Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Talking about race and class in the classroom

During the course of this school year, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of conferences that dealt with how we should talk about race and class in Jewish education.

Having these conversations is a welcome development, since these issues don’t get a lot of air time in our schools. While it’s true that students are exposed to these subjects in history and English classes, they often don’t extrapolate what they’ve learned so they can understand why their reality looks different from other people’s reality in America. The consensus, as educators talked to each other at the conferences, was that it’s crucial for civic life that kids see themselves within the larger tapestry of the American story to understand how we arrived at where we are today.

Location is a good place to start a discussion of race, since many of our Jewish communities are suburban, and by now we have a clear understanding of how racial discrimination carved out the lovely enclaves where so many of us live. Redlining — the practice of refusing loans or other services based on race or ethnicity — and restrictive covenants — agreements made between property owners not to sell to particular groups of people, usually African Americans, and upheld by real estate boards and neighborhood associations — were part of a system that denied blacks in America a place in the middle class and resulted in de facto segregation, especially once legal segregation became outlawed.

It’s easy to see how the history of Jews in America prevented us from assessing the full picture of discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Many of our families — including mine — came to this country in the early 20th century, when the practices of redlining and creating restrictive covenants first were getting started, and when we were struggling to succeed. My childhood was filled with reminiscences of the Depression and the trials my great-grandparents and grandparents endured then.

The Holocaust caused another wave of immigration from Europe, and ensured that the Ashkenazi American community primarily was focused internally, set on rebuilding after the Shoah. The 20th century saw similar waves of immigration from Sephardic communities; many of those immigrants also were fleeing persecution in their home countries and had to focus their energies on their own survival when they reached their new land.

But that doesn’t mean we’re free from blame in the story of race relations in America. In the mid-20th century, James Baldwin wrote an article called “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.”

The essay starts like this:

“When we were growing up in Harlem our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish, and we hated them. We hated them because they were terrible landlords, and did not take care of the building. A coat of paint, a broken window, a stopped sink, a stopped toilet, a sagging floor, a broken ceiling, a dangerous stairwell, the question of garbage disposal, the question of heat and cold, of roaches and rats — all questions of life and death for the poor, and especially for those with children — we had to cope with all of these as best we could. Our parents were lashed to futureless jobs, in order to pay the outrageous rent. We knew that the landlord treated us this way only because we were colored, and he knew that we could not move out.

“The grocer was a Jew, and being in debt to him was very much like being in debt to the company store. The butcher was a Jew and, yes, we certainly paid more for bad cuts of meat than other New York citizens, and we very often carried insults home, along with the meat. We bought our clothes from a Jew and, sometimes, our secondhand shoes, and the pawnbroker was a Jew — perhaps we hated him most of all. The merchants along 125th Street were Jewish — at least many of them were; I don’t know if Grant’s or Woolworth’s are Jewish names — and I well remember that it was only after the Harlem riot of 1935 that Negroes were allowed to earn a little money in some of the stores where they spent so much.

“Not all of these white people were cruel — 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.”

When I shared this essay with a group of educators at one conference I attended, a woman told us that her Haitian housekeeper’s experience with a Jewish landlord was similar to the one Baldwin described.

Baldwin continues:

“The Jew’s suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world and the Jew is recognized as a contributor to the world’s history: this is not true for the blacks. Jewish history, whether or not one can say it is honored, is certainly known: the black history has been blasted, maligned and despised. The Jew is a white man, and when white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to their native savagery. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was not described as a riot, nor were the participants maligned as hoodlums: the boys and girls in Watts and Harlem are thoroughly aware of this, and it certainly contributes to their attitude toward the Jews.”

One of the things I’ve noticed when I’ve entered into discussions about race with friends and acquaintances is that there’s sometimes a tendency to hold up our own Jewish oppression story as an example of the success of the American dream, and to dismiss the differences that exist between ours and others’. When English teacher, activist, and education theorist Clint Smith, who is African-American, addressed the Jewish Futures Conference in November 2017, he told us that we need not be in competition about whose oppression story is worse.

We need to put down our fists and listen to each other, so we better understand where each of us is coming from, he told us. Smith is fond of saying that we’ve got to “complicate the narrative”; that is, we have to stop seeing the world in binary terms and understand that each part of the American story is endlessly nuanced. Acknowledging that he has certain privileges as a man and therefore must listen attentively when women speak about gender bias, he notes that he encounters prejudice as a black man that others need to understand.

I know, for example, that my parents never yanked me inside on a hot summer day when I was playing with a water gun in public. Smith, who grew up attending schools with diverse populations and had friends who were white and black, recalled his parents’ anger when they grabbed him, telling him, “You are NOT like your friends.”

At the more recent conferences I’ve attended, one of which was at Brandeis’ Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, some suggestions emerged for how to educate students more deeply about the experiences of other minorities in this country. These included:

  • More direct instruction about discriminatory practices that have prevented minorities from succeeding in America
  • More explicit discussions about what race and identity mean, and how our students think about their own identities
  • More hiring of people of color as faculty in our schools
  • More direct conversations and encounters between our students and more diverse student populations in other schools

I’d like to address class in a different article, and end by noting that we’re sometimes afraid to have discussions about important topics, such as race, because they’re so loaded and uncomfortable. A few years ago, in a discussion about race with an African American friend who’s a professor, he told me of a college course he had taken on race relations. At one point in the middle of the first class, a student got up and said she couldn’t do this. Having these discussions was too hard, she’d said. I asked my friend how he had felt, and he said that he too had been uncomfortable, but he had stayed. He felt it was important to stay.

We’re all here in this melting pot called America. Unless we don’t want to stay, we have to find a way to reach out to each other, even if it means having some squirming-in-our-seats conversations. It’s too important not to do so.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Jewish high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.
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