In 1994, there was a terrible racial incident that occurred on Long Island. An African American family was going to contract on their first new home in a predominantly white neighborhood. The day before the contract signing, arsonists burned their new home down to the ground. To this day no one has ever been caught, but the assumption by the police department and by the community, was that this was a racially motivated crime. Whoever did this, acted out of a racist motivation of not wanting a black family to live in this neighborhood.
Racism had reared its ugly head again and just as it has many times over before and since this horrible act. Just a few years later, two 17-year-old young white men wanted to “dis” and harass an African American classmate who was President of their graduating class. They thought he was too filled with himself and they wanted to harass him. They were successful in persuading a third young man to drive them to this African American’s home. They constructed a cross on the law and set it ablaze before driving away.
I came to learn of these hate crimes as I was director and founder of STOPBIAS, the only program for hate crime offenders in my county on Long Island. In the first case mentioned above, the African American family, the Clark family, was met by over 1,000 residents of the town and welcomed to the community if they still wanted to live there. In the second case, the two perpetrators who constructed the cross were charged with a United States Civil Rights violation and went to federal prison for two years. The driver of the car went to federal prison for one year.
During the over 25 years of STOPBIAS, over 500 defendants went through the program. The youngest was 10 years old and the oldest was 64 years old. I came to learn that acts of bias, prejudice and hate know no age boundaries. They can be committed by anyone as evidenced by the recent murder of George Floyd by a 44-year-old police officer, Derek Chauvin.
What can you do and should be doing regarding the acts of hate that we are hearing about every day in the news?
The first thing is to know that if you are ever the victim of words or actions of bias or hatred, you must report them to the police as soon as possible. Also, if you see something, such hate graffiti, to also report this to the police as quickly as you can. No word, joke, graffiti or abuse/bullying is too insignificant to let go by. If you see something or if you hear something, then do something.
The second thing is to do some self-reflection as to your own biases and prejudices. No one is immune from them; not you and not me. Be aware if you look at someone, treat someone or think about someone differently because of the color of skin, their accent, their body shape or form, sexual orientation, gender or their behavior, etc. If you can see any of these biases within you, you can then work at correcting them before they get in your way of treating all people fairly and equally.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that ALL human beings were created in the image of God. In Leviticus [19:18] is the well-known verse: “Love your neighbor, as you love yourself.” In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Sages, from the Mishneh, Hillel the Elder is recorded as saying: “Do not do unto others that which you hate done unto yourself.” No matter what a person’s age, it is important that everyone of us behaves in a way guided by such inspirational teachings. If all human beings would to this, then our world today and the newspaper headlines would certainly be different, very different, than what they are.
Everyone of us should be intolerant of intolerance. Let us be blind to color and see all people as only being different shades of the same color: the color of God.
Correction, 6/28/2020 10:33 a.m.: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this post incorrectly described former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin as 24 years old. He is 44 years old.
Correction, 6/29/2020, 7:19 a.m.: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this post was imprecise in its description of a racial incident on Long Island. The incident, in which a home sold to an African American couple in Nesconset, New York, was set afire, took place in 1994, not in the late 1980s.