By now we’ve all heard: ABC has suspended co-host Whoopi Goldberg from The View after she said that the Holocaust “isn’t about race” because it was “white people doing it to white people.”
Scroll through #whoopi on Twitter and you’ll see how this controversy is being spun—as evidence of Whoopi’s antisemitism, of cancel culture’s racist double standards, and as another whitewashing of the Holocaust.
But Whoopi only said what most Americans believe: race is about skin color, and Jews are white people. After all, the U.S. Census Bureau defines race in terms of color—“Black” and “White” are two different boxes—and Jews are supposed to check the second one.
The irony of punishing Whoopi for expressing mainstream ideas shows just how confused we are about race, and how it’s been used historically to organize power and justify discrimination.
What is race? It’s not a fact, nor is it simply about skin color, argue sociologist Karen Fields and historian Barbara Fields in their book Racecraf. It’s a made-up thing that people impose on others without their consent, as a matter of power.
Historically race has been used to set up hierarchies that determine who matters most, who gets the nicest things, and who is allowed to do what in a given society, including live or die. While race may be an illusion, the Fields argue, racism is not. It’s a social practice— something racists do to others. Scholars may debate whether Jews are a distinct race or not, but there was no question of this in Nazi Germany.
The Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 defined “Jew” not in terms of religious faith, but in terms of blood, as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents. These laws made being Jewish something “innate, indelible, and unchangeable,” the definition of racist ideology given by historian George Frederickson in his book Racism. The Nazis found inspiration for their racist laws in the United States, the world’s leader in race law in the 1930s.
As James Q. Whitman reveals in Hitler’s American Model, the Nazis admired America for its success in “excluding certain races” from citizenship. Today in America Jews may be considered “white people,” but as David Roediger recounts in Working Toward Whiteness Jewish immigrants were not “white on arrival” to America in the late 1800s. The ruling WASP elite racialized their perceived deficiencies —poverty, strange religious practices, too-large families— and categorized Jews, together with Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants, as not white but “in between.”
This had little to do with skin color. Nor, Roediger argues, was it anything like the “hard” racist exclusion of Jim Crow that Black Americans suffered. It was also temporary: gradually Jewish immigrants were able, through labor and New Deal reforms, to buy houses in the suburbs and “become white.” But assimilation came at a cost. It required that Jews conform to racial norms by changing how they dressed, what they ate, and even how they worshipped.
So, it involved much ambivalence and loss, as historian Eric Goldstein tells in The Price of Whiteness. It’s understandable that Whoopi’s comments upset some in this moment of rising antisemitism. American elected officials make antisemitic comments that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
The FBI reports that Jews are the primary target of anti-religious hate crimes in America. And school leaders in some places have been trying to whitewash the history of the Holocaust, as seen last week at the Tennessee middle school that banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novel Maus.
But Whoopi said things that most Americans believe and that reflect how the U.S. government categorizes its citizens. Rather than condemn the speech of one person, we need to understand how racist logic structures our shared beliefs and institutions, and build solidarities so we can escape this system that holds us all captive.
There’s another irony to this situation, with the Maus controversy also in the news at the same time. Maus is about, among other things, Jewishness and race. The animal allegory represents Nazi racist logic. At one point, Spiegelman shows himself worrying that his depiction of his father is too much of an antisemitic caricature —a racist projection. And the epigraph to the book is from Hitler himself, on this topic: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”
Eileen Kane is a historian of modern Europe who works on the racialization of Jews. She teaches history at Connecticut College.
Lina Wilder is a scholar of Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and performance studies. She teaches English at Connecticut College.