Judaism is not a race. But Jewish people can be targeted for racism.
That may seem like a contradiction. But a recent ruling by U.S. Magistrate Mark Hornsby of Louisiana updated anti-discrimination laws in the state. In doing so, Hornsby has potentially helped to clarify the distinction between race and racism at a time when white supremacy is expanding its reach — and finding new groups to single out for hate.
Hornsby ruled July 16 in a civil case brought by Joshua Bonadona. Bonadona's mother is Jewish, but Bonadona converted to Christianity while attending Louisiana College. After graduating, he applied for a coaching job at his alma mater, but he says school president Rick Brewer turned him down because of his "Jewish blood." Bonadona sued under civil rights law, alleging that Brewer had discriminated against him by denying him a coaching position because his mother was Jewish, even though he himself had converted.
Hornsby has potentially helped to clarify the distinction between race and racism at a time when white supremacy is expanding its reach — and finding new groups to single out for hate.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws discrimination in hiring on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." In this case, Bonadona wasn't being discriminated against for religion, since he was not actually Jewish. So was he then being discriminated against on racial grounds, based on his heritage?
Hornsby concluded that he was, and that racial discrimination can include Jewish people. "Jewish citizens have been excluded from certain clubs or neighborhoods," Hornsby writes, "and they have been denied jobs and other opportunities based on the fact that they were Jewish, with no particular concern as to a given individual’s religious leanings. Thus, they have been treated like a racial or ethnic group that Title VII was designed to protect from employment discrimination based on membership in that group.”
Some Jewish commentators have been (understandably) concerned that the ruling may backfire. David Barkey, the senior counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, for example, told Ha'aretz that he was worried that the decision might be taken to mean that Jewish people are a distinct race, which is a common claim of neo-Nazi groups. "The only concern that I would have is if it was being taken out of context to legitimize extremist views."
What's interesting about Hornsby's ruling, though, is the way that it specifically sets aside the question of whether Jews can be defined as a biological race, and instead focuses on whether they are treated "like a racial or ethnic group." Hornsby specifically notes that, "Modern sociologists and anthropologists, especially with advancements in DNA studies, debate whether Judaism is a people, a religion, or both. There is no doubt, however, that many people have and continue to view being Jewish as a racial identity." Rick Brewer didn't give Bonadona a blood test before rejecting him for the job. "Jewish blood" isn't a scientific designation. It's an assertion of racial difference based on prejudice, not fact.
This is an important insight about racism — and not just in regard to Jewish people. Because all assertions of human racial difference are based in prejudice, not fact.
Racism is not a prejudice against humans of different races, because there are no different human races. Rather, racism is the process whereby certain characteristics — like religion — are taken as signs of essential biological difference. Sociologists Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields call this creation of difference "racecraft." Racecraft is all the cultural work done to divide people into arbitrary categories called "races." Once you've established that this human, over here, is not in fact fully human, discrimination and prejudice follows naturally.
In the United States, race has historically been decided on the basis of skin color, and to some extent, on ancestry. Hitler decided that the Jewish religion was the basis of a biological difference — he compared Jewish people to rats. Because Judaism was supposed to be inherited and inalienable, the Nazis even targeted Christians for extermination if they had Jewish ancestors.
Today, in the United States and Europe, Muslims are increasingly treated as a separate race, with people singled out for their appearance or their names as much as for any expression of religious beliefs. Nationality can be treated as a race too — as when Trump implies that Mexicans are criminals and rapists, or says that an American judge must necessarily be biased because his family came from Mexico.
In fact, much of Trump's rhetoric and propaganda singles out people like Mexicans, Muslims and Jews who aren't generally seen as racial groups. Trump draws new lines between us and them, leveraging various racist presuppositions against black people, immigrants and whatever other people he feels like demonizing at the moment.
Racists like to insist that drawing those lines is natural. Nazis claim that the hatred of Jews is a genetic instinct.
Racists like to insist that drawing those lines is natural. Nazis claim that the hatred of Jews is a genetic instinct. Even supposedly sober conservatives fulminate against immigrants by claiming that "increased diversity and the distrust it sows have clearly put stresses on our politics," as if hatred is an inevitable reaction, rather than a calculated outcome. In this view, racial differences create racism.
In reality, racism manufactures racial differences. Jewish people are not a different race. But Hornsby's ruling correctly identifies the parsing of DNA as irrelevant to racism and racist ideas. Racism occurs when marginalized people are treated as a different race and discriminated against on that basis.
This doesn't mean that you can end racism by refusing to see skin color, or religious affiliation or nationality. Racism is a group project which has long-term historical effects; you can't make it go away by closing your eyes or pretending to be “colorblind.” If the court refused to recognize Jews as a race, that would just mean Jewish people wouldn't be protected. It wouldn't stop racists from discriminating against them.
Ultimately, civil rights laws shouldn't be used as a way to decide which people do and don't actually belong to a different race. Instead, civil rights laws should protect all marginalized people who are falsely treated as if they are biologically different. The brilliance of Hornsby's ruling is that it acknowledges the fact that racists aren't concerned with science, but with hatred.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."