We can then make a personal oath that we must take action, beginning today.
“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.”
Buffalo Springfield, 1967
Everyone agrees that the murder of George Floyd sparked something big across America and beyond. There’s been many needless black deaths before, but something feels different this time. There is suddenly worldwide outrage, as if millions of people – people from different races, religions and ethnicities – finally said “enough is enough!”
But what exactly has been sparked? Was it a true uprising that will finally transform racial justice or just a passing moment of guilt and hope? Will all the protests make a real difference or is this just a short-term outburst of a people who have been frustratingly quarantined by the coronavirus?
One thing is already different. Lawmakers and police departments are swiftly addressing overdue changes on such things as body-worn police cameras, restraints on ‘no knock’ raids, data collection, criminal justice reforms and other measures. It all sounds great.
But aside from pressuring our political leaders, what can we – just regular people – do in our everyday lives to finally erase the stain of racism that plagues America? That’s the burning question that everyone is asking. At the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, an organization in which I’m deeply involved, we are barraged with this question all the time.
It’s a simple question and yet mind-bogglingly complex. But we – all Americans – cannot shrug it off. We have to answer it.
At the risk of sounding shockingly naive, I actually believe that racism can be eradicated (go ahead and laugh). Yes, America’s past record is shameful, but we’re not chained to the past. Societies change as people do. There are always waves in history when a new idea arrives and suddenly nothing is ever the same again. As the writer Victor Hugo once noted, “There is nothing more powerful as an idea whose time has come.” And ending racism is an idea whose time has not only come, but is way overdue.
So what can an ordinary person can do? A lot, I would submit. In fact, as I see it, ordinary people are actually the key to the solution.
We can start by looking into a mirror and asking ourselves who we are and who we wish to be. The great scholar Rabbi Hillel posed a simple question to Jews over two millennium ago:
“If I am not for others, what am I?”
Hillel’s simple but powerful question is all we need to ask ourselves about fighting racism today. We can then make a personal oath that we must take action, beginning today.
The following non-inclusive list, I would suggest, would be a good start:
– We can start by the selection of words we use or tolerate in others. Words matter. We all know which words are racially insensitive or hostile. I don’t know a single person who uses the ‘N word’, but we’ve all heard some people use alternative words that are nonetheless derogatory, including some Jews who somehow think a certain Yiddish word is not demeaning. If you’re one of them, stop that now. If you hear others use it in your presence, tell them it’s not permissible. Those words are not harmless or humorous; they are ugly and degrading and not befitting of anyone who opposes hate, and Jews of all people should know better.
– We can speak up when told a racist joke, or shared a racist meme. Silence is complicity.
– We can take steps to insure that our children are exposed to people of color. Find activities that will take them away from their homogeneous lives. Educate them about racism. Expose them to dolls, books, movies that portray the broad diversity of this world. Your children are watching you. Be a role model for them when it comes to racial tolerance and justice. They’re the future, and thus our only hope.
– We can support black businesses (see officialblackwallstreet.com)
– We can support groups that fight white supremacy (see, for one notable example, civilrights.org)
– We Jews abhor anti-Semitism and we condemn those who engage in it. It’s time to place racism on equal footing with anti-Semitism in our minds. White supremacists hate us both equally and they don’t pretend to hide it. Jews and blacks have the same targets on their backs. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We may have all come in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
– We can finally recognize that Confederate symbols are to black people what Nazi symbols are to Jews. The Confederate flag symbolizes slavery, lynching, oppression and insurrection. The statues of those leaders are a repugnant reminder of that. Imagine if we Jews had to regularly see Nazi flags or swastika bumper stickers or statues of Nazi leaders. There are countless highways, bridges, counties and schools named after Confederate leaders throughout America, especially in the South. How would we feel about living in a land with such places named after Nazi’s (‘Goering Freeway’?!)? What could be more demoralizing? And to those people who say that Confederate symbols are just part of our heritage and should remain, then let’s retire those symbols to a museum where we can educate our children about a bygone era in America.
– If we’re employers, we can recruit from HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).
– We can be hands-on about how our local school district teaches history. Get the curriculum. See the textbooks. How are topics like the ‘discovery’ of America portrayed, or the hypocrisy of many of the Founding Fathers on notions of equality? We shouldn’t close our eyes to the reality of our history. America has a despicable record of racism. What’s the point of whitewashing that?
– We can embrace the same sensitivity towards other ethnicities as we demand from them. The Holocaust was obviously an unspeakable nightmare beyond belief. But nothing is accomplished by insisting that it was the only and absolute worst genocidal crime in human history, as if Jews have a monopoly on tragedy. We don’t. Native Americans, Rwandans, Armenians, Cambodians, Serbs, African Americans and many others know this all-too-well. It’s not a competition.
– We can recognize that living in diverse neighborhoods enriches everyone’s life.
Jews have a proud history of being integral to the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. We often speak of the Jewish Freedom Riders or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s close relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and we rightfully take pride in our people’s role in that era. But frankly, that was then and this is now. Now we have to build on that record, not rest on it.
This can be a watershed moment for America. There is indeed something happening here. Masses of people are demanding an end to racism like never before, and it genuinely feels like a moment of real promise. But nothing changes unless ordinary people – us – make a personal commitment to change our words, our attitudes and our behavior. That will require real work and we have to get started immediately.
I choose to believe we are up to it.