Getting it right in defining racism


By Jonathan A. Greenblatt
Special to WJW

As an organization founded at the onset of the 20th century, ADL has weathered massive moments of change including the Holocaust and world wars, domestic unrest, economic upheaval and more. Along the way, ADL has helped to make America a safer place for the Jewish people and for all marginalized communities.

I take pride in its accomplishments, such as standing up for equal rights for Black Americans long before the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, or calling out recent presidential candidates for their poisonous rhetoric toward marginalized/underrepresented communities, to providing the training that helped a rabbi and his worshipers survive a hostage ordeal at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, last month.

At ADL, our founding charter is our true north, originally written in 1913 and unchanged for more than 100 years. As our founders imagined, our mission is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment for all. They tied together these ideas because they believed that the Jewish community would not be safe unless all marginalized communities were safe.

And we believe that no one should be persecuted, demeaned or discriminated against because of their identity, whether that’s a matter of faith, race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, etc. That goes for government actions as well as personal actions. People should be judged by who they are, what they have accomplished and their innate potential.

This belief fuels our commitment to call out antisemitism and interrupt intolerance whenever it happens and whoever might be responsible. We do this work irrespective of partisanship or politics, focusing on right and wrong. And as we do this work, we try to adapt to the times, but we certainly don’t always get it right.

Sometimes these errors are small — an errant comment, a poorly worded press release, or maybe a failed partnership. And sometimes these errors are big, such as not recognizing a clear case of genocide or feeding the flames of anti-Muslim bias as happened with the Cordoba House controversy.

But all of them hurt.

As a case study, take ADL’s definition of racism. A few years ago, ADL updated our definition to reflect that racism in the United States manifests in broader and systemic ways and to explicitly acknowledge the targeting of people of color — among many others — by the white supremacist extremism we have tracked for decades.

While this is true, this new frame narrowed the meaning in other ways. And, by being so narrow, the resulting definition was incomplete, rendering it ineffective and therefore unacceptable. It’s true, it’s just not the whole truth. It alienated many people who did not see their own experience encompassed in this definition, including many in the Jewish community.

In all honesty, as I re-read it this past week, it struck me that it didn’t even speak to my own family’s experience with the racism they experienced as Jews from the Middle East.

Many people noticed the change and called it out, taking to Twitter to vent their feelings. Some of these critics were allies operating in good faith who wanted us to do better. There also were numerous detractors who seized upon this issue as confirmation of a sinister plot to promote a political agenda or stop fighting antisemitism altogether. This certainly isn’t true, but with enough outrage and an internet browser, a zealot can “uncover” a conspiracy in every digital breadcrumb.

And yet, even tough moments can be opportunities for introspection and improvement. Indeed, since we are entrusted with the safety of the community, we don’t have much margin for error. We need to acknowledge the issues so we can address them.

First and foremost, after internal consultation and external engagement, we updated the definition on our site, drawing upon the research of Professor Robert Livingston of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University and what he calls his “simple definition”:
Racism occurs when individuals or institutions show more favorable evaluation or treatment of an individual or group based on race or ethnicity.

Professor Livingston, as he notes in his book, took great care in developing his simple definition to allow room for, among other examples, “German racism against the Jews, Greeks or Turks.”

Even as we make this change, effective immediately, we intend to use this framework as a jumping-off point and will continue to review not only this page but each of our definitions.

At the end of the day, enhancing our processes and exposing our positions to ferocious debate and rigorous inquiry won’t weaken our organization. It will make us stronger, battle tested and better prepared for the challenges of these complicated times.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League).

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