James Baldwin’s landmark essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” is alternatively nuanced and strident, exacting and scattershot, hopeful and fatalistic. It’s fairly prophetic too. As we mark the 55th anniversary of its publication let us acknowledge that, in spite of all the outrage (and confusion) the piece created, it was prescient in many ways.
Way back in April of 1967 Baldwin surmised that by being white,Jewish-Americans—even the many Jewish-Americans committed to social justice—were ensnared within a brutal system of what we now call “racial capitalism.” The economic asymmetries that the system engendered would, in Baldwin’s augury, doom the civil rights coalition that these minority groups had heroically forged. Too, these structural inequalities would corrode any authentic empathy Jews and Blacks may have felt for one another.
“Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” is far more subtle and internally tensile than its title suggests. The subtleties and tensions, however, were lost on countless Jewish leaders. Instead, some saw “a passionate justification of Negro anti-Semitism.” One rabbi dubbed Baldwin a “Negro extremist . . . who has allowed his hostility to whites to run into extra-hostility to Jews.”
When we teach this text in our “Blacks and Jews” class, we point out that Baldwin is actually performing something of an intellectual false flag operation. His essay reads like a sermon, albeit a secular one (see below). He appears to be attacking one thing (i.e., the Jews), yet his true targets lie elsewhere.
The piece is a symphony of rhetorical misdirections, winks, and toggles. African-Americans, Baldwin argued, perceive Jews as white and thus no different from white Christians. But he also affirmed that Jews are certainly not Christians; they too have run afoul of the “old, rugged Roman cross.” Yes, Baldwin alleged that Jews in Harlem are inconsiderate landlords, butchers, teachers, and police officers. But, no! Not all of those offenders are Jews. Thinking aloud, Baldwin recognizes that few Jews scale the corporate heights of General Motors, Mobiloil or Pepsi-Cola where white people rule.
Jewish readers in 1967 might have learned so much more from the essay than they actually did. Blacks, after all, certainly had a rich perspective on the inhumanity of white Christians. If Blacks perceived Jews—Jews!—as indistinguishable from the latter, then what might this say about the moral standing of the Jewish-American community? Did the perception not recommend introspection, a course correction?
The question was mostly ignored (and still is). It was easier for Jews to linger on Baldwin’s oversights. He overlooked, as Whoopi Goldberg recently did on The View, the fact Jewish-Americans had been racially assigned in many different and contradictory ways (e.g., white, non-white, European, non-European, Semitic, Caucasian, Hebrew, Asiatic, Levantine, etc). He overlooked that the majority of world Jewry is non-white. He overlooked, to borrow a phrase from Cynthia Ozick, that “There are black Jews. There have been black Jews for millennia….[they] can be seen giggling and wriggling in any cluster of Israeli schoolchildren.” How could Baldwin have strolled down 125th Street in Harlem without seeing a Black Jew?
The “Jews as white” hypothesis could be overlooked and dismissed on those grounds. But that dismissal could not alter a fundamental truth. In a country beholden to a rigid Black/white binary, most Jews were now white. When given the opportunity, the majority—though certainly not all—of American Jews, passed. Only in recent years have Jewish communities begun to ponder the implications of this collective move for their Black compatriots.
All of which brings us to Baldwin’s true target in “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic.” Unnoticed in the copious commentary on the essay are his profound insights on what scholars today call “racial capitalism.” A heady concept, it explores how capitalism has created, manufactured, and exploited racial identities in ways that enrich some, and immiserate others. In America, the process has been operative from the advent of the slave trade, through the period of Jim Crow and segregation, right up to the present moment.
Baldwin’s maestro stroke was to depersonalize the debate. He reframed passionate Black/Jewish conflicts within the cold economic structures of racial capitalism. The dislike that some Blacks felt towards Jews, he instructed, wasn’t really caused by Jews at all. In a manner reminiscent of, let’s say, the Indian caste system, these secondary human beings were shunted into northeastern cities and ghettos by the dint of their marginality vis a vis white Christians. Sharing these spaces, the duo was stuck in a dismal, interdependent relation of hierarchy.
Latecomers to whiteness, but now white nonetheless, Jews entered this system of exploitation. They too abided by the logic of racial capitalism. This logic, Baldwin alleged, even dictated their well-known philanthropic impulses. The author decried the circulation of “conscience money.” This referred to donations given by Jews to civil rights causes which served the purpose of keeping “the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.”
The problem Baldwin identified, then, had to do with a vast civilizational apparatus of inequality, not Jews. This Marxist-tinged approach emphasized system over character, structure over personality. “Not all of these white people were cruel,” Baldwin declares, “—on the contrary, I remember some who were certainly as thoughtful as the bleak circumstances allowed—but all of them were exploiting us, and that was why we hated them.” On the backstroke, the author was imploring his Black readers to be anti-capitalist, but not anti-Semitic.
Rhetorically, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic” has the dynamic tempo and “Saints!-When-I-think-of-the-goodness-of-Jesus-my-Soul-cries-Hallelujah!” prompts of a sermon delivered in an African-American Pentecostal house of worship. It’s no coincidence that precisely such a church was a major influence on Baldwin’s intellectual activism. The elder literary giant was always grappling with his younger self: the wunderkind junior minister at Fireside Pentecostal Assembly church, the talented apostate who left the fold at age 17. His pen became his cross and sword.
This accounts for a rhetorical technique deployed in “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic” known as “signifying.” A staple of the Black preacher’s tool kit, signifying performs the absurdity of W.E.B. Du Bois’s magisterial question in the opening lines of The Souls of Black Folk: “How does it feel to be a problem.” Veiled in rhythmic cadences and punctuated through adroit alliteration, signifying from the pulpit trivializes and exacerbates what philosopher-preacher Cornel West theorizes as the “tragic-comic” sense of Black life.
To “signify the word” is to be simultaneously serious and playful, mournful and joyous, loving and brazen, while almost always concealing the true culprit under attack. It is also to take considerable pleasure in words and their infinite possibilities of meaning. Baldwin convincingly evokes, as is so often the case in Black preaching, the “trickster” character analyzed in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s groundbreaking Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism.
Blacks are anti-Semitic because they are anti-white. This is classic signifying. The locution confounds. One imagines the intrigued reader saying: “We are what?” “They are who?” Preacher/Trickster Baldwin is regaling his congregation with pokes at Jews and white folks (and Jews as white folks). Or so it seems.What some may have construed as a provocation aimed at Jews, we decipher as equally a provocation aimed at Blacks.
In true signifying fashion, Baldwin suddenly, but subtly, shifts his target. The man who once had the audacity to quip “One doesn’t, in Harlem, long remain standing on any auction block,” begins to indulge one of his favorite intellectual pastimes: critiquing his own people.
The great writer muses on the brutality of Black cops. He reflects upon the “curious coalition” that owns Harlem including “some churches . . . . and some Negroes.” His audience—half rapt, half perplexed—listens as he exposes the Black ghetto’s disdain for Jews who exploit their whiteness at the expense of their Black sisters and brothers. “It is bitter to watch,“ sighed Baldwin, “the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter.”
What some may have construed as a provocation aimed at Jews, we decipher as equally a provocation aimed at Blacks. This is the altar-call; the moment where Baldwin expects—dare we say demands—that Black folk come clean about their loathing of Jewish financial success. “I refuse to hate Jews . . . because I know how it feels to be hated,” Baldwin concludes. Though, sotto voce, he signifies: “You hate them don’t you?” Don’t you! And yet: you call yourselves Christians?” Like any good preacher, Baldwin exposes his listeners’ contradictions as a reminder of their frailties. This is the pathway to healing wounded people.
There is some more, rather personal, self-signifying going on in “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic.”
Five weeks before the article appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Baldwin resigned from the advisory board of Liberator, a Black nationalist magazine. His resignation was prompted by Harlem writer Eddie Ellis who wrote a series entitled “Semitism in the Black Ghetto.” Ellis’s pieces focused on police brutality, and Jewish economic colonialism in Black communities. The articles called out Jews for their heavy-handed role in shaping the Civil Rights movement. In response, Baldwin demurred: “I think it is most distinctly unhelpful, and I think it is immoral, to blame Harlem on the Jew.”
The criticism of Ellis presages a pattern that figures often in Black-Jewish relations. It begins when a relatively obscure Black writer/cleric/leader/entertainer/athlete spews anti-Semitic slurs. Soon thereafter a more established Black figure is expected to denounce the malefactor. One thinks of cases ranging from Minister Louis Farrakhan to Nick Cannon.Rhetorically, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic” has the dynamic tempo of a sermon delivered in an African-American Pentecostal house of worship.
One also thinks of double standards. For how often are other white people asked to denounce, let’s say, Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic musings? “They’re Jewish people that run The New York Times,” former President Donald Trump recently said. Was Joe Biden urged to condemn these remarks?
In any case, it’s unclear if Baldwin was pushed to rebuke Ellis, or if his own moral compass directed his intervention. We suspect the latter. Yet as far as many Jews were concerned, Baldwin’s ideas were indistinguishable from the ones he castigated! As we noted above, his argument looks to capitalism, not to Jews, as the source of the problem. Say what you will about signifying—it astonishes, it delights, it titillates, but it also confuses.
Aside from its author’s genius and literary elan, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic” is the beneficiary of its historical moment. Shortly after its publication (April 9, 1967), the Six-Day War broke out in the Middle East. Almost exactly one year later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
Baldwin’s essay is perched between epochs. Before the piece, there was the feel-good narrative of the “Grand Alliance.” That would be the liberal Black-Jewish juggernaut which scored monumental victories in the 1950s and 1960s culminating in the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. After the piece, came the murder of Dr. King and the rise of a younger generation of Black leaders. Not being liberals, and not feeling good about America, they rejected the church-based, integrationist, gradualist, leadership of their elders.
The new Black Power movement also rejected the Grand Alliance. Stokely Carmichael, depicted Israel as a white, colonial-settler enterprise oppressing Palestinians (now cast in the role of symbolic African-Americans). Some scholars argue this critique was less about Jews and more about signaling to the old Christian guard that the new generation meant business.
Jewish-Americans also shifted between 1967 and 1968. They once exhibited a muted sense of pride, coupled with deep existential dread, about Israel’s future. After the war, a sense of euphoria seized the community. Muted no longer, Jews would defend Israel from its most vociferous critics—many of whom happened to be Black! In so doing, they even adapted Black Power’s rhetorical swagger and ethnic affirmation. Jewish-Americans, if they so desired, could be Jewish, not white or just white.
People don’t read carefully. There’s a reason educators rarely “signify the word.” In 1967, many readers assumed “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic” conveyed the Black perspective. Jews read the title and drew obvious conclusions. By 1968, the Grand Alliance was tottering. Soon came a half century of spectacularly public brawls, ranging from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teacher’s strike, to the Andrew Young Affair, to debates about Affirmative Action, to Crown Heights, and beyond.
Today, the Grand Alliance languishes in what we call its “afterglow” stage. It was never Baldwin’s intention to extinguish its flame. Rather, he wanted to mourn a failing democracy beholden to a brutal system of racial-economic exploitation. He wanted to identify white Christianity’s singular role in producing and propagating anti-Blackness and anti-Semitism.
Terrence L. Johnson and Jacques Berlinerblau’s latest books is Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue (Georgetown University Press). The authors wish to thank Tara Neil for her editorial assistance.