Whoopi Goldberg made headlines and ultimately apologized in 2022 over her strenuous assertion that the Holocaust was not about race. Over the past several months, I have heard anecdotal reports of Jewish employees, alarmed by rising rates of global antisemitism, being denied requests to form a Jewish employee resource group (ERG) at various organizations, on the stated grounds that Jews are not considered an underrepresented minority.
Whoopi’s assertions and the position of the organizations declining a Jewish ERG stem from the same source – a misunderstanding of where Jewish people fit into the rubric of racial dynamics. More fundamentally, they reflect a misconception of what we mean by “race.”
How We Define Race
Race is a social construct. It is not an immutable characteristic, but rather a perennially changing way in which we classify individuals as having come from different parts of the world based on a combination of their appearance, ancestry and ethnicity. The U.S. Department of Labor asks larger employers and federal government contractors to categorize employees into five or seven different categories for reporting purposes. The Census Bureau for 2020 asked us all to identify ourselves in one of six different racial categories. Historically, laws in the United States sorted people into the racial categories of white or “colored” based on a defined percentage of affiliation with a particular racial ancestor, and those percentages varied among states and over time.
Most typically federal and state governments currently recognize racial categories of White, Black or African-American, Native American or Native Alaskan, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, with recognition that an individual may fall into some “other” category. The Department of Labor classifies being Hispanic as a race and national origin; the Census Bureau has listed “Hispanic” separately from race. Reviewing our current racial categories in the context of college admissions this past June, the Supreme Court held that they were:
- overbroad – in classifying all Asians together;
- otherwise undefined – such as in classifying who is “Hispanic;” or
- under-inclusive – in not clearly incorporating individuals from Middle Eastern countries.
Courts Look More Broadly
How then should we understand race under the employment laws in this country? Past court decisions have made clear that we are not limited to six or seven racial categories. Rather the prohibition against race discrimination extends to all individuals who are treated differently based on their actual or perceived association with a particular ancestry or ethnic characteristics. More specifically, in 1987 the Supreme Court made clear in two separate but complementary decisions that Jewish and Arab people each should be recognized as protected under our federal laws against race discrimination.
Jewish People as Historically Marginalized
Jewish people in the United States have historically been segregated in housing opportunities, denied admission to private schools and denied or limited access to the Ivy League and other colleges and universities, based on their Jewish identity. Just as there are historically black colleges and universities, there are colleges like Brandeis University that were founded to give Jewish students opportunities for higher education. In the professional sphere, Jews were denied employment in certain professions, particularly among more prestigious law firms.
Jewish people in this country have adapted over time. Some have changed their names, some have had plastic surgery to look more Anglican, many tailor their dress and speech and hide or limit references to their identity to blend in with American society. Jews had seemingly been so successful at blending in, and some have enjoyed such notable professional success, that some organizations and even diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) professionals fail to recognize that Jewish people remain a historically marginalized group.
Society as a whole, however, continues to target Jewish people. Currently, those attacks have risen to unprecedented levels in the United States and alarm many in the Jewish community. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks reports of harassment, vandalism and assault against racial groups, has reported a nearly 350% increase in incidents of antisemitism in the past two months compared to last year, and that compounds what was already a significant rising trend in such incidents, year-over-year.
DEI and Dimensions of Difference
In working with DEI professionals, we talk about all the dimensions of difference among individuals, starting with legally protected characteristics like race and then expanding to other differences that shape who we are as unique people, including socioeconomic background, geographic background, familial status, education, prior work experiences, and personal challenges that we have overcome. All of these differences are important and enrich organizations’ productivity, creativity, and adaptability. Numerous studies have found a correlation between organizations’ greater diversity and their financial success.
However, there also seems to be too much of a disturbing trend among some organizations, particularly following the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020, to narrow their focus from the many dimensions of difference and concentrate on serving the needs of the “BIPOC” – Black, Indigenous, People of Color – community. Support for these categories of individuals is certainly appropriate. It also remains necessary in many organizations. But DEI professionals and the organizations they work for must simultaneously recognize and address the needs of other historically marginalized groups.
“Race” should not be narrowed to the limited construct of the U.S. Department of Labor’s delineating categories, but rather needs to be viewed through the broader lens dictated by the Supreme Court’s decisions. A more expansive view would necessarily recognize the need to provide supportive services for Jewish employees and workplace training that addresses antisemitism.
In the case-study based approach that my colleagues and I take to respectful workplace training, we have for years been incorporating varied situations to consider race-based comments and behaviors. We have called out how behaviors based on race-based physical attributes, like hair, protective hair styles, or head coverings, may be a form of racial harassment. Most recently, we are taking a step backward in our approach. If the organizational objective is to provide respectful workplaces free from harassment and discrimination, then the first step must be educating employees as to the scope of the legal protections, and why individuals would perceive certain conduct as biased, harassing or discriminatory. To achieve that, we need to look more closely at the various categories of protected characteristics and enhance participants’ understanding of what they each mean, with a particular emphasis on understanding the scope of racial protections.
By Tracey I. Levy