EdFix Episode 29: Reflecting on Black-Jewish Relations in America

In recent years, both racially motivated hate crimes and antisemitism have been on the rise. But does the experience of common oppression necessarily lead to coalition? And can we better prepare teachers for conversations that fight bigotry? Dr. Dwayne Wright, Director of DEI Initiatives for GSEHD and GW Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration, and Dr. Benjamin M. Jacobs, GW Associate Research Professor of Experiential Jewish Education, talk about intersectionality, inclusion, and the complex nature of Black-Jewish relations.



This episode of EdFix was recorded just days before National Basketball Association Player Kyrie Irving dominated headlines for his disturbingly antisemitic remarks that went viral on social media and in the mainstream press. The power of celebrities, whether in sports or science or the arts, not only in politics, to influence others, especially younger generations, cannot be overstated. As educators, I believe we need to be extra sensitive to this issue and to help teachers engage with their students in what are often difficult conversations, if we have any hope of contributing to the struggle against antisemitism, racism, bigotry and hate in all of its forms. I hope this episode of EdFix may be helpful. And thank you in advance for listening.

There has always been a basis for coalition within common oppression.

Welcome to EdFix your source for insights about the promise and practice of education. I'm Michael Feuer, I'm your host. I'm the Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University. Today it's a very special pleasure I have to welcome two very close colleagues from GW, Dr. Ben Jacobs, associate professor of education with long expertise and deep knowledge on issues related to social studies, teacher development and with a special focus in much of his career on Jewish education, the way in which Jewish educators are prepared both in school and in, shall we say, less formal settings where education takes place. Ben has done a great deal of research on experiential Jewish education. He's publications are in most of the prestigious journals. He's the co-author most recently of the books, Cultures and Contexts of Jewish Education and an 18x18 Framework. Welcome Ben.

Thank you, Michael.

My second wonderful guest is Professor Dwayne Wright, who is in the Department of Education Leadership in the program on higher education administration, and very importantly is the director of our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Dr. Wright has worked on issues that cut at the intersection of scholarship and social activism with a passion and an interest and a certain expertise on issues related to educational opportunity, equality and inequality, and with a focus on historically marginalized groups. As I said, his research covers many of the subtleties and complexities of access and diversity and opportunity and equity for underserved populations in higher education but I dare say even beyond. Dr. Wright has a PhD and a JD from the Pennsylvania State University. And so it's a pleasure to have two wonderful scholars and colleagues with us on EdFix.

Let me get right into it here. You come to some of these issues from different perspectives, perhaps different traditions, both personal and intellectual. I've worked at what I call the hazardous intersection of research and policy for a long time, but I think right now we're dealing with an even more complex intersection and that has to do with the way in which we identify ourselves, in the way we understand identity and in the way in which we reach professional and even political judgments based on identity. And this intersection word has become a very important feature of the discourse.

And here I would like to ask and I'll just start with you, Dwayne. I know that you have in your background as a Black American has had to deal with issues of race, inequality, marginalization, opportunity. To what extent are you finding that those issues are now being treated in a way that promotes and enables good conversations and dialogue and learning across different identities? I'm going to ask you that and then I'm going to ask Ben to reflect on this similar problem of intersectionality from the perspective of social studies, education generally, Jewish education in particular, and we'll say more about Black-Jewish relations as our conversation progresses. Dwayne, kick us off with some of your thoughts about that.

Sure. First and foremost, thank you Dean Feuer for the invitation to come and talk to the illustrious audience of EdFix. The question of intersectionality, Michael is a very good one. So I will start at the beginning. I'll bring us towards what I think is the now and a few cautions and words about the future. So intersectionality is not necessarily a new term, even though it's gotten some new functions nowadays, it starts in the intellectual tradition of black feminist thought, Patricia Hill Collins as one of those that advocated for that. And then it was taken up by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the legal realm, a former Harvard law student and a leading voice in critical race theory. In fact, it was Professor Crenshaw who gave the intellectual tradition, now known as CRT, Critical Race Theory, its name. And it was a summary of the fact that none of us focusing primarily on black women, but none of us has only one dimension of ourselves that we all contain different parts of us that sometimes conflict, sometimes support.

And when they come to intersect, create an independent part of us. So the Black woman is not 100% only black, is not 100% only woman - she is both at the same time. And that creates a unique standing. Have we operationalized this theory, this philosophy, this thought process in a way that is positive? Is the way I'm going to interpret your question, Michael. I'm not sure. I think that there is a way to do this incorrectly, a way that almost is a race to the bottom instead of the race to the top. A way that incentivizes people to focus on their oppressions, incentivizes people to almost gear themselves as victims in order to get some type of perceived benefits. And that's not what Professor Crenshaw had in mind when she created intersectionality. What it has allowed us to do, I think, is to get a deeper analysis and a deeper thought process of who we are and for K through 12 schools for higher education, who we need to serve.

As a Black man here in America I hold many different identities, but I understand primarily that a lot of people that interact with me, especially when they first meet me, Michael, they're going to see me as a Black man. They don't know a lot of the other things. They haven't had the conversations you and I have had. So I think, is it positive? I think it is. I think we are better off now thinking in an intersectional way, but there are certain, what I would say cautions that we need to think about. Let me stop there cause I'm interested to hear what Ben thinks about that.

That's terrific. Thank you Dwayne. Okay, Ben, let me pivot now to you and ask for your insights about this complicated word. And if you could maybe even relate this to earlier periods of American educational history when we had different sensitivities and different awareness of issues related to, for example, inclusion when tragically inclusion of African Americans and Black people more generally in the American pluralist experiment was so delayed and such a late comer to the game. But does this question of intersectionality have roots in American educational history that could help us get an even broader perspective on it?

Thank you. So let me respond in a couple of different ways. I'm going to respond both generally as you asked, and I'm actually going to respond from my perspective again as someone who works closely now with Jewish education enterprise and it has a broader resonance because what you're talking about certainly brings us back to the late 19th century. So first we're talking about a reconstruction period in which theoretically at least, attempts are being made in some places to do some sort of job. And it's a very long and very complicated history of, shall we say, integrating freed slaves, their children, their grandchildren, into the fabric of what was quote unquote American life at the time. And some of those attempts actually are part of the origin story of social studies education in schools. Social studies education partly was an attempt to draw up a set of criteria for what "good citizenship" would look like.

And it emerged actually at first as part of the curriculum at Tuskegee. And so it has some of its origins in that setting where the challenge was placed, okay, how are we going to make sense of what these criteria for citizenship would look like? What kinds of knowledge do we expect people to have? What kinds of skills do we expect people to have to be "good American citizens?" Now this of course long predates the notion that women would have a franchise. I'm thinking of Dwayne's definition of intersectionality related to Black and woman. And so it long predates the notion of what a good female citizen, for example, would look like. And we have a very long history of not quite getting right exactly what citizenship for all peoples in this country would look like.

But I will say, and this is why I said I wanted to tie it into the American Jewish experience a little bit, just as an example of an ethnic group that came to this country in the late 19th century and was also trying to integrate to try to find its way into American society. When Dwayne referred to the notion of having two different kinds of identities or more and struggling with that, that kind of dual identity has long been a problem for all immigrant groups to this country - that came to a country where a certain type of image of an individual was assumed as to what makes up a quote unquote American.

And if people didn't necessarily conform to that image, then they had another identity that they had to contend with that was perhaps at odds with what this centrical assumed homogenous identity is or was. So certainly that was the case for the varieties of Jews that came in the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as again, any place from Europe, from Asia, from anywhere around the world, from Africa, from South America, all through the 20th century.

And I don't think that, I know that there have been a lot of political solutions put forth about what America looks like - and what making America great again looks like - that might not comport to those more complicated intersectional identifications that we started this conversation with. But I'll just say that there used to be a referendum in American Jewish education: are you an American Jew or a Jewish American? This dual identification. I don't think kids really knew what it meant. They weren't sure if I said one or the other, if it may be more American and more Jewish or what. But I will say that that kind of dual identity doesn't resonate anymore with most Gen Zers who see identity is much more fluid in an influx than fixed. The question of whether that's being expressed internally or imposed externally, I think is something that we can get into as well.

Let me ask you both whether my sense of what had been a very strong, and at least to my mind, somewhat natural coalition between segments of the American Jewish population and leaders and members of the African American community, based on at least some shared sense that those two groups as others were dealing with these problems of what it means to be American and how does one maintain one's ethnic and religious and racial identity in a place that is experimenting with different definitions of what it means to be American and Americanized. Was there, and to what extent is there still a basis for a coalition between American Jews and African Americans?

I'll say this, I think that there have always been a basis for coalition within common oppression - that when you are the underdog, dare I say in the context of this conversation, the David to the Goliath, the Davids get together because the Goliath's don't need to. And that's, dare I say, if not natural, a sort of inertia of the way of things. And when Davids come together and can defeat Goliath's, the other Goliath's are always going to try to pull them apart because coalitions of that matter are a threat to the Goliath's, whoever you want describe them to actually be. I think what we've seen throughout American history, since we're talking about as Dr. Jacobs says, what makes good citizens, or what you said, Michael, what makes a good person Americanized, there has been this coalition between African Americans and the Jewish population. And some of the people that gave their lives, quite frankly for the civil rights movement were Jewish Americans who said, "I have common cause because my father was a Holocaust survivor and I understand what imposed apartheid would actually be like here in America."

Has that unraveled over the years? Like any coalition, I think if you pick it apart, it will come apart at certain seams. At the end of the day, I think Ronald Reagan said, No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests." And I would think I would be mistaken to look at a Jewish person and say, "Aha, everything that I agree with you need to agree with me or we can't have a coalition." The last thing I will say on this, before I turn it back over to Ben, is I see a possibility for some coming together. Both sides are a little fraught now after the last six years, we've lived in on all sides of the aisle. I think on the progressive side, you see people coming together on issues both Jew and non-Jew, African American to fight for certain styles.

But on the other side of the political aisle you see those coalitions as well. I think that what happens are stereotypes that then say what those coalitions should look like rather than us coming together and actually forming those naturally. So I do think that the coalitions have existed, I think they still exist today. Anyone who is looking at the politics of the Democratic party, for example, not to make this political, will show that the leadership is shared between many groups. And I think there is much hope for a restrengthening of the coalition in the future.

So I think I'd like to be that optimistic about this coming together. I'm not sure that I'm there right now. And I think part of the reason that I'm not there, I appreciate also your reference back to a history in which certainly we like to point toward the American Jewish contribution towards civil rights efforts, which is quite well documented and well known, particularly at mid-century. There were certainly problems before that. There were certainly problems during that, and there are certainly problems after that, both between the communities in terms of how one community treated the other without rehashing all of that.

One of the things that makes me a little pessimistic is that I don't think that the terminology is understood in the same way across the board anymore. We talk about intersectionality, that's what a lot of rank and file American Jews might look back to is the civil rights era and they say, "Oh, there's Martin Luther King, Jr. walking alongside Rabbi Abraham Heschel and the Jewish participation in marches and the like. And the idea that, okay, there's lots of different coalitions that can be formed in all of the rights movements of the 1960s, by the way and thereafter, that could have been a very powerful time. It seems now that things have become increasingly complicated on the progressive side of the ledger. So things are not necessarily that clear as to who's whose friends and who's whose foes.

And so when, for example, some Jews in some places were challenged when they tried to stand up for Black Lives Matter, that I think felt complicated, uncomfortable because of the different understandings of what intersectionality means and looks like. I think that if we were to speak about, for example, diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campuses, for some people that means diversity, equity, inclusion as it relates specifically to selected communities, and to others it might be a little bit broader. I think Jews are finding themselves in a very complicated place in that conversation right now because antisemitism is well documented as being on the rise in the United States to an extent that it hasn't been in many years. And so the American Jewish community is being caught a little bit off guard by the rise of antisemitism and certainly responding to it, but in some settings hasn't necessarily felt that this is of urgency to anyone else who is more concerned with what diversity, equity and inclusion looks like to other groups.

You are both educators and you are preparing education leaders. I'd love to hear about the extent to which you think we are getting better at teaching the kind of values and skills and knowledge and courage that it takes to argue to not put up for the stereotype comments and the like. So first question is, how have your views changed over the years and where are you today on how well we're doing in actually trying to operationalize some of these visions of a better set of relationships?

So I'll start by saying that whereas I used to think that this work was easy work, that people just weren't interested in doing the right way, now I think that this is nearly impossible work that people are interested in doing, but just need way more resources than we could provide. And when I say resources, I'm talking about capital, I'm talking about philanthropy, I'm talking about human capital, but I'm also talking about time. I think that the more I learn, first of all, the more I realize what I don't know. But also the more I learn, the more I realize that I can never know the intricacies of anyone's situation. I can sit down and talk to Ben for days. I can take all the classes that we offer here at GSEHD on Jewish education and we offer a few, hopefully we can offer even more, and never actually understand the experience of a Jewish American. And Ben can take all my classes and et cetera, et cetera, and never actually understand the experiences of an African American - one because it's nuanced; two, it's changing day to day.

The second part of your question, Michael, of how we're doing, I think we're doing a very good job. I think we could be doing a better job. I don't know if we'll ever be able to do the job that we need to do for the scope of this problem. I think that society's becoming more and more complex, particularly as to use a term "double consciousness" to represent the intersectionality we're talking about.  Double consciousness, of course the term coined by the sociologist WB Du Bois, when that becomes even more fraught. So I am sure there are progressive Jews that sit up every day and there is a Progressives or Jewish Students for Palestine event going on. The same time that there's a traditional Jewish celebration going on and thinking, "Which one should I support?" Because if I support one on campus, the other side is going to think my implicit or explicit support for one means I don't like the other.

And that's the problem right there. We're reading in this essentialism, this assumption that support for one or support for at least one event must mean hatred for the other. It's I think killing us and making the job that we as educators need to do even more complex. Because I can teach a teacher how to think, I can teach a teacher how to react. What I can't teach a teacher to do is do the impossible task of explaining the illogical. And to think that there is no compromise position between Jewish Americans and African Americans on any of these issues we talking about is rather illogical. We just need to train people and have the resources, again, both time, energy, human as well as financial capital.

And for whatever reason, the world is so complex and there's so many places that our efforts need to go that I think this just tends not to get the philanthropy that a lot of other things to get to do. It also tends not to get the time for people like me, DEI practitioners, to put in as some of the other, the racial, the gender, the sexual orientation stuff going on. We've tried to correct that here at GSEHD. We have at least one antisemitism event every year. GW is also, I think a very good place to go if you are a Jewish student, particularly if you're an undergrad student. You have a lot of fun here. But are we doing the best we can? Maybe. Is it enough? Probably not.

Ben, what have you learned about all this about yourself over the years, and to what extent has it shaped the way you interact when you're educating people on topics, whether directly or implicitly, touch on some of these intersectional questions?

Look, I think I could probably speak for a lot of people, not just male white privilege or whatever else you want to say, but I think that this is a time where people are very self-conscious about what they say. There's a going line, "you can't say anything anymore because X, Y, and Z." Okay and that's on all sides of the political spectrum. Some people don't care about that. Other people are more careful about that. But I'm almost saying that purposefully to say that I think part of the problem when I was studying history as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student, so I'm a historian of education and I'm also specialized in teaching of history, I would say many years ago that it wouldn't have been completely unheard of for me to somehow emerge as a scholar of African American history in the same way that I could have emerged as a scholar of American history broadly, or Jewish history.

I think nowadays we have focused a lot more on the notion of authenticity of voice. And I think that therefore it's not very clear as to who can speak for whom, who can speak in support of whom and in what way without necessarily getting tripped up in one way or another along the way. And I think that, that's very unfortunate. I mean, I want to give huge credit to Dr. Wright for his efforts at GSEHD over the last few years. And also as he's mentioned specifically in the realm of working against antisemitism and in coming to understand the Jewish community in the most authentic and genuine way as a learner. But we don't see that. I mean, I'm calling you out because it's exceptional. We don't see it in the regular. And I would love to find a way to get people to think as openly as I've seen Dr. Wright do in that respect, personally with the Jewish community, but I know with many other of the diverse communities that are represented at GW.

Another piece that I think is interesting that's emerged over in recent years especially is this study of whiteness. White studies emerging as a field - black study, Jewish studies, whatever, those are long established. I think that, that's been profoundly interesting but also viewed as complex for people that might share some of the privilege that comes with whiteness, as most of the American Jewish community does, but not all of it.

And I think that that Jews are still finding their place, and I count myself among them, finding their place in how to understand how to hold both, if you will. The notion that yes, there is a lot of inherent privilege that comes with the whiteness that I represent both physically and historically and culturally and the like, but yet that doesn't mean that there isn't marginalization that's happening toward my community, potentially toward me individually. And I think that, that needs to be worked out. I think that that needs to be worked out in some very mutually understanding and sometimes difficult conversation in order for there to be a lot of mutual work toward progress for both of these communities in the US.

I just want to tell our listeners that every time I'm with these two colleagues of mine, I come away thinking how lucky I am to be able to learn from people who care so deeply about these issues and the fact that we are aware of the complexities, but willing to stick with it that tempers some of, I think what might otherwise be an occasional sense of, good grief these problems are just so big we can't do anything, but we can do some good things and I hope we continue to do them together.

For people who want to know more about the scholarly work that either Ben or Dwayne are involved in, they have websites on the GSEHD, the GWU website. So I want to thank you both very, very much for being on EdFix.

If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to subscribe to the EdFix podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, iHeartRadio player FM, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. We have a website called edfixpodcast.com. And once again with great thanks to the executive producer, technical manager, production engineer, and all purpose editorial genius Touran Waters. I want to say a special thanks to Ben and Dwayne for being guests on EdFix. Thank you both so very, very much.

Thank you. It's been great.

Thank you, Michael. This was a lot of fun. We need to do it again sometime.


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