Among progressives, there is a bitter debate over whether American Jews whose ancestors immigrated to the US from Europe should be deemed “white” (and thus beneficiaries of “white privilege”), or non-white, given their vulnerability to antisemitism, including violence from white nationalists who deem them to be non-white.
I believe that this debate misses the mark; it tries to fit antisemitism, which has myriad origins, most of which have nothing to do with “whiteness” – such as Jews being “Christ-killers”) – into the American black-white paradigm. This reaches an absurd apex when people assert that the Nazis killed Jews because they thought Jews weren’t white, as if the Nazis didn’t have their own bizarre racial hierarchy – one that didn’t match that of the Jim Crow South.
That said, the US has its own official racial classifications, dictated by the federal Office of Management and Budget in 1978. These classifications dictate the boxes one checks for race on college admissions forms, mortgage applications, the Census, job applications, and more. Where do Jews fit in?
The short answer, as discussed in my new book, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America, is that the US government has always deemed Jews whose ancestors came from Europe origin to be “white.” There was some controversy in the early twentieth century about the racial status of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, but the government ultimately determined MENA people, including Jews, are “white.” The 1978 rules, still in effect, dictate that all people of European and MENA origin are classified as generically white.
Things could have turned out differently. Around 1910, the US immigration bureaucracy considered classifying Jews separately from other European immigrants; for demographic purposes, these officials wanted to be able to distinguish, say, ethnic Poles from Jews from Poland. After protests from Jewish organizations, officials instead settled for asking immigrants their mother tongue; this allowed Yiddish-speaking Jews to be tabulated separately, without putting them in a separate “racial” classification.
In the late 1950s, the US government began requiring federal contractors to report on their minority employees, including “Spanish-Americans, Orientals, Indians, Jews, and Puerto Ricans,” to help identify illegal discriminatory hiring patterns. Within a few years, some civil rights organizations objected that including Jews in the data diverted resources better-used to combat discrimination against black Americans, who suffered more economically from discrimination than Jews did. Jewish organizations, never comfortable with the government keeping official tabs on Jews, agreed that Jews should be dropped from the forms.
In the 1970s, a few prominent activists argued that Jews should receive more explicit attention from the civil rights bureaucracy. Occasionally, Jewish leaders even expressed support for including Jews in affirmative action programs, but mainstream Jewish organizations never took up the cause.
American Jews remain extremely sensitive to any hint that they should be classified by the government separately from other Americans. The New York Times incorrectly reported in 2019 that the Trump administration was about to issue an executive order “interpreting Judaism as a race or nationality.” Much of the American Jewish world was briefly up in arms, until it became clear that the Times report was wrong. Jews today are classified as non-Hispanic whites unless they are also members of one of the official minority categories, such as Asian American or African American.
The only partial exception to Jews being generically part of other “racial” groups is Hasidim. In the 1970s, their representatives lobbied vigorously to be included in federal affirmative action plans for minority-owned small businesses. Lobbyists for the Hasidim pointed out that unlike other American Jews, Hasidim wear distinctive attire that makes them targets for discrimination. Moreover, Hasidim have high rates of poverty and receive little secular education, as their schools emphasize study of Jewish religious texts. The strict tenets of their faith, such as avoiding contact with the opposite sex, make it difficult for them to enter the secular business world. Finally, many Hasidim use Yiddish as their everyday language and speak English only as a second language.
As discussed in Classified, Hasidim achieved such recognition from the federal Commerce Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and retain that minority status today, giving them an advantage in government contracting. The big prize, though, was the Small Business Administration, and attempts to gain minority status with the SBA failed.
During the Carter administration, SBA General Counsel Ed Norton tentatively concluded that Hasidim met the program’s requirements. The SBA invited public comments on the Hasidim’s application. The agency received strongly negative feedback, primarily from African Americans. Congressman Parren Mitchell, the leading congressional advocate for the Section 8(a) program, sent a letter to numerous African American entrepreneurs and politicians warning that “inclusion of Hasidic Jews would ‘dilute…existing resources earmarked for…other minorities.
Norton, meanwhile, had a change of heart. He reasoned that the Hasidim were primarily disadvantaged because of their religious traditions, and that it would be unconstitutional to provide special benefits to a group defined by religion because of their religion. The SBA therefore denied the Hasidim’s petition, and the Hasidim apparently did not appeal.
In short, legally speaking, the vast majority of American Jews have always been deemed “white” by the government, and remain classified as such today.
That said, a change may be in the offing. The Biden administration is considering amending America’s racial classification scheme to include a classification for “Middle East and North African.” This classification would include Jews who immigrated from that region, Israelis, and some fraction of Ashkenazi Jews who consider themselves more “Middle Eastern” by religion, culture, and genetics than European.