The national March for Racial Justice (M4RJ), organized this summer, was planned for September 30. This is a significant date in Black American history, as it commemorates the 1919 Elaine Massacre, where white mobs killed hundreds of Black sharecroppers who organized as the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. In mid-August, the march’s national organizers faced online blowback about its scheduled date, which was also Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement (and considered to be the holiest day in the Jewish lunar calendar). The M4RJ released a statement, apologizing for a scheduling oversight and explaining why they would not change the scheduled date, but encouraging sister marches to schedule their events for the following day.
The Rhode Island March for Racial Justice, on October 1, was one such event. I attended with a hybrid group of Jewish organizations, including people affiliated with the American Union of Jewish Students and various university Hillels.
Of the progressive protests I’ve attended in Providence, the October 1 M4RJ had by far the largest number of attendees who were visibly displaying themselves as Jews, mostly through religious clothing and signs. I can’t know whether more Jews attended this event than other similar political events, or whether there were just more Jews who visually identified themselves at this event than at others.
There are several possible reasons that so many Jews showed up, visibly as Jews, to the October 1 march. Many likely felt a sense of appreciation and/or indebtedness to the Rhode Island march organizers for scheduling the march for the day after Yom Kippur, and a need to thank them by indicating their presence. Many may also have felt a stronger sense of unity with racial justice advocates since the recent upswell of American anti-Semitism, best indicated by the white supremacist march in Charlottesville this past summer. There is also the work of Jewish organizations, like the American Union of Jewish Students, and the fact that Jews spending additional time in Jewish communities around the holidays would be more likely to attend the event in Jewish groups.
I spent time before and after the rally talking to Jewish marchers about their reasons for attending the event in Jewish groups. Although everyone with whom I spoke agreed that it was important to “show up” for racial justice, and valuable to do so openly as Jews, there was a good deal of disagreement about how a mostly white group of Jews should best portray themselves while advocating for racial justice.
Of course disagreements exist between people, and of course the Jewish social justice community is not a monolith. But the root of these disagreements that I witnessed among the Jewish participants was a distinct unsureness about how much Jews should center their own Jewish identities in their activism for the rights of others.
The many conversations I experienced boiled down to two key questions:
- Should white Jews advocate for racial justice because Jews are also targeted by white supremacists, because racial justice is a Jewish value, or because advocating for justice is morally right?
- How should people present their Jewish identities and social justice orientation to non-Jewish marchers?
These questions manifested themselves in a variety of more concrete disagreements. Was it better, for instance, to carry a poster with an Elie Wiesel quote instead of “Black Lives Matter”? Was it wrong to carry a sign in Hebrew, which few people attending the march could reasonably read?
I see this scenario as an example of the complicated role of ethnocentrism in intergroup allyship. (I define allyship here as groups with different identities—mostly white Jews and mostly non-Jewish people of color—joining to advocate for the same goal). The people who felt uncomfortable with Jews centering their Jewish identity as their reason for advocating for racial justice saw something selfish in calling attention to oneself while attending this march.
Judith Butler, in “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” tells us that the psychological element of ethnocentrism is unavoidable. Using the example of white police officers and jury members in the Rodney King trial, she claims that white racists saw King as a physical threat because they associated his Black body with danger. The end result was that they saw King as a threat to white police officers, not the other way around. According to Butler, instead of white racists choosing this interpretation from objective evidence, however, racism influenced their actual reading of video footage.
The pervasive racism that Butler describes certainly does not let people off the moral “hook” for committing injustices, but it does show how deep-seated ethnocentrism can be. If we take it, then, that the majority of people can never fully stop prioritizing their own identity allegiances, we can conclude that they will be more likely to ally with another group if it provides the opportunity to positively reflect on their own identity group. If the desired result is for people to continue participating in a certain type of protest, like marches for racial justice, it’s then beneficial for them to have this opportunity to reflect well on their own identity group.
This view diminishes the sincerity of protesting for another groups’ rights, and indeed many protesters probably believe that pure altruism is motivation enough. There are also limits on what groups can represent their identities. In the case of the M4RJ, Jewish identity, even for white Jews, is considered relevant enough in their advocating against white supremacy—largely because white supremacists also target Jews.
These questions of identity presentation that the Jewish marchers were discussing were most likely barely discernable to the outside community. Furthermore, protesting does not entail concrete policy change, and just as protesting is a more intense and high-commitment activity than voting, it also calls for more specific opinions. Protesters can disagree on a host of issues within a protest movement but these differences in opinion are too slight to ever actually appear in ballot options. Indeed, I suspect that most people at the Rhode Island M4RJ are voting about the same way.
Disagreements seem to center more on decorum—the presentation of political opinions—more so than on the content of these opinions. Decorum, though, still counts for a lot. Especially at an event like the Rhode Island M4RJ, where the main protest activity involved participants standing listening to speakers, visual cues were participants’ primary means of portraying themselves and the groups they represented.
It is more important, then, for groups to have this opportunity to represent themselves than for them to have consensus about how best to do this. These disagreements can keep group members aware of how they are being perceived, which ethnocentrism compels them to prioritize, while still advocating for others. Their disagreements, as well, will most likely not dramatically affect political outcomes nor the future success of the event.
Photo by Ariel Goldner, courtesy of New Voices.