Following the murder of George Floyd, the Federation released a statement. (You can read it in its entirety in the July Jewish Journal Monthly Magazine). As Federation president Rick Marlin and I said at the time, “We are heartbroken and outraged at the senseless and tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. His death is yet another in a disturbingly long list of similar racist incidents and inexcusable injustices that have been perpetrated against African Americans in this country.”
The Federation also declared its support for local and state efforts to declare racism a public health crisis. Federation Director of Community Relations/Government Affairs Bonnie Deutsch Burdman announced our support at a vigil held in downtown Youngstown to honor the memory of U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
I have been thinking a lot about this issue. We all need to talk more about racism in our country and in our community. More importantly, we must LISTEN to our African American friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others who can share some eye-opening stories about growing up as a black person. While as Jews we know all too well about antisemitism and hatred, which manifested itself in the killing of 11 Jews at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, we don’t necessarily display our Judaism every day in public. But an African American person is black all of the time and has experiences that many of us will never know, or may never have thought about.
For years, I have enjoyed a friendship with a retired African American couple on my street. We have discussed many topics including politics, religion, business, sports, and just life in general. But now we’re talking about racism. We’re talking about the need for African American parents to have “The Talk” with their kids about how they will be treated by others in school, at the mall, by law enforcement, and elsewhere in everyday life. Most of us teach our kids to be respectful, be wary of strangers, and to make proper choices in life, but we do not have others look differently at us, or treat us differently because of the color of our skin.
About a month ago, one of my African American friends put out a plea on Facebook for her white friends to have lunch or dinner with her to discuss issues related to systemic racism in our country. Yes, she told me about “The Talk” she and her husband have had and will continue to have with their children. She recounted being pulled over by a police officer for no reason other than for being black. She shared a disturbing conversation she had with the employees at her business after the murder of George Floyd. She told her 18 employees of the pain she was feeling after Mr. Floyd’s death, yet no one in the office had even asked how she was doing. After the talk with her employees, five workers individually came in to see her and most were in tears saying, “I didn’t know what to say.”
So what I have to say now is say SOMETHING! Until we understand how racism affects African Americans in our community, real change will not happen and our country will not reach its fullest potential. If there’s going to be change, it has to start with uncomfortable conversations
One person can’t undo hundreds of years of racism, but we can all work on it together. Pick something you can do that can make a difference. If you are able, volunteer to read to young African American students in school. Or give some money that can be used to purchase books. Perhaps involve yourself in a community social action project. Think about what you or an organization you may be affiliated with can do to lobby our elected officials to fund much needed programs and services that help our African American friends in order to make our community and country a better place. We are stronger collectively. In short, educate yourself, ask the uncomfortable questions, give of your time and money, and be active politically.
Let’s keep talking about this. It’s time.
Executive Vice-President, Youngstown Area Jewish Federation