Dartmouth College professor and author Susannah Heschel warned her audience from the start not to expect much from her keynote address Wednesday night, Oct. 14, for an Emory University conference the next day on race and Jewish ethics.
“The truth is,” she said, “I think you’re going to be disappointed in this lecture. I’ll tell you why. We come to discussions on racism with hope and a longing for redemption, a longing to be purified of an aspect of ourselves in society that most of us find embarrassing, corrupting, horrifying and certainly unethical. If we didn’t share that longing for redemption from racism, you probably wouldn’t have come to this lecture tonight.”
Heschel, whose work at Dartmouth focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, said that examining racism is not like examining other academic topics. “We seek not only analysis and understanding. We seek change, and that is hard for an academic to accomplish. Moreover, each examination of racism doesn’t bring a solution, a conclusion, but simply leads us to the next step. There’s constantly so much more that we want to recognize, analyze and unpack because racism is so tenacious and also because it’s slippery, elusive. It’s chameleonlike.”
The daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who stood on the front lines of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr., spoke under the auspices of Emory’s Tam Institute for Jewish Studies and Center for Ethics. She focused on the difficulties of defining racism and why the subject inevitably raises more questions than answers.
Americans repudiate racism in society, and many hold the view that they are above it while claiming to have solved the problem, Heschel said.
“It’s striking that so many well-meaning liberals retain a binary view of being either good or being racist because surely the situation is far more complex,” she said.
“Despite the debunking of racial theory and the horrors of what was a race war called World War II, racism continues to dominate the globe, and it’s precisely its ability to conceal itself or to seduce onlookers into distracting formulations that is one of the key markers of racism. Another is its tenacity. After all, racial theory has long been shown by scholars to be based on hot air, so we might wonder why it hasn’t gone away. Another factor in its persistence is the intertwining of racism with many things, including with religion.”
Heschel cited Vincent Lloyd, an assistant professor of religion at Syracuse University, who argues that racism has become a form of secularized religion.
She recommended a book called “Between the World and Me” as indispensable reading on the subject and compared author Ta-Nehisi Coates to James Baldwin. “Coates astutely observes that race is the child of racism, not the father,” Heschel said. “Racism’s disavowal of its own historicity is precisely what’s essential to its power. The Black Panthers were feared and despised in their day but gave us great things. Racism is not a modern invention, just as anti-Semitism did not begin for the first time in 15th-century Spain, as we were taught. We had plenty of racist rhetoric in the Middle Ages and before.”
Coates argues that there has been a decriminalization of the image of black people. “A Willie Horton ad would not work right now,” Heschel said, referring to an ad seen as crucial to George H.W. Bush’s victory in the 1988 presidential election against Michael Dukakis. “Thanks largely to President Obama, the blatant racist is an unattractive figure. We no longer pass around postcard photographs of lynching as souvenirs.
“Instead we have cellphone videos of police shooting African-Americans in the back. But of course people are racist in plenty of other ways. It’s the central topic in the United States today.”
So why is racism so tenacious?
“We repudiate it, and yet it still coils around our minds at deep levels,” Heschel said.
Henry Smith, a psychoanalyst, pondered: “Do our earliest primitive defenses split our objects into the feared and the safe, the loved and the hated, the envied and the denigrated, the rejected and interjected, in endless repetitions?”