No easy answers to systemic racism, but there is much you can do

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

By Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

It has now been over a week of protests, propelled by the unconscionable death of George Floyd but motivated by the deeply entrenched and systemic racism that permeates our society at every level. Our hearts break at the stories that underlie the suffering, at the history and the present experienced by our ancestors, family members, friends, neighbors and even ourselves personally.

We are eager to respond. We want to fix the brokenness. We are looking to those who can tell us what to do. Many of you are looking to the Jewish Community Relations Council to tell you what to do. And some of you are frustrated that the St. Louis JCRC has not given you any easy answers.

But there are no easy answers. If the answers were simple, we would have eradicated these issues generations ago. 

The JCRC has been working for decades to build relationships between the Jewish community and other civic, ethnic, political, and religious groups. Communities are not monoliths. With rare exception, there are no singular voices that can speak on behalf of an entire group of people. And even in listening to a range of voices, none can offer simple antidotes to a poison that has been allowed to fester for hundreds of years.

There are no easy answers but there is much that we can do. No one action is sufficient, and many could be uncomfortable. The work of dismantling oppression is uncomfortable work. To remain tranquil amidst suffering is to actively choose to ignore the abuse and maltreatment of a people—an act that itself contributes to the very systems of oppression. Indeed, though we must repudiate violence the work can never be peaceful, because there can be no peace in the absence of justice.

• If you are healthy and feel able, show up. There is nothing more powerful than standing together (even socially distanced apart) and speaking with your legs. There are many groups organizing non-violent protests that include masks and necessary distancing. It can be difficult to track these actions as they are not centralized and often are not announced well in advance to prevent coordinated counter-protests or police response. Use social media to follow individuals and groups that are involved in organizing. Some of the groups most active in St Louis right now are: Expect US, Action St. Louis, Metropolitan Congregations United, and Faith for Justice

• When you show up, though, if you are not a member of the impacted party, show up to support. Use your platform to amplify the voices of those who speak from experience, and not to amplify your own voice. Do not post videos of yourself speaking at the protests (if you are not an invited speaker) or other activities that put yourself in the center and utilize the action to advance your own agenda or raise your own profile. When on social media, share Black voices and not just your own sentiments. 

Read the platforms. You may not agree with everything that these groups, or other groups, say in their platforms or in their calls to action. Movements must be led by those most impacted and those outside of the community do not get to choose the leadership or the positions of the community at the center. Showing up to stand in solidarity with those suffering is a statement of the recognition of the brokenness of our systems and does not have to require an endorsement of everything else that group says. 

Educate yourself. If there are parts of the platforms that you do not understand or with which you disagree, first delve deeper into it. Certainly, a person does not have to agree with everything, but these calls to action are what black organizers feel is most central to their liberation. Investigate what is at the root of these issues, the ways in which these structures might disproportionately impact the black community, and the injustice that could be hiding under the surface of a system that might seem innocuous to those not impacted. 

• If you are not able to show up in person, you can still speak out and advocate for change. Call your elected officials and tell them why you care about the action items in the platforms you investigate. Protests are meant to draw attention to causes and pressure those in power to make systemic changes. You can add to that pressure through phone calls, letters, emails and social media posts. 

• Remember that money is power. Donate to black-led organizations that are actively working to dismantle racism. Purchase from black-owned businesses. Investigate the products you use and the stores you frequent to ensure that people of color are not being exploited. Actively look for products and services created by people of color. 

Speak up and speak out. This is often the hardest for people to do, but the most necessary. A person can believe themselves to not be racist and yet still make a racist statement or do a racist action. When that happens, name it. If you find yourself in a situation where you notice it but do not feel that you can say it, recognize that moment and continue in doing the difficult work to be able to speak up in the future. 

• Most importantly, vote. National elections get the bulk of the media attention, but it is often state and local authorities that have control over the systems that most impact people’s daily lives. Those elections are not always in November and certainly not always in a presidential election year. Just this week, on June 2nd, voters elected Ella Jones as the first black mayor in the city of Ferguson’s history. Do your research on the candidates, call them and ask for their positions on policy positions that impact vulnerable populations, and make clear what you want them to care about. 

• Finally, be prepared to make mistakes. You can try to avoid errors, work to minimize the hurt, but you will make a mistake. Mistakes are the only way we learn. Mistakes mean that we are in the work. When you make a mistake, recognize the pain that it causes and work to rectify it. But there will be pain. There is already pain. If you are not feeling the pain, that is privilege.

The JCRC has compiled a list of recommended reading, viewing, and organizations to support, which can be found on our Facebook page. In the coming days we will be sharing more opportunities for community-wide education and ways to get involved, but those will be entry points, markers on a much larger map of the work for racial equity. The work is vast, the road is long, and the process is difficult and deeply uncomfortable. There are no shortcuts, no easy answers, no single partners, and most of all, no excuses for sitting it out.