What Whoopi Goldberg (and Others) Get Wrong About Race

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Whoopi Goldberg’s comments that the Holocaust was not about race, but instead involved White people killing White people was historically illiterate and deeply confused. However, her errors are not unique to her.

That Americans do not understand the Holocaust was demonstrated by polls conducted by the Pew Research Center and Schoen Consulting in 2018, which revealed jaw-dropping ignorance. For example, they showed that only 62% of Americans know that the purpose of the Holocaust was the extermination of the Jewish people.

Far too many Americans re unaware of the fact that the Holocaust was a racial project. Hitler and his cronies believed that Europe had to be cleansed of the Jewish race. Jewish people, were described as depraved and criminal: as pornographers, pedophiles, rapists, drug dealers, pimps, and members of criminal gangs. They were not merely seen as an inferior race ("Rasse") along with Slavs, Blacks, and Romani, but as a supremely malevolent Gegenrasse (“anti-race”) of subhumans in human form.

Goldberg’s remarks about the Holocaust are bound up with a misunderstanding about the nature of race itself that is widely shared among Americans. In a conversation with Stephen Colbert aired after the kerfuffle on The View, she explained that in her view race is something visible. But history shows us that race is not about, and has never been about, the way that people look.

My grandmother, Bertha, was a Romanian Jew. She and her family came to this country in 1910 as refugees from racist violence. If she had remained in Europe, her life might have ended in the gas chambers of Treblinka. Bertha had very fair skin. Her hair which was golden-blond in her youth, was white shot with pale yellow in old age, and her eyes were steely blue. And yet, the Nazis would have considered her as a racially alien person. Jews could look like anyone, because the Nazis thought being Jewish was a matter of the kind of being that you are rather than how you appear.

The same was true of attitudes towards Black people during the Jim Crow era in the United States. You didn’t have to look Black to be Black. The notorious one-drop rule dictated that it was Black ancestry that called the racial shots. A person’s pedigree—their “bloodline”—was ultimately all that mattered for their racial identity. That’s why fair-skinned individuals of African ancestry who were outwardly indistinguishable from Whites were said to be merely “passing” as White.

 

These facts are well known, but people rarely pause to consider the twisted logic behind them. Ancestry matters for race, because of the assumption that a person’s race is supposed to be passed down biologically. Scholars call this the idea of a racial essence. Fair-skinned blond Jews like my grandmother looked like Aryans, but they carried the Jewish essence inside of them, which made them Jewish. Likewise, Homer Plessy, the defendant in the landmark case of Plessy v Ferguson, was visually indistinguishable from a White man but was deemed to be Black because his maternal grandmother had African ancestry.

Among all her comments about the Holocaust over these few days, there was one point that Whoopi Goldberg almost got right, albeit unwittingly. She told Stephen Colbert that the Nazis lied when they said that the Jews are a race. She is right. Jews are not a race. But that’s because there really aren’t any races at all. Race is a scientifically vacuous fantasy designed to legitimate oppression, exploitation, and atrocity. There are no such things as racial essences, and no discrete human groups that match conventional racial categories. And wherever we find beliefs about race, the specter of racism lurks in the background, reaping a grim harvest of human misery.

Race is part of a White supremacist ideology that is long past its sell-by date.  We can do better than perpetuate these toxic ideas.  But to do better we must know better. Whoopie Goldberg has provided an opportunity for Americans to learn, but I doubt that any learning will happen.