Before We Scold DeSean Jackson and Others For Anti-Semitism We Need To Talk About ‘Chosenness’

Image from DeSean Jackson's Instagram feed.

Over the past week, two prominent African-American celebrities have been condemned for promoting anti-Semitism because of their belief that Black people are the “true” Hebrews, and that there exists a conspiracy of world domination by Jews of European descent. First, NFL star DeSean Jackson drew an immediate rebuke from the mainstream media, Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, and other NFL players when he shared a fake quote attributed to Adolf Hitler claiming that Black people were the “real” children of Israel and that this secret was the key to white Jewish world domination. Then on Tuesday, comedian Nick Cannon was terminated by ViacomCBS for comments made on his podcast about his belief that Black people are the true Hebrews and that white Jews are complicit in a conspiracy of world domination.

While the expected response has been to publicly condemn these individuals for trafficking in anti-Semitic rhetoric, I believe that these recent events also beg the question as to why two African American celebrities who possess relative fame and financial stability have adopted a belief that appears to most observers as so far outside of the mainstream of acceptable religious discourse? Why do two Black millionaires need to believe a) they are “true” Hebrews; and b) white Jews are complicit in global domination? And do these beliefs actually constitute anti-Semitism and “hate speech”? 

In order to answer these questions it’s important to get a better understanding of the black chosenness beliefs that DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon are espousing and how these beliefs operate within the parameters of African-American religious thought. In doing so this does not mean we should turn a blind eye nor condemn anti-Semitism in whatever form we may encounter it. Rather than ignoring or evading anti-Semitism I propose we take a more critical approach to these public statements which explores their origins and the actual meanings being communicated rather than offering preconditioned responses.    

‘Will the ‘real’ children of Israel please stand up’

If we strip both the quote DeSean Jackson shared and Nick Cannon’s podcast comments down to their essential points they reveal the same contentious nature of religious and racial chosenness that pits New World “Others” (Blacks) versus the Old World Others (European Jews) in America’s racial hierarchy that James Baldwin warned about decades earlier. Taking Baldwin’s analysis as a guide, I reject the simple and easy condemnation of anti-Semitism and challenge readers to question the imbalanced power differential that constantly relegates Black people to second-class status when pursuing liberation.

By claiming that Black people rather than white Jews are the real children of Israel, Jackson and Cannon are publicly embracing the sentiments of an oft-neglected belief found throughout African-American religious thought: the idea of Black chosenness. Black chosenness has expressed itself in Jewish, Islamic and Christian forms of African American religiosity since as far back as the 19th century with the Pan-Africanist leader Edward Wilmot Blyden. The adherents of Black chosenness have vacillated between seeing white American Jews as allies and co-religionists, as in the examples of Marcus Garvey and Arnold Josiah Ford of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and seeing them as racial competitors, as in the cases of certain groups of Hebrew Israelites, as well as Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. 

However, this vacillation doesn’t exist in an ideological vacuum; the degree to which adherents of Black chosenness have had an affinity for white Jews has depended upon the degree to which they have viewed white Jews as allies to their own self-determination movements such as Pan-Africanism and Black nationalism. As indicative of this alliance consider the following by Zionist leader Theodor Herzl:

There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy, only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question…that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Black chosenness was often viewed as analogous and sympathetic to the European or American Jewish struggles for equality and self-determination. However, during the 20th century the further that Jews of European descent moved along the white racial continuum, the more adherents of black chosenness have distanced themselves as co-religionists and instead argued that they were ‘fakes’ or imposters. 

Historically, these groups have signified that “chosenness” cannot be coterminous with whiteness (and its attendant racial schema) and still be in the service of human freedom. The most prominent example of this evolution of Black chosenness was the plight of the Black Jews of Harlem. As early Black Zionists, their black chosenness discourse distanced them from white Jews in direct proportion to the exclusion they faced from white Jewish organizations and educational institutions. During the latter part of the 20th and first two decades of the 21st century this discourse has been modified and softened as inclusion has occurred.  

African-American religious thinkers have long argued through the use of allegory that white Americans’ treatment of Blacks was a sin against them as God’s chosen, either through their collective identity as the “children of Israel” or, as in W.E.B. Du Bois’ poem “Jesus Christ in Texas,” against Black people as allegorical Christ figure. Simply put, African Americans have constantly interpreted Black suffering as a type of Black chosenness. This chosenness is a type of redemptive suffering or theodicy that explains how an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity could allow the continued suffering of Black people.

It’s reasoned that this suffering is for some higher and greater purpose that only God is privy to. Whether it’s Black Israelites who argue that African Americans are the literal and genealogical descendants of the biblical Israelites or other Black religious groups who make a more allegorical association, the belief in Black chosenness has deep roots that are not often recognized by white America. 

Not just Christian Identity in blackface 

It’s often shocking and alarming for whites who peek behind what Du Bois called “the Veil” to witness the inner religious worldview of the Black community. For example, in 2007 the outrage and utter inability of cable news hosts to accurately convey the black jeremiad tradition employed by Rev. Jeremiah Wright to their viewing audiences seems to indicate that most of white America possessed a limited capacity to understand Black religiosity outside the valence of Dr. King’s agape love rhetoric. The disbelief and outrage that African Americans had the audacity to believe in a Supreme Being that would punish America for its treatment of Black people seemed implausibleor worse, “hate speech.”

To be Black however means that long-suffering and forgiveness are the only acceptable modes of religious response, as witnessed in the aftermath of the Mother Emmanuel shootings in 2015. The dominant narrative has focused on the surviving members’ families ability to forgive the shooter and seek racial reconciliation rather than allowing the survivors to process the full gamut of human emotions such as grief, hurt and anger in response to this tragic event. Therefore when someone such as Rev. Wright response to black suffering with belief that God is just and would act on behalf of Black people in the form of eschatological reckoning that is often regarded as “hate speech.”

Therefore, the assertion of being the “true” chosen people should be understood as a response to racial suffering within African-American religious thought. It’s best to think of this theological response as a “chosenness” that posits Black humanity as selected to experience redemptive suffering for the salvation of African people, or even possibly for the redemption of the world. However, this redemptive suffering will only end in what’s understood as eschatological reckoning, meaning that adherents of Black chosenness believe that God in apocalyptic fashion will upend white supremacy and create a just world for its inhabitants.  

Obviously, there was also a bit of hypocrisy involved in responses to Rev. Wright, as white Americans (among others) felt fully justified that their own God wanted them to pursue justice through war in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. 

Understandably, for white American Jews this assertion of Black chosenness is reminiscent of Christian supersessionism or replacement theology which undergirded medieval Christian anti-Judaism and later anti-Semitism. European Christians viewing themselves as the new elect of God engaged in horrific atrocities against European Jewry throughout the two millennia of Christendom. 

An aberrant version of this replacement theology in the form of Anglo-Israelismthe belief that the people of the British Isles are “genetically, racially, and linguistically the direct descendants” of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israelrose to prominence in the 19th century. Anglo-Israelism would go through various manifestations with one of the most prominent advocates, Herbert W. Armstrong, starting the Worldwide Church of God in the 1960s, which served as the foundation of the white supremacist Christian Identity movement during the second half of the 20th century.

While it’s easy for organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League to see Black chosenness doctrines as Christian Identity in blackface, labeling groups who espouse such beliefs as ‘hate groups,’ this is a simplistic and often self-serving impulse. It’s here that we must turn to Baldwin’s assessment of Jewish whiteness in the American context. 

Revisiting Baldwin

It’s important to note that Black chosenness is not without its flaws or theological baggage. As a response to racial suffering it’s often operated as a mode of survival rather than as a liberation discourse, hence it has problematic elements that require intervention. 

I think it’s fitting to turn here to James Baldwin who eloquently and earnestly plumbed the depths of Black-Jewish relations and conflict in New York City in the late 1960s. In “Blacks Are Anti-Semitic Because They Are Anti-White,” his poignant essay on Black resentment of Jewish whiteness, he makes a compelling argument that while some latent Christianity-based anti-Jewish sentiment is to blame for African-American attitudes towards white Jews, it’s the asymmetry of their interpersonal relations that dominated and dictated the tone and tenor of what’s been classified as “black anti-Semitism.” Baldwin argues: 

“In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white manfor having become, in effect, a Christian. The Jew profits from his status in America, and he must expect Negroes to distrust him for it.”  

I argue that what Baldwin is articulating and what’s ultimately missed by Jemele Hill and others who, in this moment, seek to teach Black folks like DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon a lesson about anti-Semitism, is that without recognizing the emergence of American Jewishness as a particular form of whiteness it will quickly devolve into the same racial resentment that Baldwin was willing to confront. 

One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is.

While Baldwin may be accused of not being intersectional enough in his analysis of racial oppression I think he anticipated such talk through his understanding of the asymmetry between black suffering in the United States and historic Jewish suffering when he offered the following thoughts:

The Jew’s suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world and the Jew is recognized as a contributor to the world’s history: this is not true for the blacks. Jewish history, whether or not one can say it is honored, is certainly known: the black history has been blasted, maligned and despised. The Jew is a white man, and when white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to their native savagery. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was not described as a riot, nor were the participants maligned as hoodlums: the boys and girls in Watts and Harlem are thoroughly aware of this, and it certainly contributes to their attitude toward the Jews.

Baldwin’s analysis is applicable to the events of our day as the primarily nonviolent protests against police brutality by African Americans and their allies of all racial backgrounds have continued to be maligned as “riots” and blamed for social unrest, rather than the unjust system or violent methods of law enforcement that spawned the protests.

However, what do we make of the “Jewish world domination” tropes that are included in both Jackson’s post and Cannon’s podcast? Aren’t they evidence of lingering and latent anti-Semitism? Yes, they are anti-Semitic sentiments. However, the question remains: are they used for the purpose of anti-Semitism or as crititism of Jewish whiteness? I argue that these are not one and the same thing. Here Baldwin is once again instructive as he takes aim at this anti-Semitic canard of “Jewish domination”:

I don’t think that General Electric or General Motors or R.C.A. or Con Edison or Mobil Oil or Coca Cola or Pepsi-Cola or Firestone or the Board of Education or the textbook industry or Hollywood or Broadway or televisionor Wall Street, Sacramento, Dallas, Atlanta, Albany or Washingtonare controlled by Jews. I think they are controlled by Americans, and the American Negro situation is a direct result of this control. And anti-Semitism among Negroes, inevitable as it may be, and understandable, alas, as it is, does not operate to menace this control, but only to confirm it. It is not the Jew who controls the American drama. It is the Christian.

At the time of Baldwin’s writing these were some of the most powerful corporations in America and these corporations or entities were not “controlled” by Jews. While American Jews have been employees, board members, chairmen or even owners they do not function to further any notion of Jewish “dominance” over the world. Rather, they are tools of a (if Baldwin were writing today) white, heteropatriarchal Christian project.  

But as Jewish whiteness has become entrenched in this white, heteropatriarchal Christian project, white Jews have routinely become the target of Black chosenness resentment, hence the use of anti-Semitic tropes about “Jewish bankers” and “the Illuminati,” To be clear this does not make it excusable, but as Baldwin states it does lay the foundation for any “genuinely candid confrontation between American Negroes and American Jews.”   

Baldwin’s astute analysis of the nature of Black resentment of Jewish whiteness did not however mean that he either excused or believed that anti-Semitism was justified on the part of Blacks. Rather he challenged Black folks to let go of romanticized notions of American Jews and accept that even oppressed people are capable of oppressive behavior. In addition, he goes on to note that individual acts of oppression were not the result of their Jewishness but of their acceptance of whiteness in relation to Blacks:

The ultimate hope for a genuine black-white dialogue in this country lies in the recognition that the driven European serf merely created another serf here and created him on the basis of color. No one can deny that that Jew was a party to this, but it is senseless to assert that this was because of his Jewishness. [emphasis mine] One can be disappointed in the Jew if one is romantic enoughfor not having learned from history; but if people did learn from history, history would be very different.

Baldwin would challenge his contemporaries such as the editors of African-American publications Freedomways and Liberator Magazine for inflammatory articles that trafficked in anti-Semitic rhetoric. But what we see in Baldwin’s analysis is both a recognition of Jewish whiteness and a need to approach Black protest to this racial hierarchy with a nuanced view that refuses to hide behind easy answers.

Rather than hating Jews for being Jewsa defining characteristic of anti-SemitismBlack chosenness instead criticized European Jews’ assimilation into American whiteness. While it’s right to condemn the kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric we see within Black chosenness belief, if the critiques of Jewish whiteness go unheeded and are categorically dismissed as anti-Semitic rants we should expect to continue to return to this issue far more frequently. Simply put, we cannot continue to ignore and overlook the uneven and asymmetric social, political, and economic relationship between African Americans and white Jews in this nation. 

It’s about power. Again.

Therefore, to accurately depict what attracted DeSean Jackson and countless other African Americans to the idea that Black people are the chosen people we must see it as a response to the ethnic suffering that they encounter in American society rather than as an avenue to express hatred of Jews. However, the tangled strands of chosenness and oppression that tie African Americans and white American Jews together in parallel appeals for liberation and self-determination are corrupted by the asymmetry of racial hierarchy. The easy and often uncritical labeling of the belief in Black chosenness as anti-Semitism simply reinforces the narrative of Jewish control that white American Jews so eagerly wish to combat. 

However, in a racialized society to assert that God has any chosen people, regardless of how chosenness is articulated, begs the question of divine racism, as philosopher William R. Jones notes in Is God a White Racist? Simply put, there is no avoiding that God has an in-group and out-group when a chosen people discourse is employed by a religious worldview. Whether it’s the belief that chosenness is to be a moral example to humanity, as contemporary Judaism advocates, or the redemptive suffering of black chosenness, or even the notion that America is a “shining city on a hill,” chosenness has theological consequences, meaning that someone (or more accurately some group) will lose. 

Although I ultimately think the assertion of Black chosenness is less an issue of anti-Semitism than of competing notions of chosenness and eschatological reckoning with white supremacy, the reliance on rhetorical anti-Semitism as a strategy to dislodge whiteness as coterminous with chosenness fails as a response. The emphasis is often placed on refuting and debunking the anti-Semitic tropes employed by Black chosenness discourse rather than confronting the asymmetrical realities of the Black experience vis-à-vis Jewish whiteness. 

After the condemnation of DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon subsides and the attention of the media moves on to the next outrage, African Americans and white American Jews will still be left with the unresolved problem of race and chosenness that won’t be solved through dueling recriminations of “white Jewish world dominance” and “Black anti-Semitism.” Instead the “genuinely candid confrontation” is needed now rather than later. This is my contribution to that discussion. I close with these words of warning by Baldwin:

All racist positions baffle and appall me. None of us are that different from one another, neither that much better nor that much worse. Furthermore, when one takes a position one must attempt to see where that position inexorably leads. One must ask oneself, if one decides that black or white or Jewish people are, by definition, to be despised, is one willing to murder a black or white or Jewish baby: for that is where the position leads. And if one blames the Jew for having become a white American, one may perfectly well, if one is black, be speaking out of nothing more than envy.

Simply put, chasing chosenness leaves only losers, no winners.