Jewish men talking
Not too long ago, I overheard the following joke, which I am reproducing here to the best of my ability.
A man on his deathbed is given a few moments with his closest business associates. He calls them close to him and says: "When I die, I ask that you put in my coffin an envelope with $100 -- as a gesture of our business relationship and the generosity that we've always shown each other." All three men readily agree and they spend the rest of the time talking about more pleasant things. When a few days later the man dies, his business associates follow-through with their promise. First one approaches the coffin and places an envelope with cash inside. When he sits down, the second associate gets up and places his envelope next to the first. Finally, the last of the men, the Jewish partner, approaches the coffin. He removes the two envelopes inside and places them in his own pocket, replacing them with a single envelope containing a $300 check.
Never mind if it's funny. The question is: Is it racist...or anti-Semitic?
I'm going to try to answer my own question, but first I'd like to explicitly define what I mean (and don't mean) by "racist."
"Racial" is not (necessarily) "racist"
The word "racial" is used to describe things pertaining to the social category of "race". As such, surveys that track race-group representation in employment and higher education, or research that examines the effect of perpetrator's or victim's race on sentencing are clearly "racial" in nature. Whether they are also "racist" depends on how the information is used. If the information is used to oppress or otherwise deride a racial group or elevate a more powerful racial group, it is racist. In contrast, if the goal is to track racial data in order to ensure racial equity, then the racial data are not only not racist, they are, in my way of thinking, anti-racist. I apply the same distinction to humor as well. Jokes that seek to put a racial outgroup down are, in my way of thinking, racist. Those that make fun of racial dynamics, racial stereotypes, or even racial inequality are not.
Not everyone agrees with this distinction. Neoconservatives tend to categorize any acknowledgment of race as "racism." It's a disingenuous and calculated response that is "racist" in nature because its purpose is to obscure the racial inequity present in our society by making such record keeping taboo and silencing the activists that would bring such data to public attention.
The joke at the beginning of this article is obviously racial, deliberately so. It doesn't have to be. As some DailyKos readers pointed out in an earlier draft of this article, there are many non-racial versions of this same joke. Here's one example (provided by Chico David).
A rich man nears the end of his life and is determined to try to take it with him. He calls in his doctor, his minister and his lawyer and gives each of them $50,000 in cash with instructions to place it in his coffin.
In due course, he does die. At the funeral, each of the men is seen to approach the coffin and place something inside.
Later, they are lunching together and the minister blurts out:
"I have to confess, the church needs a new roof and I held back 10,000 dollars - I didn't put it all in."
The doctor hangs his head a moment and says: "I'm afraid I too let our friend down. I only put half of it in and kept 25,000."
The lawyer shakes his head: "I am so disappointed in you. I'll have you know I put my personal check for the whole 50,000 right in that coffin."
But such versions do not interest me. My point here is not examine what makes a joke funny but to try to say something about what makes humor racist, or not. To do that, I need to work with racial content.
So back to the first version: Is it racist? Is it anti-Semitic?
I suggest that the answer is...it depends.
The joke could reasonably be perceived as either praising Jews for their sharp minds (the Jewish man managed to keep his promise to his business partner without having to bear the financial costs of the other associates) or ridiculing them for their devious nature and single-minded stinginess. How it actually is perceived depends on who is telling it, the spirit in which it is being told, and the relevant social context.
Let's consider two different hypothetical contexts:
The Bar Mitzvah:
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