The Bottom of the Funnel: On Blacks, Jews, Whiteness, Conspiracy, and Hip-Hop
By Adam MansbachFebruary 3, 2024
“He mentions your name,” Cee Just added.
I’d grown up with Clyde and Cee Just in Newton, Massachusetts, then lived with them in Harlem. They were my big brothers in hip-hop, back when learning to make beats or write graffiti meant apprenticing yourself and learning at the feet of a master. Clyde was a senior in high school when I was a freshman; he’d heard that I rapped, and one day he approached me in the hallway and told me to kick a rhyme. Soon I was spending weekends in his basement, watching him loop records on an Ensoniq Mirage sampling keyboard and marveling at the way he could pry loose a four-note phrase from a 10-minute song and turn it into something that felt inevitable, eternal.
Clyde was the DJ when we brought 200 high school students and teachers to the steps of Newton City Hall on May 1, 1992, two days after the acquittal of the cops who had brutalized Rodney King. We were there to demand a slate of reforms in education, housing, and policing, and Clyde soundtracked the rally like he’d been playing protests all his life—braiding Bob Marley’s “War” and the Last Poets’ “When the Revolution Comes” with Boogie Down Productions’ “You Must Learn” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
I hadn’t seen Clyde since 1998, hadn’t heard from him in at least a decade, but I thought about him regularly. I still listened to his old beat tapes and believed that, if things had gone a little differently, he could have been one of the great producers of our generation, the next Pete Rock or Q-Tip.
I opened Clyde’s SoundCloud page, and there it was: a song called “The Holocaust.” I listened to it on my phone, behind the first door in my house I thought to close. It happened to be the one to my two youngest daughters’ bedroom.
Clyde wasn’t a denier. He was an enthusiast. “All Jewish people are the scum of the earth,” the chorus went. His verses—delivered in the distinctive nasal baritone I knew so well—veered from pledges to shoot Jews in the head to mundane braggadocio and then back again. Eventually, he returned to his thesis, encapsulated in a line that has plagued me since I heard it: “The holocaust was horrible, but the Jews deserved it.”
The song ended with this: “Adam Mansbach can explain it / He’s sleazy, shady, dishonest, you name it / He’s from Newton, Massachusetts / Tried to work with him, turns out he’s just useless.”
Standing in that small room, redolent with the scent of my daughters’ lavender bubble bath, I felt a number of things at once. One was fear: Did I occupy some outsize place in Clyde’s cosmology of hatred? Was I the only Jew he knew, or merely the one to whom he had been closest? If I was on his mind like this, and he was as fucked-up as he sounded, what might he do?
After the fear came the queasy churn I feel whenever anyone—friend or stranger, troll or bot—speaks ill of me in public, no matter how large or nonexistent the audience. Had I wronged Clyde somehow? What was I forgetting about our relationship? Were all Jews dishonest because I was, or was I dishonest because all Jews were? How did Clyde imagine I would explain the Holocaust? Did he mean that I was aware of my own fecklessness, and from this awareness sprang an understanding of why my people deserved death?
The last time I’d seen Clyde was the day he left New York. I’d moved out of our apartment 10 months earlier, shortly after Clyde, Cee Just, and I had discovered that our lease was botched—a mishmash of mistyped names and imaginary tenants, growing more abstract as people left and handed their rooms down to friends—and the place was deeply in arrears. Clyde and Cee Just rode it out to the bitter end, and when they were finally evicted, Clyde got drunk, broke back in, and smashed all the windows with a baseball bat, screaming at the top of his lungs.
The whole block saw him get dragged out in handcuffs; I heard about it from five different people. He spent the weekend in the bookings, then came straight to my place. We drank tea and played chess until Cee Just showed up with the moving truck they were driving back to Massachusetts. I waited for Clyde to tell me what he’d done, but he never said a word.
In the years that followed, I didn’t miss him so much as I missed the dude he’d once been. By the end of our time as roommates, I’d watched Clyde’s frustration at his lack of a romantic life curdle into a kind of protean misogyny that I couldn’t stand to be around. At the age of 24, he’d decided that women were out to humiliate him, humiliate us all—that they were playing a game with secret rules and the only reasonable response was to treat them like enemy combatants. Clyde was still my hip-hop elder, but I’d ceased to see him as a mentor.
The next thing I felt—standing there surrounded by my daughters’ stuffed animals and resisting the urge to play “The Holocaust” again—was a will to revenge. Maybe, I thought, I should call Clyde’s parents.
I still knew their phone number, as I know every phone number from my childhood. Clyde’s father was a professor, active in Newton’s youth football league. His mother dressed like Clair Huxtable and was deeply Christian. Their house had been one place on the top two floors—staid, elegant, airless—and another in the basement, where Clyde burned nag champa incense and blunts and scoured stacks of wax for open drum breaks. Was Clyde living in that basement? It seemed likely. Newton is 40 percent Jewish. There was no shortage of people there for him to target.
When we were kids, people moved to Newton for the public schools. The elementary school I walked to has since been knocked down and replaced with a new building that bears the same name. The buses still park on the basketball court. They begin their routes in the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, picking up kids who had to be awake two-and-a-half hours before my clock-radio alarm went off. Discussions of the achievement gap never mentioned the sleep deficit.
White Bostonians had brawled and shed blood and gripped flagpoles like lances in the streets to stop those buses from existing—not when the court ruled in favor of the Brown family and against the Topeka Board of Education, but 22 years later, when the city got around to doing something. The program that ran the buses was and is called METCO, Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity. Not even the acronym believed representation should be equal.
How can I describe the enormity of the nimbus of otherness wreathing each child who stepped off those buses as five-year-old Black boys and girls? We sensed immediately what we weren’t meant to: the immensity of that otherness and the way it threatened to crush us. This was some crucible, some experiment that must succeed, not so much for the sake of those children but because of how failure would reflect on us, on the community. And in that moment a fence sprang up around community, and we grew planes and angles, began to rotate like some 3D model in a holographic void. Those kids were treated like refugees, survivors—as if they had boarded the last bus out of a flaming hell and were probably doomed, but at least we would try. I was an adult by the time I learned how difficult it was to get into METCO—that critics said it siphoned the most connected families away from the schools where they lived, a precious resource misinvested.
Clyde didn’t go to my elementary school, but his was no different. People assumed every Black kid was part of METCO, with all they imagined that to mean. They essentialized Blackness, placed it beyond the borders of the town, then wrung their hands about how all the Black kids sat together in the cafeteria. By the time I reached junior high, that was the title of a best-selling book.
If all the Black kids sat together, what were the white kids doing? This was not a question anybody asked, the line of inquiry as unidirectional as METCO’s version of integration. Nobody saw white tables; they saw Black tables and regular tables, a failure of social integration that came down to Black kids refusing to deal themselves out like playing cards. This narrative cast them as intractable, omnipotent, the only people in the lunchroom with any agency. As if each white table held a seat open, daring to hope, like Jews at a Seder filling a wine glass for the prophet Elijah.
The adults in the building seemed to believe the “METCO kids” in their charge were wild, angry, dangerous—and not children. The deadly history of adulthood being foisted on Black boys and girls was still unknown to me; I was abstractly furious, as usual—at both the double standard and my own inability to generate such power that I engendered fear. The grown-ups treated the Black kids as if they were a unified alien intelligence bent on gutting the social mores while simultaneously locked in some inscrutable internecine war with itself. The same thing has been widely believed of the Jewish people for hundreds of years.
But in 1988, this existential terror was birthing public policy. Soon more 12-to-16-year-old Black Angeleno boys’ names would be in a gang database than not. While half my school was preparing to be ceremonied into adulthood by way of a bar or bat mitzvah, another 15 percent was graduating into perpetual suspecthood, and we were meant to compete for spots in the accelerated math program.
This was our shared history, mine and Clyde’s, even if neither one of us fit neatly into our supposed groups. He was from Newton, not Boston. My parents didn’t belong to any synagogue, had made amends by enrolling me in an off-brand Sunday school that rented space from a junior college. I opted out of Hebrew class—which is not optional in a real Hebrew school, hence the name Hebrew school—in favor of Jewish cultural history. This class was taught by an elderly man named Israel Kaegan whose idea of cultural history was to delineate, again and again, the differences between Blacks and Jews. Prominent among these was the claim that Jews gave back to their communities when they made it and Blacks did not, with the lone exception of Satch Sanders, a Boston Celtic from 1960 to 1973. Mr. Kaegan had lived in Roxbury until the Blacks moved in, so he knew all about them.
I didn’t understand, then, why Jews and Black people were so inextricably connected in Mr. Kaegan’s mind, why the one was properly defined against the other. Now it makes perfect sense. He remembered when the Jews had not been white—when the distinctions, to his mind, had not sufficed—and did not want to go back.
I would not go so far as to say Mr. Kaegan looked at us and understood that financial and cultural capital were diverging in the United States—that Black people were cooler and more visible than ever, even if they were not gaining a more equitable share of the wealth—and that this was happening at a moment when Jewish kids like the ones in his class had amassed the resources to start focusing on other kinds of prosperity. If he did, though, impressing upon us all the ways in which we were not Black would have seemed more important than ever.
It takes very little, in a world of white tables and Black tables, to break the rules. Both in the sense that the rules are manifold and rigid and can be transgressed with minimal exertion, and in the sense that they are so brittle and stupid that flouting them requires no real courage—though one never knows the consequences in advance.
I met Latif Bossman in seventh-grade gym class, around the time I got kicked out of Sunday school. He was mischievous and yoked, played fullback and talked hella shit and scrawled rhymes in a marbled cardboard-covered notebook. Soon we were writing bars and trading tapes and calling ourselves a group. “Bring the Noise” was out by then, with the sample of Malcolm X saying “too black, too strong” on the intro, so I pitched Latif the idea that I could be 2 Strong and he could be 2 Black, which was exactly the type of overdetermined militant posturing that put us right in tune with the zeitgeist.
I took rapping more seriously than Latif did—perhaps because I had no conception of rapping as a casual pursuit. I did not live in a neighborhood where it was normal to have a verse stashed in case a cypher erupted, or a tag you knew how to execute in the event that you were passed a marker. I wanted us to write verses where we traded off seamlessly, like Big Daddy Kane and Scoob Lover—that was the height of virtuosity to me. But I also wanted to intertwine my voice with Latif’s for other reasons, wanted it as deeply as Mr. Kaegan wanted us disentangled. I imagined it would make me realer, more authentic, less freighted with the legacy of racism that hip-hop was teaching me all about—to an audience that did not exist, and to myself.
But there was an audience. Not for our music, but for the placement of our bodies in space. The day I started eating lunch at Latif’s table, a half-dozen cassettes scattered before us like talismans, I became visible in a way that was entirely new. I became “Mansblack.” Not to the Black kids—it was no mystery to them what I was doing at their table. It usually isn’t, when white people start showing up or sitting in or hanging out. And if it was, they just asked me. Ever since then, Black people have usually just asked.
The white kids had a question too: Do you know you’re not Black? They yo yo yo-ed me in the halls, threw rap hands from across the cafeteria. In retrospect, it’s impressive how perfectly all this anticipated America’s response to the down white boy—the wigger trope that popped off a few years later when hip-hop went mainstream. Any move from the center to the margins destabilizes the ecosystem, and the canniest response is ridicule. If the down white boy is a clown—a culture vulture—his impulse to walk away from his ethnic peers does not speak to a rot at the core of whiteness but to an inability to know himself. He is a parody of Blackness, masquerading as a parody of Blackface.
Jewish kids gatekeeping whiteness by cutting off the exits—how unthinkable would that have been to their grandparents? They knew that Judaism is the Hotel California of religions, that you can check out but you can never leave, that no matter how alienated or ambiguous you feel, you cannot go anywhere except the margins of the margins, an escape raft bigger than the ship. There is a joke about a Jew who converts to Catholicism, enrolls in a seminary, becomes a priest. The night before he is meant to give his first sermon, he cannot sleep, writes and rewrites fitfully until at last the fateful moment comes. He takes the podium, gazes out into the crowd, takes a deep breath and says, “Good morning, my fellow goys.”
You know who’d probably love that joke? You know who sees the absurdity of Jews embracing our tenuous new whiteness so vociferously that we become its guard dogs, its German Shepherds? White nationalists.
Jews, the white nationalists will tell you, are adept at masquerading as white to dissemble and destabilize—but not so adept as we think. I know this because whenever I write about whiteness, they “out” me—for example, in 2016, when W. Kamau Bell and I published a piece imploring white people to reject the idea that presidential candidate Donald J. Trump spoke for them, and #WhitesAgainstTrump trended on that platform then known as Twitter. My words were meaningless, they said, because I was not white but Jewish, and the Jewish agenda is to bring whiteness crashing down.
If only this were true. Perhaps this was once true.
We love to talk about the venerable Black-Jewish civil rights alliance, but I watched it flicker out in grade school, when whiteness decided it needed new recruits. And right on cue—here’s Jesse Jackson, poised to win the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination until he calls New York City “Hymietown.”
And what does whiteness ask of us, as the price of admission? That we imbue the reverend’s word with the deadliest of venom, erase the history of the man who said it until he is nothing else. It asks us to believe that he speaks for all of Black America, and that he means us real harm, and that he must be banished to a realm of infamy from whence, 40 years later, your right of return is still denied. Do not confuse it with the time-out corner to which you will briefly be escorted for declaring that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” if you are noted historian Mel Gibson.
The specter of Black antisemitism—“Hymietown,” Al Sharpton’s conduct in the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, the collected (and far realer) offenses of Minister Louis Farrakhan—provided moral cover for our retreat behind the city walls of whiteness, a polis that would never grant us full citizenship.
Whiteness and walls—I cannot write those words without imagining the ethno-state of the nationalists’ most fevered dream. The sanitized version of the dream, anyway: the one in which the rest of us have not been killed but left to fend for ourselves in the white-less wastelands. How would white people reinvent themselves, with “white genocide” averted and “the Great Replacement” off the table and “white heritage” no longer under attack? Left alone to flourish in the absence of the enemies that have defined them, would they have a culture left?
My guess is that, within months, they’d start finding things—crop failure, tennis elbow, cancer—to blame on the Jews Beyond the Wall. Antisemitism is a totalizing worldview. It isn’t just hating Jews; it’s thinking we are stateless, venal parasites who control the banks, the media, the world. It’s believing that we act as one, that we puppeteer all sides of every war. Without this framework, the sinister implications of reading off a list of Jewish media executives (as Ye did on Instagram) would not be legible. Antisemitism is what knits those names into a conspiracy, infers that they are all working in secret and terrible concert. As my friend Joe Schloss points out, an overwhelming majority of the New York Police Department’s leadership has always been Irish, but no one says “the Irish control the police,” because no one thinks of the Irish that way.
There are many levels on which this is exasperating, and one on which it is very funny. The second-most important book in Judaism is the Talmud, a 6,000-page debate over every aspect of law and custom, conducted by scores of rabbis over hundreds of years. A common Jewish expression is “two Jews, three opinions.” Brooklyn is crammed with Hasidic sects who refuse to do business with one another and cannot concur over whether the state of Israel should exist or whether the Messiah has already come and gone. Jews agree on nothing and obey no central authority, and the notion that we could pull off hive-mindedness would be hilarious if it were not the cause of so much violence. It makes as much sense to believe, as Clyde did, that all women are conspiring against you.
But that’s just it: the one leads to the other. If you put stock in shadowy cabals, if you have a sense that your life is controlled by unseen forces—then you will inevitably come to blame the Jews. It is the bottom of the funnel. You will embrace the bizarre notion that our long history of persecution is a smoke screen created to garner sympathy and throw the world off our scent, or believe the reason for our consistent persecution is that everyone has always known we’re vermin but nobody could quite finish the job. Or you’ll believe both at once; to do so makes no less sense.
The irony is that your life is circumscribed by forces outside your control. A great conspiracy is choking this country. The disappointing part, from a narrative standpoint, is that it doesn’t wield power through obscure machinations. It tells you exactly what it’s going to do: disenfranchise Black voters, outlaw abortion and contraception, roll back the rights of queer and trans people, prop up a dying corporate order in the name of the “free market,” infiltrate and militarize the police, restrict the rights of religious minorities, shoot up mosques, gay clubs, synagogues, and Black churches, purge the government of nonbelievers, provoke a race war, and establish a white ethno-state.
The conspiracy is white Christian dominionism. Its ideology is now inextricable from the legislative goals of the Republican Party, whose most prominent national figures routinely speak to hate groups, dine with white nationalists, and court voters with the promise of a more racist, more xenophobic, more patriarchal, more Christian America.
I wish Clyde were making songs about that instead of rapping that he’s down with the Nazis, but it’s a trap to think that the face of antisemitism looks like Clyde or Ye or Kyrie Irving, and not Donald Trump or Richard Spencer or the legions of emboldened and well-networked white nationalists discussing the Jewish Question on their message boards. And the face of anti-Blackness? It’s the same face.
But perhaps Black antisemitism and Jewish anti-Blackness exact a disproportionate emotional toll because we expect more of each other. When Black folks defend their antisemitism on the grounds that Jewish people are no different than other white people, it speaks to a deeper belief that we can be different, that we can reject whiteness’s attempts to deputize us. And when Jews respond by asking why, if we’re the same as other white people, we’re being singled out as Jews, perhaps it speaks to the same hope, the same memory.
Sometimes our shared history is ugly. Sometimes it’s Jews as the bagmen for whiteness, the Harlem shop owners and landlords about whom James Baldwin wrote. Sometimes it’s Black envy of Jewish prosperity, painted in stereotypes so broad they would have you believe there are no poor Jews when in fact there are many, especially among the devout. Sometimes it’s each group treating the other the same way white people do. I don’t mean to suggest that these things are equally harmful, or that the ledger evens out. But in all these cases, the winner is the system that keeps Black and Jewish folks focused on each other instead of on it.
The beautiful parts of our shared history, meanwhile, are very beautiful indeed. We owe each other something because HBCUs rescued and resettled European Jews in the 1930s while the US government sat on its hands. Because Abe Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” and Billie Holiday sang it to life. Because Black-Jewish radical culture seeded the Civil Rights Movement, and Paul Robeson found a home on the Jewish left, and Black-Jewish Def Jam Recordings took hip-hop around the globe, and Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor were a perfect duo just like Mach-Hommy and Your Old Droog or Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist, and Louis Armstrong wore a Star of David, and when Jackie Robinson broke the color line, it was Hank Greenberg, baseball’s most taunted man until that season, who reached out and offered him a hand. We owe each other something because—although you’d never know it from the popular discourse—Blacks and Jew are overlapping populations. There are a million Jews of color in the United States alone.
Perhaps the farther these things recede into the rearview mirror or vanish into the dizzying weave of our culture, the harder they become to make meaning of—like explaining to my teenage daughter that hip-hop was once an underground youth culture intent on forcing Americans to confront racism and inequality, when the biggest rappers of her lifetime are an apolitical Black Jewish Canadian dude wandering lovelorn through his empty mansion and a mentally ill reality television star who thinks slavery was a choice and Hitler was awesome. Or trying to make her understand that I didn’t care how much shit I took for “wanting to be Black” when I was her age because hip-hop was teaching me that the proper use of my white privilege was to voice all the things about my community’s hypocrisy that were routinely dismissed when Black people said them.
I don’t think we can afford to let the beautiful moments go, the times when tikkun olam met liberation theology or the solidarity held or the jokes all landed. Perhaps sometimes, those who forget history are doomed not to repeat it.
I’m still trying to understand that history, and I’m still trying to understand Clyde. Because another part of our history was the night he saved me from getting my ass beat.
It was the spring of 1991, sometime after midnight, and I was walking from Cleveland Circle Cinemas to the pizza spot on Commonwealth Avenue. We didn’t go to the movies to see movies; we went to hang out in the lobby or the parking lot, meet girls from other schools, exalt in the sharp danger of so many other adolescent male idiots in such close proximity. There was usually a fight. I have no idea why I was walking alone.
I cut through the dark parking lot of the Dunkin’ Donuts and ran into a crew of bigger, older kids I’d never seen before in my life. It was that desultory time of night when you are facing up to what a bust the evening has been, and recognizing that if you are going to salvage it, you must act fast. So they decided to beat the shit out of me.
I had talked my way out of fights before, but not with strangers. These guys didn’t care what I had to say; my very existence enraged them. I can’t remember what I was wearing, but I was a hip-hop kid—baggy jeans, Carhartt jacket, Charlie Parker or Malcolm X on my T-shirt, hair sculpted into an approximation of a high top fade—and trying to be Black had not yet been defanged and made ridiculous; it still bothered white boys on an instinctive, perhaps ancestral level.
One single heartbeat before the ass-kicking commenced, Clyde’s hand-me-down Oldsmobile lumbered into the parking lot and skirted to a stop and all four doors swung wide. Out stepped Clyde, Cee Justice, Jesse, and Chris. Earlier that very day, the five of us had recorded a posse cut at Jesse’s house, passing a single mic from hand to hand.
Clyde had a baseball bat. The same one, probably.
“Yo!” he called out, striding toward us. “Y’all better leave my man the fuck alone!” And just like that, the danger scattered. I squeezed into the Oldsmobile, and off we drove.
I listened to “The Holocaust” again before I sat down to write this. I didn’t feel fear this time, or anger. I could hear a flash of the comic timing that used to have us rolling, an echo of the strength in Clyde’s voice the night he jumped out of that car. In the bifurcation of his lyrics, I could feel the push and pull between a person and an ideology, between thought and dogma. I could imagine the agonized sound of Clyde’s screams the night he took a bat to the windows of our former home. He was in there, somewhere, behind all that hate and recrimination. Maybe he couldn’t get out. Maybe none of us can.
Parts of this essay appear in Adam Mansbach’s new novel The Golem of Brooklyn, available now from One World/Penguin Random House.
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