About 180 years ago, a Native American woman campaigning to abolish slavery described racism as “first crushing people to the earth, then claiming the right of trampling on them forever, because they are prostrate”.
Those words, of Lydia Maria Child, rang deafeningly true this week, after white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt for nine minutes on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed black man lying handcuffed and face down on the ground.
The late Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously reminded the world that no human race is superior, no religious faith inferior, but black Americans say ‘American’ still means ‘white’, that there are first- and second-class citizens in the States, and that Floyd’s killing is simply the latest in a long and awful line.
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust chief executive Olivia Marks-Woldman seemed to sum up the feelings of many British Jews this week when she said she felt impotent, unable to help. But she then said she was doing what she could by educating herself on the racism experienced by black people around the world.
This is one of the many excellent, practical and immediate steps we can all take. Some British Jews are supporting groups helping US protesters and victims’ families. Others are pushing our own government to implement the recommendations of the Lammy Report into racism in the UK.
Others are setting up social media accounts to highlight anti-black racism to a wider Jewish audience. Jewish teachers are thinking how best to tell pupils about the prejudice still faced by black people today. Communal and religious Jewish representatives are reaching out to representatives of the black community to build links, similar to those with the Muslim and Traveller communities.
Many are examining their own biases and blind spots, and making time to listen to people of colour expressing their anger.
There is a lot we can do, but the one obvious thing we can all do – and perhaps the most important – is be furious.
The idea that the lives of any collective group of people matters less than others is so fundamental, so core to our DNA, that Derek Chauvin knelt on us too that day.
The words ‘we stand in solidarity’ are much used, but when spoken by the Jewish community on an issue such as racism, they are among the most powerful that could ever be heard. We do.