I’ve been thinking about this story “The Space Traders”, which was written by Derrick Bell in 1992 and turned into a part of the “Cosmic Slop” anthology on HBO in 1994. The anthology was all about Twilight Zone-esque stories from a Black perspective, and we watched it in school (my super white La Jolla Episcopal school, no less, though it should be noted that my black English teacher had us watch it).
The basic plot is that aliens come to Earth and offer the USA safe power, technilogical advances, money, and more … provided he government hands over all Black US citizens whose skin is darker than a specific amount. That amount roughly translated to the color of a paper bag.
I have, burned in my memory, the smiling face of a character who held up the bag to his own face and demonstrated he was lighter than the bag (and thus safe), while the darker skinned person beside him simmered with barely suppressed rage.
I also remember being sick to my stomach, which Mrs. R. said was much the point of the story. She used it to teach us about both the proper application of allegory but also of how to tell stories about your own culture in ways that would properly resonate outside of it. I hope she’s happy to know that the lesson stuck with me, at least.
One of the things Mrs. R. mentioned was that at the time the short story came out, a judge argued that Jews would have protected the Black people, but only so as not to be the ‘lowest’ caste in American. People made much of Mr. Bell’s position, and how it excluded proper discourse. In short, it would never happen.
After 2020, I think we can agree that Bell was right.
One of Bell’s lasting legacies is the concept of Critical Race Theory, or CRT, which originally was a legal theory that posits the following:
- white supremacy and racial power are maintained over time with the assistance of the law
- dramatic change to the relationship between the law and racial power is required to achieve racial emancipation and anti-subordination
In other words:
CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.What is Critical Race Theory
Later on in life, I studied this in university under the aegis of literature and social/societal anthropology.
By looking at other cultures, predominantly non-white ones, I came to understand that the ‘property’ of whiteness is the ultimate sticking point in racial inequality. That is, white skin is something only a white person can possess, and it cannot be transferred to another. The rights it gives, such as freedom or reputation or status, remain conferred only to white people, and make the so-called “American dream” more plausible to whites as citizens than anyone else. And it is that immutability of whiteness that leads to systemic inaction.
Of course, whiteness is often subjective, and the intersectionality aspect of CRT (which was very much included in the early 1990s) addresses such issues as gender reassignment surgery, sexual orientation, and the convenience of ‘others’ being white for as long as it suits the whiter, Christian, majority. Which gets us back to the whole “Would Jews stand up for Blacks?” Jews are oft seen as the most ‘other’ of white people. They aren’t alone in this of course, as Romany and Catholics and queers (all minorities at the time) were killed in record numbers along side the Jews in WWII. The Armenian Genocide also comes to mind.
In other words, some white people are less white than others, by virtue of being a minority in another aspect of their existence. This again is why intersectionality is so important. A ‘less white’ Jew who is a trans woman is certainly at a higher risk at a protest than a cis-white Christian man, even if that man has a baseball bat in hand and is screaming at protesters to just try him, and the woman is kneeling and saying nothing.
So Jews. Where do you stand?