Jews move farther away from having directly experienced, or having had close family members who directly experienced, the Holocaust, Jews are less likely to feel anti-semitism and genocide as a part of their Jewish identity.

By contrast, obviously, black Americans live in the country where their holocaust -- or at least one piece of it -- took place. Black Americans are marked by their experience in this country, and by the reality that skin color is much more stigmatizing, still, for African-Americans than religion and ethnicity is for Jews.

Nevertheless, from the standpoint of my own personal Jewish background, I will always recognize and identify with that sense black Americans have of being on the outside. It's a feeling that's much more deeply rooted than economic status or political affiliation.

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