My parents were born and raised in the segregated South. Not only did they experience some of the ugliest race hatred and bigotry in America, they were at the epicenter of some of the most important moments in the black struggle for justice, including the Little Rock Nine.
By the time I was in the third grade, my parents had taught me a great deal about the civil rights movement. And one lesson permeated every element of my education: never hate any people – white or otherwise. Contempt for people simply because of their skin color was not allowed in my house. People were people – good or bad. However, if the bad person was white, extra precautions were to be taken in dealing with him or her, because my parents knew firsthand the privileges afforded to white people. Thus I learned the meaning of dominant society, before I ever knew the term.
Recently, Richard Silverstein, an anti-Zionist who writes the blog Tikun olam (a Hebrew term which roughly, ironically, means “fixing the world”) attacked a colleague of mine, Chloé Valdary for her support of Israel.
Silverstein took issue with an article Valdary wrote in which she protested the choice of an anti-Zionist guest speaker at the Jewish Museum of New York. Whether one agreed with Valdary’s argument or not (I do) she offered a thoughtful articulate presentation of her position.
That didn’t really matter to Silverstein, who didn’t like what Valdary had to say so he responded on Twitter declaring: “They finally did it: found a Negro Zionist: Uncle Tom is dancing’ for joy!”
When several other writers called Silverstein out on his obviously racist comments, he tried to explain that “‘Uncle Tom’ was not a personal attack.” In a related blog post, Silverstein completely mischaracterized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s support for Israel and explained:
…in a tweet last night I wrote that Valdary was a “Negro” who was acting like an “Uncle Tom” in betraying progressive values regarding Israel. …there’s nothing racist about those two terms. On the contrary, Uncle Tom was a literary character created by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe to represent African-Americans who betrayed their own through collaboration with the white master. Similarly, “Negro” was meant to convey how much of a betrayal Valdary’s views are towards a real civil right and social justice agenda.
The only thing more racist and absurd than Silverstein’s initial statement is his dogged persistence in explaining why what he said wasn’t racist. Reading his justification for calling a Black woman an “Uncle Tom” without ever addressing the substance of her position is the epitome of racial prejudice. Yet, Silverstein doesn’t seem to see it that way, and (like a benevolent instructor) walks us all through Black history to show us our folly.
Silverstein’s racism and arrogance is apparent to everyone but him. And his actions raise the question: Why do Silverstein and his ilk feel so comfortable hurling racial slurs at Black people?
In recent weeks, I spent time on several Northern California college campuses, leading discussions about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Our first visits were fascinating but not newsworthy, as opposing viewpoints were discussed in an appropriate and respectful manner.
Unfortunately, our last stop couldn’t be characterized that way. After I gave a presentation discussing Dr. King’s staunch support for Israel, several participants were outraged:
“Dr. King would be ashamed of what you’ve just done here. How can you as a black man defend Israel?”
“Israel is racist. They treat Africans horribly! How can you defend it!?”
And, my personal favorite: “Are you being paid by Zionist organizations?!”
The questions I was asked, and my inquisitors’ demeaning tone, was intended not to spark discussion but to criticize me for being an independent-thinking black man.