This essay, on the controversy over Whoopi Goldberg’s comments about race and the Holocaust, was my Observer column this week. It was published 6 February 2022, under the headline “Whoopi Goldberg’s Holocaust remarks drew on a misguided idea of racism”.
“This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all gonna fight amongst yourselves.” Whoopi Goldberg’s comments on ABC’s The View about the Holocaust being not “about race” but “white on white” violence that exposed “man’s inhumanity to man” has drawn a slew of condemnation. She quickly put out an apology and, quoting Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who pointed out that “the Holocaust was about the Nazi’s systematic annihilation of the Jewish people – who they deemed to be an inferior race”, she wrote: “I stand corrected.”
Goldberg was not denying the Holocaust or the gravity of the catastrophe that befell Jewish people. The discussion was about a Tennessee school board that had removed from the curriculum Maus, a graphic novel about the Shoah. Goldberg mocked the censors for being more concerned about nudity and bad language than about the reality of genocide.
This is what should really trouble us about Goldberg’s views – that someone who acknowledges the depth of the tragedy and wants to educate people about the Holocaust should so misunderstand it. Goldberg’s comments tell us something about the way we look at racism (and at Jews) in the present. They also tell us something about what we’ve forgotten about racism in the past.
Racism today is viewed primarily through the lens of “whiteness” and of “white privilege”. It is something that white people dish out. And something from which non-whites suffer (unless you’re an Asian-American, in which case you are deemed to be almost white).
Jews today are seen as white and privileged and so incapable of being victims of racism. It’s a perspective that has led some on the left to become blind to antisemitism. It’s also led many, like Goldberg, to deny the relationship between racism and the Holocaust.
So deep does the elision of racism and whiteness run that even the ADL, a leading Jewish organisation, defined racism as “the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people”. In the wake of the Goldberg controversy, the ADL changed to an “interim” definition. In a mea culpa blog post, Greenblatt acknowledged that its own understanding of racism had been “so narrow” that it had “alienated many people who did not see their own experience encompassed in this definition, including many in the Jewish community”.
Goldberg’s comments illuminate not just the contemporary view of Jews but also the amnesia that exists about the historical use of racial categories. Race has never been simply about black and white. It’s a concept that has been used to deem certain people biologically incapable or unworthy of being equal. Over the past 200 years, not just black or Jewish people, but Irish, Slavs, even the working class have, at various times, been viewed as racially distinct and inferior. Given the controversy over Jimmy Carr’s routine, it’s worth remembering that the Roma were also seen as an inferior race, fit only for extermination. Defining a group as a distinct race became a means of justifying the practice of unequal treatment – that is, of racism. And of genocide, too.
Ironically, given Goldberg’s views, there was a deep relationship between the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and American treatment of black people. Before the Holocaust, the key Nazi edicts that formalised the racial distinction between Aryans and Jews were the 1935 Nuremberg laws. These established that a “citizen is exclusively a national of German blood”, that Jews were not of “German blood” and that marriages and “extramarital intercourse” were forbidden between “Jews and citizens of German or racially related blood”.
In 1934, the Nazi justice minister, Franz Gürtner, convened a special meeting to work out how to formulate a legal distinction between Aryan and Jew. They found their most useful source in America, whose racial concepts both intrigued and excited them. They were intrigued because a nation built on the idea of equality nevertheless was suffused with laws and practices that denied such equality on racial grounds.
And they were excited because US law had managed to circumvent a problem with which the Nazis were wrestling: how to define racial distinctions in law when in science such distinctions seemed impossible to delineate. Nazi leaders, James Q Whitman notes in his book Hitler’s American Model, “regarded America, not without reason, as the innovative world leader in the creation of racist law”.
“The dominant political ideology in the USA,” Herbert Kier wrote in an article in the 1934 National Socialist Handbook for Law and Legislation, was “liberal and democratic”. “With an ideology of that kind, which starts from the fundamental proposition of the equality of everything with a human countenance,” Kier continued, “it is all the more astonishing how extensive race legislation is in the USA.” He listed 30 US states that “forbid mixed marriages between white and colored races” and seemed astounded that races were segregated “even in prisons”.
Heinrich Krieger, the most important Nazi scholar of American law, observed that Americans had created racial distinctions through “artificial line-drawing”. The problem the Nazis were debating – how to deal with “mongrels” or mixed-race individuals – was not an issue in the US. The “one-drop rule” – the belief that one drop of black blood made you unwhite – allowed Americans to create “two population groups: whites and coloreds” and arbitrarily assign people to one or other. Every US state, another lawyer, Roland Freisler, pointed out, had a different definition of what constituted “coloured”. Why, he wondered, should not German law also simply distinguish between Aryans and coloureds? “Every judge,” he reasoned, “would reckon the Jews among the coloureds, even though they look outwardly white.”
The American south was not Nazi Germany, and however brutal the apartheid laws and racial terror that defined the Jim Crow era, it was not the precursor to mass extermination. Nevertheless, in recognising the distinctiveness of the Jewish Holocaust, we should also acknowledge the similarities in the racial ideas that permeated Nazi Germany and other western nations. Not to do so would be as misguided as failing to recognise the racial roots of the Holocaust.
ABC has temporarily suspended Goldberg. It’s difficult to know why. Her comments were ill-considered, but spoken not out of malice but from a common misunderstanding about race. Too many in authority seem more eager to be seen punishing people for saying the wrong thing than in creating the conditions for a public conversation that can provide greater clarity.