Since Harvard’s famous professor of African-American studies, Henry Louis Gates, was arrested in his own home last summer, many bystanders have professed to be shocked — shocked! — at America’s failure to become a “post-racial” society.
Maybe I’m dense, but I can’t help wondering what exactly people mean by a post-racial society. Do they mean a society where racial minorities of all kinds are — to echo the words of Dr. King — “judged by the content of their character, rather than by the color of their skin?” Well, who can argue with such a goal?
Yet, after about 250 years of legalized slavery of Africans, the near-extinction of Natives, and another century at least of official blindness to the impact of both calamities upon the descendants, can anyone realistically expect that Americans will, overnight, conceive of race as a meaningless matter of melanin?
We Jews, of all people, should know better. Not because “we were slaves in Egypt.” But because we were Europe’s first experiment with “affirmative action” of absorbing a despised racial minority into the majority culture.
Contemporary American “post-racialism” has its ideological roots, after all, in the 18th-century European program of Jewish Emancipation. The enlightened European peoples would, out of high-minded commitment to the principle of universal human rights, release the “de-formed Jewish race” from its medieval status as servae camera (“slaves of the royal chamber”).
The theoretical fathers of emancipation argued that, once the laws of the state freed Jews to participate as equals in the new European societies, they would inevitably lose their “Jewish deformities,” “rediscover their human nature,” and eventually become absorbed into Europe.
In a nutshell, emancipation was Europe’s solution to the problem of surplus de-formed Jews, and was explicitly designed to re-form them — i.e., facilitate their disappearance — within a few generations.
Well, we all know where that great plan wound up. It didn’t take too long before alert Europeans noticed that the Jews were, so to speak, breaking the rules of emancipation. Yes, they did adopt and adapt European values and social mores. But they didn’t stop being Jews. In fact, in many cases, they invented entirely unanticipated ways of remaining Jews in the context of some larger “European identity.” We know their cultural creations still as Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy, and even some kinds of socialism (remember the Bund?).
But, as we sadly know, the whole-hearted passion that Western European Jews brought to their acculturation in Europe did not satisfy their partners in multiculturalism. Terrified of the “Judaization” of Europe, the European enemies of affirmative action disinvited their Jewish guests — even the non-assimilated “Oriental Jews” — and sent them all packing to their vaporization in the East.
Well, that’s one model of “post-racial” society that I’m sure no reader of these lines endorses! Shall we try another, more recent model?
I can remember when enlightened Europeans considered racism an “American thing.” In the 1960s, the liberal citizens of, for example, England, the Netherlands, and France cluck-clucked about the fate of African-Americans, while priding themselves in appreciating expatriate jazz and blues artists who fled the U.S. for Europe’s freedoms.
During those same years, Europeans also prided themselves on welcoming vast numbers of labor-immigrants from former colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Mideast.
Well, Europeans still love jazz, it seems; yet now, virtually all of the EU countries are considering legislation to restrict the residency rights of the European-born grandchildren of the very immigrants welcomed with open arms two generations ago!
By the 1990s or so, Europeans began to realize what their own experience with the Jews should have already taught them — that “multiculturalism” as a program of social assimilation works only where all the cultural parties have the same goal. The subcultures must sincerely pledge allegiance to a larger common culture, while the common culture must prepare to see itself transformed in important ways by the cultural creativity of the subcultures.
That is, the multicultural ideal is something like a mixed marriage — it will fall apart unless both partners are fine with the idea of a Hanukkah bush in the living room on Dec. 25!
This is, in fact, the point of a recent book by Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West (Doubleday, 2009). He argues that post-Fascist Europe, sick of tribalistic mass murder, was more than ready for some multicultural rock ’n’ roll. But Europe’s new ethnic-immigrant minorities, being mostly Muslim, were dancing to a different tune. Europe’s white multiculturalists, presumably tolerant of Hanukkah bushes, are a bit less comfortable with well-attended mosques in quaint little villages outnumbering the empty churches that mock the vanished glories of imperial Christendom.
Even the third generation of England-born Pakistanis has not become Anglican. What for? The English themselves are no longer Anglican! Similarly, living in an aggressively secularist society, France’s Algerians have resisted secularization. Why? Because many — correctly or not — see exported European secularism as the very cause of the homeland troubles (political chaos, ethnic warfare, poverty) that inspired their emigration in the first place. And not without reason, do many of Germany’s third-generation Turks regard the religionless societies of the EU nations as morally corrupt and spiritually empty.
And need I mention Osama?
To make a long story short, Europe should have learned from its experience with the Jews that multiculturalism is a sham unless the majority is prepared to accept powerful changes in its traditions stemming from those of its ethnic minorities. And what it is now learning from Islam is that multiculturalism works only to the degree that the minority is as eager as 19th-century Jews to embrace the majority’s principal traditions.
And in the post-9/11 reality, of course, how ready is Europe — or its naturalized Muslim citizens — for such wholesale compromise? In comparison, the American racial dilemma pales!