It was a given in my early years  (the 1940s, 50s, 60s) that Jews and American Blacks shared an affinity of historical suffering and that their marginalization made kindred of them. There was some tension, in the 1970s, as Black activists appropriated the word “Holocaust,” from its role as signifier for the policies of exploitation and extermination of the German National Socialists in the 1930s and 40s, to apply it to the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 17th through the mid-19th centuries.

Nevertheless, the record of Jewish-Black cooperation and shared sympathy through the first six decades of the 20th century is pretty well documented. What has remained unremarked, however, is how vastly the histories of these two peoples differed in the years that followed their release from state sponsored oppression. In 1865, Africans in the United States saw the formal end of slavery, a paradigm shift analogous to that, eighty years later, of the defeat of the Nazis and the end of the regime of formal repression, exploitation, and death to which Jews had been subjected. But in less than two decades after the abolition of slavery, Africans in America were resubjugated to a policy of exploitation to a point just this side of extermination. The story of Jews in Germany, on the other hand, has followed a different arc. The following counterfactual to history as we know it is simply an attempt to imagine the story of the Jews of Europe after World War Two if that story followed along the lines of the history of African Americans in this country after the Civil War.

It is 1945 and the Second World War is over. The horrifying evidence of the inhumanity of the Nazi’s “final solution to the Jewish problem” is finally becoming visible to the world. Of course, the deaths of millions of Jews  had already been known to Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin—but not to the man in the street in the countries those men led.

As a matter of policy, a program of reconstruction begins in Germany under the aegis of the allied powers and some high leaders of the Nazi party and the government it suborned are arrested, tried, and punished. Some kill themselves in prison. But many escape, to other countries or escape notice altogether, especially those Nazis and those who profited from Nazi policies in the “private” sector, businessmen, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, managers. These men will be needed to run a reconstructed Germany and within ten years, these men not only run the German economy but hold positions in the German government. In 1955, The United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union withdraw their troops from German territory, dismantle the military government that had monitored the democratization of Germany and turn control of the government over to the men who were running the private sector.

Immediately after the war, efforts are made by the occupying forces to reunite Jewish families separated by Nazi polices. Some efforts are successful, but there is little purpose in resettling Jews throughout Germanys as Jewish properties and accounts, personal and commercial, have been allowed to remain in the hands of the Germans who had usurped them in the 1930s and early 1940s. Jews settle into urban enclaves or in rural villages and work for Germans on land that they had once owned, in factories they had once financed. There are some Jews who advocate a national homeland but colonial powers in the Middle East refuse to part with enough contiguous territory and only a few token Jews are allowed to migrate to the British protectorate of Palestine. By 1955, the Jews who had survived the death and work camps are ageing and ill. Under the supervision of the occupying allies, they had been allowed to govern themselves in those states where there numbers allowed them a majority voice, but without access to the economy except as laborers and without ownership of productive property, they become client citizens in a nation that barely tolerates their existence.

Within five years of the withdrawal of Allied troops from Germany, national laws protecting the franchise for Jews are revoked by the German National Court and local jurisdictions are allowed to legislate terms for full and conditional citizenship based on Nazi-era criteria of Aryan identity. Jews are forbidden to live among Germans, own property of certain kinds, qualify for bank loans, attend schools with Germans, or even occupy the same public spaces. Special cars are put on German trains and streetcars are divided into compartments. The children of Holocaust survivors are identified and prevented from participating in state-financed programs for intellectual and physical  development. Doctors who had once worked in the German camps conduct medical experiments on the survivors themselves, including injecting them with syphilis bacteria and allowing the disease to run its course as they make clinical notes.

Under this pressure, the breakdown of the Jewish family that had begun in the camps continues unimpeded by ameliorating social policies. Elderly Jews, suffering from disease and the effects of years of malnutrition, provide little guidance to a generation of young men and women who see no promise in the land of their birth and no place elsewhere in the world to go. In their ghettos, Jews tell stories of the past and consume their history along with quantities of despair. Some young Jews make it “out,” by passing into the Aryan nation itself, some by becoming professional storytellers, entertaining Germany with mythologies of a popular, “universalized” culture underwritten by Jewish suffering and wit, stories that “pass” for German just as the straight-nosed, blond brothers and sisters of their authors are doing. Some Jews dream of a Jewish nation and hear tales of Palestine, dress in tribal cloths and call each other by the ancient names of long-dead heroes of a romantically recollected Israel—. They stalk majestically through the ghetto calling for a renewal of the empire of Israel on the weekends but return to their jobs as bootblacks and porters and street sweepers on Monday.

Other young people try hard to find lives within the space allotted to them by the German state but there is so little money, no honor, no education, only cheap escapes in diversion: wine, sex, crime, gambling. Soon the ghettoes of Germany are seedbeds of moral and physical corruption. But the rest of the world just shakes its head, critical of the Germans but determined not to interfere in another nation’s internal affairs. To Americans and the French, Jews are esoteric and romantic figures; Jews who escape the German ghetto and make it to Paris or New York can find a patron there and a literature, a visual art, a music of the Holocaust and its aftermath begins to emerge. Jews writing outside of Germany and the few Jews inside Germany who had begun to translate their parents experience into forms Germans could consume without gagging on it build a record of response that made its way into print.

Out of the suffering of those Jews comes the real story of Germany. There is no aspect of German life that was not in some way shaped by the presence of Jews in Germany and by the consequences of German policy about that presence. German music, German, art, German literature, and above all German wealth is the product of the presence of Jews in Germany.

Well, I could go on, I think, but perhaps the analogy, extended and elaborate, is really not necessary. During each Black History Month, I become aware once again of how invisible the actual injustices done to African Americans are, even in those 28 days we are called upon to focus on that history. Black History Month has become a space of celebration for African Americans, as it should be; there is nothing wrong with setting aside a moment to praise one another for grace, strength, courage. But for whites, the month should be a reminder of the grave sins we, as a nation, committed against an innocent people, sins we not only institutionalized but, then, after once called  to the bar of history’s justice, re-instituionalized and re-embraced.

I enjoy the celebration of African American triumph over adversity during Black History Month, but as a white man I set aside some part of that month for a moment taken in shameful recognition of my people’s responsibility for the telling of the tale at all.



Sometimes Black history is about Black folks’ relationships with whites and that history is, as we know, pretty uncomfortable. Sometimes, though, that history is really just about the day to day business of living in the same town and sometimes the story is not so uncomfortable.

 My dad was a southerner, born in Cason, Texas, in the eastern part of the state near the Louisiana line, in 1917, and he grew up in Louisiana. He met my mom in high school in Shreveport and they were married there. A few years later, I was born. But somewhere along the line, my dad lost the racism that was every white man’s burden in the south.

 I have four “tales” about that. I don’t know what is causative and what is merely indicative.

 1. When my dad was a boy, my grandfather drove an ice wagon around town, delivering to folks with ice boxes. This was in the 1920s. One day my grandfather came home with a young Negro boy on the wagon seat with him. He said this boy, Scobie, had been jumping up in the wagon all week stealing chunks of ice. The boy had no folk, lived on the street, so my grandfather brought him home to live with them. Dad said that my grandmother made room for Scobie in the house and in the family and that was that. But after a while, neighbors came by to complain that it didn’t look right to have Scobie living in the house with white people. So my grandfather made Scobie an “apartment” out over the garage and he slept out there but ate and “lived” pretty much in the house and he and my dad grew up together. This lasted for years until Scobie got old enough to leave school; the Negro school only went to the 10th grade. When that happened, Scobie eventually ran afoul of the law. My dad never told me what Scobie did but he was sent to prison, to Angola down south, a terrible place. My grandfather was heartbroken and tried every year to get him out but never could. He went down there to see him “all the time,” my dad said, until finally he stopped. Dad didn’t know why and he didn’t know what became of Scobie. Maybe he died there.

 2. After my dad graduated from high school, he and a friend went into “business” cutting and hauling cypress logs out of the north Louisiana swamps. They would go all week into the swamp and cut and trim trees, sleeping at night on the porches of the Black folks who lived way out in there. Dad was called “Little Boss” by the Black folks because at 5’8” he was shorter than Wayne, his 6’ -whatever partner. Then they’d snake the logs out with mules and get them into town by the first of the next week to sell to the mill. The lumber mill was owned by a Black man whose silent partner was the white man who owned the Ford dealership in town. But the old man, whose name Dad told me but which I can’t remember, ran the place and made all the decisions. And he made a lot of money for himself and his silent partner, whose name was Hanna, I think. Anyway, the old man had two daughters whom he sent north to college and in the summer they worked in the office. Dad said that that first summer he and Wayne were bringing cypress into the mill he got to know one of the daughters because Dad was little but he was the boss and handled all the business. Every week Dad and this young lady did business and, Dad said, he fell in love. But he knew there was nothing that could be done about it. He said he wasn’t rich enough to have a Negro girl friend “on the side” and besides, she was clearly more sophisticated and smarter than he was and her father would have killed him anyway. So they never said a word about it to one another but just looked at each other and enjoyed it as best they could. My dad was a good looking guy, so I suppose she could have taken to him.

 3. For a short time when I was in high school we lived way out past the end of town in what was supposed to be a sub-division but hadn’t really taken off. We had a house on a big lot so every weekend I had to mow the lawn. The whole thing. In those days even working class white families had Negro women who “did” for them and the woman who came to our house on Saturdays usually brought her young son with her. “Junior Boy” was the only name I knew him by, that’s all his mom called him and that’s what we all called him.  Junior Boy was about 6 the year I was a sophomore in high school, the year I got my driver’s license.  On Saturdays I would drive over to Nigger Town to pick up Mrs. Mason and Junior Boy. They lived in a house on thick stilts over a field of red dirt that turned to red mud when it rained. You walked on a wooden plank across the yard to the front porch. They had electricity but the only water was from a common spigot among four or five houses. When we got back to our house, Mrs. Mason and my mom would talk and clean and Mrs. Mason would do the ironing and I would mow the lawn. But Junior Boy and my dad? Junior Boy loved my dad and Dad loved him and they would walk around the outside of the house seeing if there was any work to be done but by the time I had finished mowing and raking up the lawn and got back in the house, there the two of them would be, stretched out on the couch watching the ball game. And likely as not, one or the other or both of them would be asleep, Junior Boy curled up in my dad’s lap. Sometimes I’d see if Junior Boy wanted to help me wash the car and then he and his mom would pack up whatever food she and my mom had made and divided up for them to take and they would get in the car and I would drive them home. And then I would go find my friends and the rest of Saturday was mine.

 4. My dad left his church when I was a senior in high school because the church, Mangum Memorial Methodist Church, not only refused to let two Black families join or even attend services, but passed a resolution to the effect that God disdained Black folks and so should whites. He just resigned from the Board of Stewards and converted to Catholicism a few months later, which was considered a pretty liberal thing to do in those days.

 So that’s it. I don’t know what made him the man that he was but he was just that kind of man; I always knew him that way and always wanted to be just like him in that way. Other ways, maybe not so much, but that man, yes.

Race, Discretion, and Policing

As Bill de Blasio’s term as mayor of New York takes shape, I’m thinking about the stop and frisk issue. Just the other day his administration announced that they would not appeal the recent decision handed down against the most egregious of police practices. Police Commissioner Bratton then announced that the NYPD would no longer deploy squads of rookie cops to high crime areas as part of their initiation into the world of urban policing. I think that’s wise, but there is something more fundamental about policing that needs to be realized.

I taught cops, would-be cops, and retired cops for 35 years at the City University of New York. Here’s what I think I learned: policing is driven by rules that define your career and by laws that tell you what you can do, not what you must do. Consequently, police, who are civil servants, are conservative in their practice and jealous of their discretionary prerogatives. So, for instance, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few years ago when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by Sgt. James Crowley at the front door of Gates’ own home, Sgt. Crowley acted as many line officers would and as most supervisors regret–he arrested a man for challenging his use of police power discretion in choosing how to act. Many New Yorkers are aware of this dynamic. It’s not against the law to do what Gates did, but Crowley had the discretionary power to remind him just who was in charge. At this level, race was not necessarily a factor. Power, and I suspect, class, was.

That having been said, the other thing I know, from being a white professor of African American lit and having a Black son, now a man in his 40s, is that most whites assume Blacks are culpable EXCEPT for the Black people they know, whom they assume to be exceptions. White theories of the distribution of racial execptionality have no basis in fact, but they are deeply held. That’s why any given white man can tell you he has Black friends; he does. But he thinks his friend or friends are exceptions to the rule of Black sociopathology and suspects every Black person he doesn’t know. That’s where race enters into Sgt. Crowley’s practice.

Nevertheless, at the specific core of police mistreatment of civilians is the jealous regard for discretion, such that even Black police officers brook no question of their discretionary choices by Black civilians. Sgt. Crowley’s Black colleagues could have done the same thing Crowley did because they are cops; Sgt Crowley did it because he is a cop AND because he is white.