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Making Allies

A pair of Converse basketball shoes with Hebrew and Arabic phrases meaning “Peace be unto you” written on them sit with bouquets of flowers and cards along hedges outside Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Nov. 20. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

My former colleague, Shana Bernstein, has good things to say on the importance of forging alliances across race and class lines to disrupt rising racist rhetoric, policy, and violence.

The recent rash of hate crimes has led to some seemingly unlikely alliances. After an election season full of anti-refugee fearmongering, rabbis organized a pilgrimage to the southern border to protest the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants. After the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Muslim leaders offered to stand guard outside synagogues to protect Jews while they worshiped and raised money to support the community.

We regularly encounter the wedges driven between groups by political allegiances, global conflicts,and attempts to grasp at the limited avenues of privilege open to marginalized groups. But the apparent unlikeliness has its own history.

It’s particularly useful to recast the argument about winning over marginalized whites (poor, rural, or otherwise) as an attempt to undo deep historical practices of division. Talking openly about why and how poorer white communities have been mobilized against perceived racial enemies in order to shore up both wealth and whiteness seems far more productive than the usual hand-wringing.

Overcoming the cultural and political divides between marginalized groups is not easy. Throughout American history they have been far more likely to be divided than unified. This was true as early as Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, when slave owners, fearful of alliances between white indentured servants and black slaves, implemented black codes to make sure that whites’ sense of racial superiority would prevent them from joining forces with black slaves.

The same dynamics were often at work at the height of the labor movement. Samuel Gompers, the famed Jewish labor leader, was an important figure in the late-19th and early-20th-century anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese movement, writing tracts like “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?” In 1991, tensions between African and Jewish Americans erupted in violence in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The next year, after the Rodney King verdict, African Americans in Los Angeles exploded in violence that targeted Korean Americans, a conflict that masked common concerns such as poverty in ways that resembled the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion.

But if the groups under attack today prioritize difference rather than solidarity, racial divisions will flourish, and racists and anti-Semites will be empowered. The lesson of Bacon’s Rebellion shows how coalitions can and must encompass working- and middle-class whites as well as multiple minority communities. Had the white indentured servants recognized how wealthy whites used race to divide them from black slaves to keep them all from fighting for a common agenda, perhaps history would have taken a different trajectory.

Racial divides continue to forestall natural cross-racial alliances. Working-class whites fail to see their common economic interest with many minorities. Those in power target minorities in part to camouflage how their own policies, like the Trump tax revision, help the wealthy at the expense of middle- and working-class Americans of all races. Should Jewish Americans strive to preserve their whiteness as a guard against growing anti-Semitism, and should working-class whites do the same to gain racial advantage at the cost of economic reform, they will prove to be part of the larger problem.

Another valuable contribution in this piece: links to some important work for anyone wanting more on how these alliances were created (and broken) in the past–including, of course, her own excellent book.

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