July 21st, 2020
This was written but not published before Rep. John Lewis’ sad passing. He was an inspiration to so many of us – and a model of how an authentic change agent can be both inside and outside the system. His convictions were transparent; his courage exemplary; his influence will be felt for a very long time.
It may be helpful to read #388 prior to reading this piece.
Wow. Two consecutive zoom meetings yesterday left me a bit shaken. There was no overlap of participants or of stated agenda. But, unintentionally, they affirmed very troubling and consistent world views.
As readers know, I do whatever I can to keep references as anonymous as possible. Suffice it to say that both groups had participants from throughout the United States. The make-up of the two groups was very different, and that difference is relevant to the remainder of this article. In one, about half of the participants were people of color; in the other, all were Jewish. This piece, though, is not specifically or primarily about Black-Jewish relations in the USA but about some surprising and unsettling things I heard from both discussions.
First some notes on “change”. My own view is that the precondition to any meaningful systemic change in the USA is having a different person sitting in the Oval Office after this year. No reader should be shocked to read that since I haven’t been very subtle about my feelings. But here I want to expand on that as a backdrop to my response to the comments at the two meetings:
It is not only that I think that we have to restore a commitment to Constitutional roles, responsibilities, and expectations, or that we have to come closer to a commitment to a government of, by, and FOR those who live in this country, or that we have to reestablish that there is such a thing as knowledge [and that includes knowing what is a gray area from what is simply true or false], or that we have to recognize that we are a part of the world [neither “above” it or exempt from it], or….
No, it is not only these things, but it is also about a baseline of respect, dignity, humanity, integrity, honesty – to put in a word, “culture”. In other words, reestablishing all of the things mentioned in the prior paragraph alone won’t eliminate racism or economic inequities or unacceptable growing class divides or xenophobia. Without a cultural shift, none of the endemic and systemic issues can effectively be addressed. And until we remove a mean, mendacious misanthrope from his dangerous seat of power, such a national culture shift will be virtually impossible.
For me, these two paragraphs represent the sine qua non of change, but not the sufficiency to bring about change. I have seen this in every organization or business with which I have had experience or knowledge. There may be many strategies for change, but none, absolutely none, work without a commitment that emanates from the top.
Even that cultural commitment alone is insufficient. Most real work is done on the local level, both politically and metaphorically. Implementation is rarely effective if it is only top down; it must be bottom up. Enfranchisement matters. Empowerment cannot be token. Inclusion must not be rigged. This is the hard, day-in day-out work. It is what makes the difference in the sustainability of a business; it is what makes a difference in the sustainability in a non-profit organization; it is what makes the difference in the character of a foundation; and it is what makes the difference in the social compact that underlies any and every governance system.
These perspectives were challenged on both of the calls.
On the first, several very successful and articulate African-Americans largely dismissed my focus on voting and government change as the sine qua non as an indulgence of a [well-intentioned] white liberal. If there is voter suppression, what is the point of getting out the vote? If people of color are gerrymandered to guarantee less representation, why bother? If systemic racism continues no matter which party is in control, why waste one’s energies choosing between flawed choices even if one is less flawed than the other?
They argued, passionately, that the only change they can buy into, and are willing to take risks for, are where one has some control – of oneself, of one’s own business, of one’s own chosen friends and colleagues. As far as I could tell, none was a supporter of or advocate for the current administration; and I suspect all will choose to cast their vote for a President Biden. However, they were not willing to say that this is where any of their energies should take the highest priority.
This didn’t totally surprise me because of my direct experience with Census2020 advocacy. In addition to being involved in a regional task force, I attended three different conferences which included leaders of various at-risk and historically undercounted communities. Depending on which conference, some of those leaders were local, some national. The concern, to remind you, is that for every undercounted person, there will be underfunding and under-representation for the next 10 years. The Census is supposed to be anonymous and complete. However, the current administration tried to politicize it in a move that was rejected by the Supreme Court – to require a citizenship question. Given the history of this administration toward immigrants of all sorts, it should not surprise you to know that that request made many unwilling to fill out the census form at all.
The Census Bureau and many other advocates for a complete count turned to trusted intermediaries, leaders in those communities, to persuade their constituents to complete the census. What I heard in all three of those conferences was deep-seated skepticism about whether they could trust the government to honor the constitutionally mandated anonymity. How could they go to the line to advise their followers when they themselves were dubious? The system is so broken that, even at the risk of long-term financial and government representational losses to their communities, the risks to individuals within those communities was existentially greater.
If I understand the issues raised in the first zoom call, spending all of one’s energies devoted to simply improving a system so clearly broken is a fool’s errand. Sure, the current president is flawed [to put it more generously than he deserves], but voter suppression didn’t start with him, nor did gerrymandering nor redlining nor police violence nor racial profiling. Will Biden’s victory simply allow the majority of well-meaning liberal Whites to relax their [our] political advocacy? Will token policy modifications toward policing silent the currently loud voices for change? Will people accept the important but ultimately only symbolic removal of statues of traitors or sports teams’ names representing racist stereotypes rather than do the harder work of rooting out the endemic inequities?
I wish I could say that the cynicism is misplaced, but I share it. Where we disagree is whether out country can withstand another four year of autocratic, anti-scientific, isolationist, and antinomian leadership and whether we have the luxury of dismissing both candidates as flawed, even if unevenly so.
The second call was also quite a bit sobering. While my own professional life once placed me squarely within the American Jewish establishment, for the last 18 years, I have been almost fully an outsider, other than my own personal behaviors and a couple of boards on which I sit. If you are my age, you remember the bond between most of the leadership of the Jewish community and that of the Black community. It is often symbolized by the now iconic photograph of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching alongside my own revered teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. That bond has been tested over the years, for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons, but it is very striking to realize that, for most young people, that is ancient history and says nothing about real lived experiences. Jewish self-concern appears insular to [many] one-time allies. Relative silence [by many] to the tremendous spike in overt anti-Semitism in the USA in the last few years appears ominously isolating to many Jews. To most African Americans, Jews are simply one other privileged White subgroup; to White Supremacists, Jews are a despised race no different than those of Black or Brown or Red skins. [It is true that there are Jews from many racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds, but that is beside the point to Supremacists and perhaps to many African Americans as well.]
The conversation with the Jews painted a dismal affect, and there was a more palpable divide about their preferred presidential candidate. Just as the first call emphasized the need for localism over some vague national culture change, so did this one. For many, it built on a concern that both sympathy and empathy toward Jewish concerns are in shrinking supply on the local level. For some of the Jews, the only issue that mattered was policy toward Israel; since this country is so fragile, they postulate, it is the only metric that counts. For others, [and I put myself in this second camp], a weak and isolated USA that provides no leadership or moral voice to the world is hardly in a position to be a meaningful long-term ally to Israel. Moreover, many of us reject the concept of “single issue” concerns in the Jewish world. Many, probably most, of us, care deeply about the destruction of the environment, the erosion of civil liberties, the absence of health care for all, the existence of a permanent under-class, the prevalence of racism, the hostility of xenophobia. And, indeed, many Jews have marched, petitioned, written, contributed, and in other ways expressed these values. Yet, I fear, far too many non-Jews, especially in government, assume that the Jewish community is “single issue” with perhaps a few outliers or holdovers who associate themselves with the “justice” causes. Even though that perception is statistically wrong, perception, in this case, becomes reality.
Has our American reality become so atomized and clannish that too many of us who have a huge amount at stake in the outcome of the November elections dismiss that it will really matter? Have too many of us decided to hunker down, as if the public weal is as contagious as COVID-19? Has trust – in institutions, public space, or even the future – so eroded that what history will surely view as the most important election in this era has become a second-rung priority for massive segments of our society?
History has not looked kindly upon any nation that makes the choice of hopeless surrender. I hope and pray it will not be ours.