On a recent Saturday afternoon, I was taking a dip at my community pool when a neighbor struck up a conversation. The conversation ended when he used a Yiddish racial slur that made my stomach turn. I wish I could say this was the first time I had heard a neighbor or an acquaintance say something like this. While not all such comments are as blatantly racist as the one made by my neighbor, I am continually saddened and angered by the comments uttered by fellow Jews who assume we all feel the same about “those people” and, ironically, who would never consider themselves racists.
A few hours after my conversation at the pool, I was finishing dinner at a local restaurant. Suddenly, a hush fell over the dining room. I turned to see patrons watch as the long-awaited verdict in the State of Florida v. George Zimmerman trial was announced. Not guilty.
I can’t say I was surprised by the verdict. It depressed me nonetheless.
An April 2012 Newsweek/The Daily Beast poll taken after Trayvon Martin’s killing showed that majorities of both whites (72 percent) and blacks (89 percent) believe the country is divided by race. But twice as many blacks (40 percent) as whites (20 percent) say it is very divided. And just 19 percent of whites say that racism is a big problem in America versus 60 percent of blacks.
The assumption that racial bias is no longer a “big problem” prompted the Supreme Court’s decision last month to strike down a major part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had previously mandated nine states with historically racist voting practices to gain federal approval before they could lawfully change election laws.
Despite the historic election and re-election of the nation’s first African-American president, what seems pain- fully obvious to me is that many Americans — and many American institutions — remain fundamentally racist. Racism is so ingrained in our psyches, most of us don’t even realize we harbor deep-seated prejudices against those who look different than ourselves.
As psychodynamic mental health professionals agree, as long as conflicts remain unconscious, human beings will continue to behave in ways that are powerfully destructive. Such is the case when it comes to unconscious racism. Until we acknowledge our prejudices and take steps to control their negative effects, they will continue to govern our speech and behavior, resulting in pain, fear, violence and sometimes even murder.
As Jews, we know firsthand the dangers of prejudice and oppression. Our deep identification with oppressed people led many Jews to support African-Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Yet, the fact remains — racism is alive and well in today’s Jewish community. There are those of all denominations who teach racism to their children, perpetuating the ugliness of bigotry and ensuring it continues into future generations.
The Zimmerman trial and its aftermath epitomize stark differences in the way blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives view the issue of race in 21st -century American society. Whether we believe the verdict was fair or not, why not use this as an opportunity to re-examine our views (and our words) about our African-American neighbors?
Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter