Late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon recently made an awkward but admirable attempt to address his own perceived acts of racism and, in contrition, focused nearly his entire show on interviews with prominent African Americans and civil rights activists. He asked his guests what whites can do to address the racism that is so ingrained in the American way of life that most whites don’t recognize it.
“I wish more people would [ask that question] because we can’t go back to the way we were,” CNN anchor Don Lemon told Fallon. Lemon encouraged white people to “examine your social circles” and “get some black friends.” And in answer to Fallon’s question how to be a better ally of African Americans, NAACP President Derrick Johnson said, “The way we keep the momentum going is keeping the dialogue open.”
American racism has a long history. Discrimination against black Americans is an old story, as are the marches and demonstrations of the civil rights era. More recently, police violence against a steady stream of unarmed black men and women have ignited demonstrations across the country. Those are the sad truths. So anyone who seems to have suddenly discovered American racism hasn’t been paying attention.
But the death of George Floyd is seen by many as an inflection point: We face challenges and opportunities. There seems to be an opening now to examine and find remedies for systemic racism. More people are committed – and listening – than ever before.
So, where is the Jewish community on this issue?
At first, the flurry of press releases came fast, mourning “the tragic death of George Floyd,” and assuring “that we are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with … the black community in the face of these tragedies.”
Then came the calls for action. A statement by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and signed by 130 Jewish groups called for the investigation and prosecution “to the fullest extent of the law” of George Floyd’s murderers, and for “sweeping reforms in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.” JCRCs around the country “committed to dismantling institutionalized racism in America” and “to taking concrete action to improve relations and enhance understanding between communities here … and between minority groups and law enforcement officials.”
But what are those concrete steps? And what does “shoulder to shoulder” really mean? By asking these questions, we aren’t being critical. Indeed, we are proud that so many within the Jewish community are saying the right words. The sentiments expressed reflect what the overwhelming majority of us are feeling, whether we have joined the street protests or not.
But we are wondering about next steps. At this pivotal juncture, what is the Jewish community going to do differently than it has done until now? And what will each of us do? A concerted and well-planned approach that goes beyond supportive words is essential. We hope our collective next steps bring us to a brighter, more harmonious tomorrow.