Forget Jesse Jackson, Rev. Joseph Lowery and Walter Fauntroy as they compete for newspaper stories and the title of "Mr. Voice of Black America." The reality of any split, any anger between blacks and Jews is a simple street-corner scene: in a poor, black neighborhood a Jewish man owns the corner store. The store owner worries about blacks' shoplifting and the blacks figure that, since they are buying their daily bread from the store, the Jew is getting rich off of their money.
The center of any dislike is also a high-school scene: the Jewish children in most of the upper-level classes and the blacks in the lower, dumber classes. The Jewish kid in reading glasses. The black kid with a basketball under his arm waiting for gym class.
Two big, sick, all-American stereotypes, with the weaknesses of all stereotypes. But in a fast-moving nation where most of us are strangers, the stereotypes persist as working assumptions: an unspoken and often racist reality in the back of millions of minds . . . a reality of personal thoughts and feelings behind the social, economic, ethnic, religious and racial integration that nice people tell us is the best of all worlds. They tell us that -- even though, of course, we live in a world where white people have mostly white friends, black people have mostly black friends, rich people have rich friends, and poor people are lucky if they ever get into one of the downtown middle-class office buildings as more than janitors.
In Washington, the city, this true split -- between blacks and Jews -- is simple to measure: it is the difference of opinion between Sherry Brown, president of the Frederick Douglass Community Improvement Council of Anacostia, and Brant Coopersmith, staff director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington.
"We have to understand who our true enemies are," says Brown, a black man. "Jews have historically profited as slumlords and merchants from the suffering of black people . . . They're the ones who run those stores with the cheap goods, high markups and low credit terms. That way they can keep their hands in your pocket."
"First of all, that's factually incorrect," says Coopersmith, a Jewish man. "Most landlords and merchants aren't Jewish. Most of the Jewish landlords and merchants were burnt out and left the city after the riots . . . It's a persistent lie . . . It's like saying black muggers and black rapists . . . It is repeating what Hitler said. It could undo another generation of Jews. And the worst thing, there is no black leadership repudiating it."
Black attacker. Jewish exploiter. Both racial stereotypes hinge on a personal fear. Fear of physical harm, of getting raped or beat up. Fear of being abused by someone who has business know-how and owns a store. Unlike the Andy Young affair, the one event that truly packages those fears for blacks and Jews is a riot: blacks physically ripping into stores, some of which are owned by Jews. Last month a Jewish-owned store, Morton's, in the mostly black and poor part of town, Anacostia, was hit by a tiny riot. Young black men walking in large groups on the way home from a late summer's night concert in the park, smashed display windows and looted the store.
Mortimer Lebowitz, the store's owner, doesn't want to believe that his store was hit because a Jewish person owns it. Most people would agree with him that he probably was simply unlucky to have his store on the route leading from the park. But Lebowitz recalls that in the South, where most Washington blacks come from, the town store, any store, was called "The Jew Store." Just what everybody called the local store, according to Lebowitz. Sort of like the way Southern whites call blacks "boy" or "nigger" or "pickaninny" and show surprise if blacks get upset. So it could be that blacks from the South have taken on white Southern attitudes toward Jews, Lebowitz thinks.
"Jews felt the full brunt of the riots in '68," said Lebowitz. "But I don't know if it was directed at Jews. Jews historically have been retailers and Jews will go into poverty-stricken areas that are distasteful to some other retailers . . . After the riots there was a lot of talk about how Jews exploited blacks.Store owner was seen in the pejorative. But the store owner is there to do business, to trade. And there is a quid pro quo on every trade. If the doctor treats you when you're sick, he's trading on your illness." But Lebowitz, a former president of the Urban League, a largely black organization, feels that racism, anti-Semitism and ignorance get thrown into the picture and suddenly store owners are exploiting people by their very presence. Especially Jewish store owners, although store owners come in all colors and religions, some with good intentions, some with bad intentions. Lebowitz knows that racism and anti-Semitism were part of Washington before the Andy Young affair. For instance, whites generally don't shop in his store because, as a family discount chain with a large number of black employees, Morton's is seen as a "black store." Once, when a black customer grew angry at a white salesclerk, Lebowitz recalls, the worst thing the customer could think to call the saleswoman was a "Jew nigger."
Words like those are what jump from the back of the mind to the lip when certain people are angry. And they give you an idea of how much damage is being done by attention to the so-called black-Jewish rift. That attention brings the nasty thoughts that much closer to the tongue. It is fuel and false proof to confirm other unfounded nasty thoughts about the other group of people. And it brings all the racists and anti-Semites to the front to say to their friends, "Hey, look at this in the paper. Didn't I tell you those people were no good?"