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Off white in 2024 America


The poet Robert Pinsky has an essay on the shifting liminal status of Jewish people in America:

I never see any more the phrase “Jews and minorities.” Good riddance to those well-meaning words that used to give me, along with others in the roughly 2.4 percent of the U.S. adult population who are Jews (0.2 percent of the world), a wincing chuckle. Even the legitimate, standard-issue phrase “people of color” raises its teeny backwash. Possibly, some people who use it don’t realize that Jews were not white people in our country until recently — thus, at some point, neither white nor of color?

Certainly there have been times and places where we were not white, recent and nearby. Around 1970, when I lived in the town of Wellesley, Mass., as a college teacher, my family and I occupied faculty housing. Thanks to that fringe benefit, we didn’t need to worry that at least some of Wellesley’s residential neighborhoods were said to be restricted by a real estate provision that forbade selling a house to Jews. That kind of covert agreement was called a “covenant”— a biblical-sounding term that asserted a weirdly powerful, absurd authority. Even the expression a Black or Brown or Asian person might use about positions of authority — “I’d like to see someone in that office who looks like me” — can cause a queasy twinge at the word “looks.” Stereotypes of “looking Jewish” are repellent, the stuff of Nazi propaganda. And please don’t tell us we are smarter than other people. (I’m always tempted to answer that one with, “You’ve never met my Cousin Barney.”)

One of the first pieces of academic mail I received as a young professor informed me that the trustees had amended Wellesley College’s charter, so that faculty members were no longer required to be “Christian” men and women. “Phew,” I could joke to myself, “just in time.”

Note that as a practical matter it wasn’t illegal to refuse to rent or sell housing to people on the basis of their race or religion in much of America until the dreaded Big Federal Government passed the Fair Housing Act in the late 1960s (even that statute is riddled with exceptions and is very difficult to enforce).

My parents came to the United States from Mexico in 1959, moving to Colorado Springs, where one of the first things my mother was asked when she was looking for an apartment a couple of years later, after they had to move out of the family housing provided by my father’s employer, was whether she was “Caucasian.” (This was on the telephone, and of course she had a “Mexican” name.

Due to the ambiguities of America’s ever-evolving Race Science ™, the answer is getting unclear again, 63 years later.

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