Is Racism Ever Passé?

It wasn’t all that long ago that, in the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s sweeping victory in the race for President, more than a few pundits were declaring that America had become a “post-racist society.” I wish it were so, but I’m sure it’s not.

A friend recently posted to me the link to a YouTube video in which an Israeli and a Palestinian are sitting on opposite sides of a train- I think in Paris- glaring at each other as they read their obviously ethnic newspapers. They are clearly the worst of enemies until a group of skinheads come along, threatening them both. The Israeli comes to the aid of the Palestinian, who is in immediate danger, and together they manage to outwit the skinheads and escape the train. Once out, they exit from different sides of the station, leaving one to wonder whether their sudden fellowship, driven by a common threat, changes their view of the world, or not. Unlikely…

Last night I went with my family to catch “West Side Story” on Broadway before it closes in a few weeks. It’s hardly a great production- there’s lots that’s wrong with it- but I have always regarded Bernstein’s score for that show (and, of course, Sondheim’s lyrics) as some of the most sublime music ever written for the theatre, and I would gladly sit through even a mediocre production to hear it performed.

It’s more than a little jarring to hear language so obviously past its time being thrown around by the characters. It’s been years since “Daddy-O” was a hip way of referring to one’s friend. Also, the society in which we live is so much more open and blended than the one depicted in that show… Jews, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Catholics- we all share the world far more seamlessly than the Jets and the Sharks did on the means streets of the West Side (one has to laugh and think how different a play “Upper West Side Story” would be if it were written today!).

All you have to do is peruse the Styles section of the Sunday New York Times and read the names of the people who are marrying each other. It’s not just Jews who are intermarrying. Everyone is marrying everyone. The societal dividing walls that made the Jets and the Sharks mortal enemies simply don’t exist anymore, at least not the way they did when that great play was written.

Poor Tony and Maria- if they had fallen in love today, they might have had a happy life together!

And yet, though those barriers and the attitudes they represent have, for the most part, morphed into a far less toxic and violent forms, they have not altogether disappeared.

We Jews who live in New York often allow ourselves to believe that all of America relates to Jews the way non-Jewish New Yorkers do. That is, of course, a ridiculous notion. Though less overt than it used to be, only the foolishly naïve would believe that anti-Semitism in this country and around the world is not alive and well.

Ask any Muslim-American whether he or she feels singled out as a potential enemy of America simply because of dark skin or an obviously Arabic-sounding surname, and whether they regard it as racist. Ask an African-American person who is pulled over on the Jersey Turnpike simply for the sin of “driving while Black,” or driving a nice car while Black, how he or she feels about a color-blind America. Or, for that matter, ask Harvard professor Henry Lewis Gates how it felt to have the Cambridge police arrest him for trying to get into his own house when he was locked out.

We are not a post-racial society, and probably never will be. Our society is a work in progress- not a perfect union, but a pretty good version of one. Individuals can still feel the sting of racist stereotyping, and gangs like the Bloods and the Crips remind us that though the West Side is no longer the venue for such turf wars, other places are. It’s as old as the Montagues and Capulets, after all.

When the play was over, my wife commented to me that every time she sees that play or listens to the score, she harbors the secret hope that it will turn out different- maybe better. As Tony and Maria might have said, somehow- someday- somewhere…

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.