The 2000 novel “The Human Stain” by the late Philip Roth ends with a twist revealing that the hero, a professor ruined for a comment misconstrued as an anti-black slur, is actually a light-skinned Black man who has “passed” as white and Jewish for most of his life. In 2020, we have a real-life story in reverse: An academic who teaches African history has confessed that she has misrepresented herself as a Bronx-bred Afro-Latina when she actually comes from a white Jewish family in the Midwest.
There are many questions about why Jessica Krug, who sometimes went by “Jess La Bombalera,” perpetrated her deception (her blogpost claims mental illness) and why she confessed (some say she was about to be exposed). But this bizarre drama says many fascinating things about the state of American culture.
In her confession, Krug, who quit her post at George Washington University on Wednesday, described her hoax as “anti-black violence.” Obviously, this rhetoric, fashionable in progressive circles, is absurdly hyperbolic. Indeed, one might ask what harm Krug actually caused: Her background presumably doesn’t determine the quality of her scholarship. (The two prizes for which her 2018 book “Fugitive Modernities” was a finalist honor works on the history of slavery and abolitionism, regardless of the author’s racial identity.)
But of course, in modern academia, identity and scholarship are inextricably intertwined. And Krug was also involved in activism built around her supposed identity — complete with a Puerto Rican accent that sounds buffoonishly stereotypical when you know it’s fake.
In June, testifying by video link at a New York City Council hearing about Black Lives Matter protests, “Jess La Bombalera” chided white witnesses for not yielding their time to “Black and brown indigenous New Yorkers.” There’s a good Jewish word for this: chutzpah.
Writing in the left-wing magazine The Jacobin, Illinois State University professor Touré Reed, a progressive dissenter from identity politics, argues that the problem with Krug’s act is not “cultural appropriation” — culture is never ethnically or racially monolithic —but “racist caricature.” He also argues that the stereotyping is no less offensive when actual Black or Hispanic people are pressured to be culturally “authentic.” Krug herself reportedly berated minority colleagues for not being Black or brown enough.
The debacle is all the more ironic given that progressives often insist an assumed identity must be respected as real. This is sacrosanct dogma with regard to sex/gender: If a woman admitted being transgender when threatened with exposure, those seeking to “out” her would be the villains. Even with race and ethnicity, it’s increasingly common to see references to people who “identify” as Black or Latino.
Who decides which identities are OK to adopt? Critiques of “cultural appropriation” often target whites who use aspects of minority cultures (e.g., “Black” hairstyles) without any of the disadvantages, but Krug lived as an Afro-Latina. This also raises the thorny question of whether, in today’s America — very much unlike the one where Roth’s hero was raised — such an identity can sometimes confer advantage.
The latest Krug revelation adds a horrifying wrinkle to the farce. Last year on a Columbia University panel, Krug argued that the 2018 gang murder of 15-year-old Lesandro Guzman-Feliz in the Bronx was “a radical moment” of violence toward a police collaborator. Guzman-Feliz, who was hacked to death with machetes, was a member of the NYPD’s Youth Explorer Program. She also assailed the “media narrative” of the boy’s “innocence.”
Krug is now “canceled” for the metaphorical “violence” of lying about her background. Yet she suffered no damage to her reputation for glamorizing real violence, including the gruesome murder of a teenager. What this says about our culture is not good.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.