The recent rash of hate crimes has led to some seemingly unlikely alliances. After an election season full of anti-refugee fearmongering, rabbis organized a pilgrimage to the southern border to protest the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants. After the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Muslim leaders offered to stand guard outside synagogues to protect Jews while they worshiped and raised money to support the community.
The events that spurred these alliances underscore how the fates of various minority groups are linked. A pipe bomber recently targeted political leaders who were mostly African American or Jewish, including Cory Booker, Kamala D. Harris, Eric H. Holder Jr., Barack Obama, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, George Soros, Tom Steyer and Maxine Waters. The shooter who targeted Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh did so in part because he was angry at a Jewish organization for supporting Muslim refugees. In the weeks leading up to the shooting, he complained in an online post, “It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country.”
These burgeoning coalitions build upon a long tradition of minority communities recognizing how racism and hatred connect them. Such awareness facilitates coalitions among diverse groups that, though they face different kinds of inequalities and oppression, nonetheless recognize how working with other marginalized communities is a better strategy for change than focusing on the differences among them.
Until the mid-20th century, Jews, like other “undesirable” Europeans who hailed mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe, were marginalized and excluded as not quite white. By the mid-20th century, however, Jews had largely found acceptance. They were finally able to live in suburban communities, enroll in universities and work in law firms that weren’t exclusively Jewish. They seemed to be the quintessential American success story: a people who had “made it.” (This story ignores the significant component of the Jewish population that continues to struggle economically, not to mention the Jews of color whose story reflects a different trajectory.)
Jewish Americans’ recent sense of safety is part of what made the synagogue attack particularly shocking. That lost security has eerie resonances with Jews in Germany, who until the 1930s thought they were part of mainstream German society. Today, many Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are likewise shocked that such anti-Semitic violence could happen here. It has been a wake-up call to many Jews in the United States about the precariousness of their status.
For many Jewish Americans, the past few decades of acceptance are starting to look like an exception, lulling some Jews into a false sense of safety. The events of the past two years — the rise of anti-Semitism online in 2016, the chants of “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville and now the synagogue massacre — have shaken that feeling.
Yet this sorrow and tragedy provide an opportunity to deepen the recognition of a common destiny with other U.S. minority groups, as the rabbis marching to the border and the Pittsburgh Jews targeted for the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) recognize.
Overcoming the cultural and political divides between marginalized groups is not easy. Throughout American history they have been far more likely to be divided than unified. This was true as early as Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, when slave owners, fearful of alliances between white indentured servants and black slaves, implemented black codes to make sure that whites’ sense of racial superiority would prevent them from joining forces with black slaves.
The same dynamics were often at work at the height of the labor movement. Samuel Gompers, the famed Jewish labor leader, was an important figure in the late-19th and early-20th-century anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese movement, writing tracts like “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?” In 1991, tensions between African and Jewish Americans erupted in violence in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The next year, after the Rodney King verdict, African Americans in Los Angeles exploded in violence that targeted Korean Americans, a conflict that masked common concerns such as poverty in ways that resembled the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion.
But if the groups under attack today prioritize difference rather than solidarity, racial divisions will flourish, and racists and anti-Semites will be empowered. The lesson of Bacon’s Rebellion shows how coalitions can and must encompass working- and middle-class whites as well as multiple minority communities. Had the white indentured servants recognized how wealthy whites used race to divide them from black slaves to keep them all from fighting for a common agenda, perhaps history would have taken a different trajectory.
Racial divides continue to forestall natural cross-racial alliances. Working-class whites fail to see their common economic interest with many minorities. Those in power target minorities in part to camouflage how their own policies, like the Trump tax revision, help the wealthy at the expense of middle- and working-class Americans of all races. Should Jewish Americans strive to preserve their whiteness as a guard against growing anti-Semitism, and should working-class whites do the same to gain racial advantage at the cost of economic reform, they will prove to be part of the larger problem.
We can change this script. Those Americans who may previously have assumed that their whiteness protected them have an opportunity to recognize how their fates are intertwined with those of people of color. And people of color can recognize the same. In this way, the aftermath of Pittsburgh, Charlottesville and so many more tragic incidents can show us a path forward.