04/18/2014 06:42 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2014

Jews as Racialized Other as Reflected in the Kansas Murders

AP Photo/KCTV-5

We are learning from news accounts that the alleged shooter in the murders of three people at two separate Jewish sites, a community center and a retirement village in Overland Park, Kan., just one day before the Jewish Passover, was inspired by hate. According to Overland Park Police Chief John Douglass, "This was a hate crime." The federal government can now prosecute the suspected perpetrator, Frazier Glenn Miller (aka Frazier Glenn Cross), 73, on hate-crime charges.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists Miller as a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and a founding member of the White Patriot Party, a white supremacist group. Miller has posted approximately 12,000 times on Vanguard News Network, whose slogan is "No Jews, Just Right."

So why did a self-described white supremacist target apparent white people at Jewish community centers? The answer is quite simple: Though Jewish people are members of every so-called "race," even Jews of European heritage (Ashkenazim) have been and still continue to be "racially" othered by dominant, Christian-European-heritage communities in some quarters. For this reason, I argue that anti-Jewish prejudice (aka anti-Semitism) is a form of racism.

The "Racialization" of Jews

Looking back on the historical emergence of the concept of "race," critical race theorists remind us that this concept arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification for conquest and domination of the globe beginning in the 15th century of the Common Era (CE) and reaching its apex in the early 20th century CE. Geneticists tell us that there is often more variability within a given so-called "race" than between "races," and that there are no essential genetic markers linked specifically to "race."

However, though biologists and social scientists have proven unequivocally that the concept of "race" is socially constructed (produced, manufactured), this does not negate the very real consequences people face living in societies that maintain racist policies and practices on the individual, interpersonal, institutional, and larger societal levels.

For millennia, some Christian theologians distinguished Jews as different from and inferior to Christians on religious grounds. A number of passages within the Christian Testaments were used to give justification for persecuting Jews -- for example, Matthew 27:24-25, and 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, which states:

[T]he Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, the Jews who are heedless of God's will and enemies of their fellow man.... All this time they have been making up the full measure of their guilt, and now retribution has overtaken the good of all.

They also often equated Jews with the devil:

And Jesus said: "If God were your father, you would love me ... [but] your father is the devil, and you choose to carry out your father's desires." (John 8:44)

The Jews ... are Satan's synagogue. (Revelation 2:9)

I will make those of Satan's synagogue, who claim to be Jews but are lying frauds, come and fall down at your feet. (Revelation 3:9)

Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, developed a system of scientific hierarchical classification. Within this taxonomy, under the label Homo sapiens ("Man"), he enumerated five categories based initially on place of origin and later on skin color: Europeanus, Asiaticus, Americanus, Monstrosus, and Africanus. Linnaeus asserted that each category was ruled by one of several bodily fluids (humors, or "moistures"): blood (causing optimism), phlegm (causing sluggishness), cholor (yellow bile, causing anger), or melancholy (black bile, causing sadness).

Linnaeus connected each human category to a respective humor, thereby constructing the Linnaeus Taxonomy in descending order:

  1. Europeanus: sanguine (blood), pale, muscular, swift, clever, inventive, governed by laws
  2. Asiaticus: melancholic, yellow, inflexible, severe, avaricious, dark-eyed, governed by opinions
  3. Americanus (indigenous peoples of the Americas): choleric, copper-colored, straightforward, eager, combative, governed by customs
  4. Monstrosus (dwarfs of the Alps, the Patagonian giant, the monorchid Hottentot): agile, fainthearted
  5. Africanus: phlegmatic, black, slow, relaxed, negligent, governed by impulse

Later, although Charles Darwin himself did not assert this, some of Darwin's successors, referred to as "Social Darwinists," hypothesized that Jews were not simply a separate religious, ethnic, or political group but, like black Africans and other groups (including homosexuals), throwbacks to earlier stages of religious and human development. They forwarded a so-called "racial" hierarchy placing "Aryans" on the top, black Africans at the lower end, and other "races" (including Jews) at various points in between.

In Europe, by the late 19th century CE, Judaism had come to be viewed by the scientific community as a distinct "racial" type, with essential immutable biological characteristics -- a trend that increased markedly into the early 20th century CE. Jews were increasingly constructed as members of a "mixed race" (a so-called "mongrel" or "bastard" race), a people who had crossed racial barriers by interbreeding with black Africans during the Jewish Diaspora.

The British psychologist Francis Galton (1822-1911) -- a cousin of Charles Darwin -- was a founder of the "Eugenics" movement. Eugenicists attempted to improve qualities of a so-called "race" by controlling human breeding. Galton argued that genetic predisposition determined human behavior. He asserted that Jews were of a lower racial form, and that they could be easily recognizable by their appearance. (Apparently Frazier Glenn Miller never received that memo.) He also talked about a supposed cold and calculating "Jewish gaze."

The U.S. writer Madison Grant (1865-1937) codified this supposed "racialization" of the Jews in his influential book The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis for European History (1916), in which he argued that Europeans comprised four distinct races. The "Nordics" of northwestern Europe sat atop his racial hierarchy. Grant considered them the natural rulers and administrators, which accounted for England's "extraordinary ability to govern justly and firmly the lower races" (p. 207). Next down the racial line fell the "Alpines," whom Grant referred to as "always and everywhere a race of peasants" with a tendency toward "democracy," though submissive to authority (p. 227). These he followed with the "Mediterraneans" of Southern and Eastern Europe, inferior to both the Nordics and the Alpines in "bodily stamina," but superior in "the field of art." Also, Grant considered the Mediterraneans superior to the Alpines in "intellectual attainments," but far behind the Nordics "in literature and in scientific research and discovery" (p. 229). On the bottom he placed the most inferior of all the European so-called "races": the Jews.

Referring specifically to Polish Jews, Grant asserted that "the Polish Jews," who are supposedly of "dwarf stature, peculiar mentality and ruthless concentration on self-interest" (p. 16), present themselves in "swarms" (p. 63).

As we know, the Nazis used contrived "racial" arguments as a philosophical cornerstone for justification of their persecutions of Jews, as well as most people of color and people with disabilities. Jews and others they considered descendants from inferior "racial stands." Nazi leadership argued vehemently that Jews were polluting the so-called "Aryan race." They forced Jews to wear the yellow Star of David as a signifying marker, since to the Nazis, yellow represented a sign of "race pollution."

This sentiment extended far beyond the borders of the Third Reich. For example, in 1939, the United States Congress refused to pass the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which, if enacted, would have permitted entry to the United States of 20,000 children from Eastern Europe, many of whom were Jewish, over existing quotas. Laura Delano Houghteling, cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, sternly warned, "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults."

"Race," then, must be seen not as a binary, with "white" on one side and "people of color" on the other, but as a continuum. In the U.S. today, Ashkenazim are primarily viewed as being in the "white" region of this continuum, and we definitely have white privilege vis-à-vis "people of color." However, I would argue that we do not have the same degree and extent of white privilege in many sections of this country as white mainline Protestants. In fact, in some countries -- for example, in Eastern Europe still today -- we are not seen as "white." Obviously, so-called white supremacists believe this as well.