By Sarah Brammer-Shlay
“She’s not white, she’s Jewish.” Ever heard this before? Sometimes I would like to say this about myself, but it is untrue. I am an Ashkenazi Jew, but my European heritage is much less central than my Jewish heritage. I am a proud Jew but a proud white person; that’s not so easy to say. Is there reason for white people to be proud of their race after this country’s legacy of racism? Am I white or am I just Jewish?
Throughout a year of AVODAH, corp members examine issues of poverty through all sorts of lenses. Poverty in the United States cannot be understood without a deep examination of the history of race in this country. Weeks ago, all corps members in D.C. participated in a peer-led program that explored racial issues around housing and wealth accumulation and their relationship to American Jewish history. Our evening largely centered on content presented in the PBS Documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion: The House We Live In,” which discusses the history of racially based policies.
We began by defining internal, interpersonal, institutional and structural racism. The film touched on many issues including white flight, the impacts of the G.I. Bill, the passing down of wealth through family, and the creation of “whiteness.” Italians, Irish folks and Jews largely moved into the category of “white” through benefits of the G.I. Bill of World War II, including advanced opportunities for education and access to lower home mortgages. As Jews began to have access to these government funded programs, Jews of European descent were able to achieve areas of economic success previously unavailable to them. One scholar in the film discussed the movement of white people from the city into suburbia and noted this era of history as attributing to the creation of the idea of “whiteness.”
What does this history mean? How does history impact the current state of inequality in this country? The net worth (assets minus debt) of white Americans in this country in 2010 was on average 22 times the net worth of black Americans. This is because of a racialized history in the United States that explicitly excluded people of color from government subsidized benefits, even in situations where black soldiers fought in our country’s military but did not have the same access to benefits as other U.S. soldiers upon returning home.
This history of racially based discrimination is enormous in our country. At times when issues feel so large, that largeness can create apathy and lack of personal connection. As a group, AVODAH corps members linked the political history we were exploring with the personal histories of our families. We made a family timeline of our history in this country, noting where different parts of our history led to the accumulation of wealth. Some of my notations included my grandparents benefiting from the educational component of the G.I. Bill and my parents paying for my college, which allowed me to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree with zero debt. Both of these occurrences provided me boosts to achieving economic stability.
Inequality in this country is based on history. One cannot examine our mass amount of inequality accurately without taking a deep and long look at the history of discriminatory policies in the United States. As an American white Jew it is important for me to continue to explore my family’s place in this history and recognize the privileges that I possess, while simultaneously continuing to understand the unique history of the American Jewish experience.
After this program one of the current corps members expressed that they were grateful for providing a platform to talk about race, wealth, and gentrification among white Jews. Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C., where corps members live, is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Whether or not we want to examine our role in that, we are there contributing to that drastic change in this neighborhood. I would argue that it is difficult to stop gentrification and its impact, without shifting away from capitalism as an economic system with an extreme racialized history. That however does not mean our actions are insignificant.
As a group of young people with a certain amount of privilege moving into a neighborhood, it is our responsibility to examine that privilege and recognize our impact, bad and good. We are here doing a year of service, a year of using our Jewish values to create a more equitable world. As we try to become better people and community members, we must always look at ourselves as individuals, recognizing our roles and our histories. How does my family’s purchase of a home impact me today? How does my grandfather’s immigration story impact my current place in society? These are the questions we are asking and must continue to ask throughout the rest of our year in AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps and after.
Sarah Brammer-Shlay from the University of Minnesota where she studied Political Science and Jewish Studies. She comes from a family of activists and dreamers and loves her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is working now through AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps as a Community Organizer at Jews United for Justice in Washington, DC