Identity Matters: Ilhan Omar, Context to isms, and the Colorblind Left
Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) proved today that she has the makings of a great leader: she is gifted with the capacity apologize, learn and grow. She apologized for an insinuation that the support of US politicians for the Jewish state of Israel is owed to Jewish money’s buying politicians. Her apology comes after her earlier comments on Twitter spurred condemnation from several Democrats in Congress, including the House leadership team.
Below is Rep. Omar’s statement of apology, without compromising her view that lobbying and money in politics is hurting our democracy.
Although Omar’s statement and its beauty speaks for itself, there is noticeable opposition to the statement from those who believe that Omar’s earlier statements were accurate and that she had nothing to apologize for. I think they are wrong.
The first tweet that lit this controversy was Omar’s response to a tweet by Russophile Glenn Greenwald, who decried US political establishment’s defense of Israel in the context of GOP House Leader Kevin McCarthy’s threat to punish Omar and Rep. Rashida Talib for supporting the boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) movement against Israel (Warning: this will not be an essay, or a thread, about the merits of BDS). Omar tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” in response to Greenwald, making it appear that the often-bipartisan backing of Israel exists only because of money, and more specifically, money from Jewish groups and Jewish Americans. Later, Omar responded to another tweet from a journalist inquiring who she thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, with, “AIPAC!”
That brings me to the topic of identity-conscious values vs. “colorblind” politics. Indeed, if one is to judge Omar’s prior comments in the context of influence of lobbying and money in Washington and without regard to specific stereotypes used to target Jewish people, those comments appear at least defensible. AIPAC, or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, spends millions of dollars in lobbying, but it does not give any money directly to Congressional campaigns. And there is little controversial about the sentiment that money has a corroding influence on politics.
However, in this specific instance, statements targeting Israeli interests fueled by Israel’s US supporters - i.e. Jewish Americans - and the pro-Israel lobby is bigoted. Why? Because of the ugly stereotype and conspiracy theories that specifically target Jewish Americans and the Jewish people all across the globe: that Jews control politics and media with money, and even a related, horrifying, stereotype of Jewish control of the global financial system.
So yes, calling out the corrupt influence of lobbying money in politics is legitimate, fair, and right. And it is also true that singling out Jewish (or pro-Israel, with Israel having the distinction of being the only Jewish state on the planet) advocates for buying politicians plays into a stereotype that applies not just to the lobby but the Jewish people. Yes, you have to be extra careful when talking about money and Jewish people or the Israel lobby as a group.
This is identity-conscious politics. It’s hard, it’s easy to develop a blind spot over, and it requires an examination of how different groups have been treated historically. Let me give some examples, some of which are undoubtedly more serious than others.
“Blind loyalty” is a regularly - and correctly - used term to call out unquestioning faith in and surrender to the subject of such loyalty. But you wouldn’t use that term to describe individuals who are blind or groups that advocate for the blind, even if you believed such an individual or group should reasonably be questioning something they are not.
Calling someone who is extra frugal “cheap” is a pretty light insult - and often times even a joke - in the American vernacular. Apply that term to Indo-Americans (or Indians living anywhere, really) as a group or to an Indo-American individual, and it is offensive. Indians have been stereotyped as penny-pinchers and bad tippers, and therefore a mildly insulting term when used for others becomes seriously offensive when directed towards a person of Indian descent (say, yours truly, especially if you don’t know me).
The same principle is applicable to calling black people ‘lazy’, to ascribing career or financial ambitions to women’s choice of a spouse, and more. Hillary Clinton was accused of trying to ride her husband’s coattails, and now Kamala Harris’ independence, strength, and her very identity (‘blackness’) is being challenged because she married a white man. I admire John Kerry, but I do not remember his marriage to a heiress being described as “naked ambition” or a get-rich-quick scheme.
Harmful stereotypes necessitate extra care and extra scrutiny. Take the treatment of black and brown men by police, which is often markedly different from police treatment of whites. Why? Because consciously or subconsciously, many officers - and let’s be honest, many of our fellow citizens - carry around stereotypes of black and brown men being more dangerous, more violent, and less capable of feeling pain than their white counterparts. This does not mean that every police shooting is racially motivated, but police shootings of young black or brown men deserve extra scrutiny and consideration of whether racial bias played a part.
Muslim Americans are constantly under scrutiny, even by their neighbors. Too many Americans let our fear guide our interaction with our Muslim neighbors. This is true despite the fact that homegrown white supremacists pose a true terrorist threat to America, and Muslim Americans do not. So do Muslim Americans have more of a right than most other groups to be especially offended when they are scrutinized and profiled? I think they do.
Blind people should not be called “blindly loyal” to someone. Indian people should not be jokingly referred to as ‘cheap.’ Women should not have to explain their husbands. Extra scrutiny for police is warranted for incidences involving black and brown people. You should check yourself before you think your Muslim neighbor’s activities are “suspicious” and ask if you would be just as suspicious if your white neighbor did something similar. And one should not casually ascribe bribery and money grubbing to Jewish people.
We don’t live in a colorblind, gender-neutral, history-free world. We live in a world and we are the product of a human history replete with hatred, bigotry, and discrimination. And we cannot pretend that it doesn’t matter. We cannot pretend that the same terms, words, or assertions and equally inoffensive when applied to different group of people.
This is why those on the Left who celebrated Omar’s original retorts and are upset at her apology are wrong. They are making a common mistake the self-appointed arbiters of progressivism are known for: they forget that context - especially whom a comment is directed to - of every remark is important and that context can change a comment from innocuous to offensive.
To my delight, Rep. Omar knows better, and she is doing better. She took the right step by acknowledging the scars of antisemitism and apologizing for her behavior.
As I said at the outset, it is not easy. It takes study, it takes time, and it takes true commitment to justice. In a system this complex, almost everyone will make mistakes. Almost everyone will be guilty, at one point or another, saying something they think is innocent but is offensive to a group given their history.
The goal is not to never commit those mistakes. The goal is to have the courage to admit, apologize for, and correct when those mistakes happen. Rep. Omar did just that, and she deserves enormous credit for doing so.
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