We Can’t Be A Bystander

The horror and heartache emanating from the senseless murder of George Floyd shook us to our core. Like many others, the onslaught of emotions that we felt watching this brutality and the proliferation of protests initiated soul searching. Ringing in our ears was a fundamental teaching and tradition of Judaism: “thou shalt not be a bystander.” We didn’t want to be passive or ambivalent but wondered — what could we do to really have an impact?

For us, the not-so-distant atrocities of the Holocaust remind us what can happen when racism permeates, and justice, let alone equality, is not fairly applied and adhered to. We know what it is like to be afraid, angry, and often helpless. This acuteness only enhances our feelings and empathy for Black Americans and the inexcusable systematic racism, unacceptable injustices, and devastating consequences they have endured in this country.

The shock and rage surrounding the treatment of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery was a poignant and depressing wake-up call. There was so much we didn’t know and so many questions to be answered. To wrap our heads around this issue and explore what we — in our small way — could possibly do to help alleviate the problem both today and in the future, it was critical to imagine ourselves in the shoes of our Black neighbors to genuinely empathize. We, and many others, need greater awareness and education because only once we truly understand the reality of their position, history, concerns, and fears can we help illuminate the optimal pathways to build a humane America we are all proud to call home. We know this isn’t going to be easy, but it is important.

Due to the insulation of racial privilege, White Americans have no firsthand experience with the emotions their Black countrymen feel after generations of unjust treatment. Thus, before contemplating what we, as White Americans, might do as allies, it was essential that we start by expanding our knowledge of history as well as acknowledging our failures, individually and as a country on so many levels. For example, we were ashamed and flabbergasted that we weren’t familiar with the Tulsa Massacre or Juneteenth. Sadly, we surmise, we are hardly alone. As a first step, we asked those we deeply respected how they were thinking about this issue and what they were doing.

In one of these conversations, a close friend shared that he was deeply moved by a powerful thought-provoking 7-minute video about Confederate monuments and white supremacy. It would be an understatement to say we were blown away after watching the video. The content was eye-opening, but maybe even more intriguing was the fact that the creator was a good friend — Jeff Robinson — a Harvard-trained defense lawyer who is now a Deputy Legal Director for the ACLU.

We immediately reached out to Jeff and learned that he has spent the last 10 years traveling the country, thoroughly researching a more truthful, complete, and accurate history of America’s systemic anti-Black racism. In presentations across the country, he has combined original source material, historical and present-day archival footage, his personal story, and footage of his interviews with Black change-makers and eyewitnesses whose experiences illustrate the enduring legacy of white supremacy and the struggle to overcome it. Our conversation with Jeff was truly a “lightbulb moment.”

After our initial conversation with Jeff, we were convinced that the process of initiating foundational, long-term changes must begin with understanding history and the realities that have manifested from it. Accomplished author David McCullough encapsulated this perfectly, “How can we know who we are and where we are going if we don’t know anything about where we have come from and what we have been through…History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” This is the power of history; working to correct it presents an avenue to do something impactful at scale.

We were excited to learn that our friend was dedicating his life to this mission through his newly launched initiative — The Who We Are Project. Their goal is to chronicle the history of racism in the United States and in doing so acknowledge the deeper racist policies employed throughout our nation’s history. We share Jeff’s view that the only way to begin solving systematic racism and cycles of poverty is to have open eyes about the true history of our nation and its implications for a large segment of our population.

The Who We Are project is about educating all Americans, as soon as possible, so that we can begin to correct the fracturing of America and create a cohesive future for our country. Its initial cornerstone is a documentary film called Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America. The film sheds a light on systematic racism and its impact on our policies toward Black people in America. However, the documentary is just the beginning. Ultimately, what we are taught must be amended. Once we understand history, we can genuinely empathize with those wronged and begin to change the structural impediments that have, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuated racism and mistreatment.

The process of correcting generations of wrongs will be hard and take time — maybe even generations. But we must start now, as it is shamefully long overdue. Today, we are experiencing the culmination of centuries of mistreatment. It is a tragedy that these heinous murders were the impetus to create this urgent call for action. Right now, it feels like our country is at a tipping point — we can either begin the healing process and resolve inequities or we can further divide our country. We are unwilling to be bystanders because the path we take will profoundly determine the future of our country. We believe widespread education will be the cornerstone to solving this problem and, in our opinion, Jeff Robinson’s Who We Are Project can provide us with a means to start doing so.

We encourage others to participate in this initiative or similar ones. Regardless of how you engage, just don’t be a bystander. Only when we share equal safety and opportunity will we truly have one nation, undivided, with liberty and justice for all. Accomplishing this ideal will take all of us.

Image courtesy of the Who We Are Project.