News from the Columbia Climate School

The Long Battle Against Bigotry, Racism and Hatred

protestor holds a sign saying "racism is a pandemic too" at a black lives matter rally
Photo: Ivan Radic 

The horror continues. In Staten Island, in Minneapolis, throughout this country and last week in Atlanta. Anti-Asian violence is no surprise when Donald Trump to this day calls COVID-19 “the China Virus.” Starting as a teenager in Brooklyn, I learned to identify and eventually refute the casual racism, sexism and homophobia that was rampant in our culture. That it remains is no surprise but shameful and disheartening. At Brooklyn’s James Madison High School in the late 1960s, some of us worked hard to learn about each other and the difference between lives in Flatbush and East New York. Our school was crowded and on triple sessions that started early in the morning and ended around 5 PM. I remember a meeting with the school’s head of discipline and student activists where the discipline dean was discussing the need for tighter security at school entrances. He dumped a box of weapons on the conference room table as evidence for his point. My friend sitting next to me who commuted each day from Bedford Stuyvesant shook his head and said: “We don’t use that stuff in school, we use it to get to school.” He was trying to explain his experience of leaving his neighborhood in the dark before a long commute to Madison High.

Half a century later, I remember that meeting, his effort at communication and remember many of us learning about each other’s worlds. I wish I could say we succeeded, but we failed. According to the New York Times, three years after I graduated:

“White students at James Madison High School in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, armed with sticks, window poles, pipes, canes and chairs, attacked a group of black students there yesterday morning in a new outbreak of continuing racial tension at the school. Several students suffered minor injuries, which the school was able to handle in its own infirmary, and the football coach had a chest seizure while trying to stop the fighting among 300 students. The coach, Al Caruso, was recovering at home. There were no suspensions or arrests following the fight, but classes were suspended for the day. Madison, at Bedford Avenue, between Quentin Road and Avenue P, is in a middleclass JewishItalian area. About 35 per cent of its 3,500 students are blacks who are bused to the school from the Brownsville and BedfordStuyvesant sections.”

We failed, but I never forgot and can never forget. I have deep feelings about bigotry, calling it out and condemning it when I see it. Even before high school, I remember the purple-blue numbers on the arms of some adults at the beach and my grandmother’s explanation of concentration camps and the anti-Semitism that brought her to America. I remember watching President Kennedy calling civil rights a moral issue when he said: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

As a teenager, l listened closely to the words of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy during his 1968 Presidential campaign and read Malcolm X’s autobiography. My friends did the same; I was far from alone. We all read and learned about America’s racist past and racist present. We never thought there would be a racist future. That was a half-century ago, and perhaps I was deluded into thinking we had made progress. I believe we are better than we were, but we are not even close to where we need to be.

And so, we are here, in another time where the haters feel somehow authorized to express their hatred. I know they never went away, but I liked it better when they kept their sickness private. Many of my students, colleagues and friends feel threatened and traumatized by these attacks- by the words and the deeds. And as Joe Biden said last Friday, we cannot remain silent because silence is complicity. Vice President Harris was clear when she observed that:

“Racism is real in America, and it has always been. Xenophobia is real in America and always has been. The last year we’ve had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating Asian Americans. People with the biggest pulpits spreading this kind of hate.”

We need to speak out with force and clarity that racism and bigotry are unacceptable in any form. But speaking out against evil is not enough. We need to build something that is good. We need to interact with each other and learn about each other. We need to hear each other’s stories and learn from the life lessons that each individual and each community experiences. Peace can only come from understanding and appreciating our shared humanity. We need to hear stories of our love of family and friends and speak about the common values that bind all of us together. We need to understand both what makes us distinct and makes us the same.

And we need to lift up and support those whose spirits and bodies are harmed by these horrific acts of violence and hatred. The murders, the disgusting social media messages, the defaced gravestones, the graffiti. All of it is hurtful, and all of it causes pain. But together, we can and must support each other and articulate another inclusive and positive vision. We need to make each other feel safe and be safe in a world built to enhance the journey of learning from and empathizing with each other’s experiences. As a teacher and university administrator, I rededicate myself to this mission — to support my students and colleagues and help them find shelter in this endless storm.

I think of my late colleague Professor and Mayor David Dinkins’ concept of the “gorgeous mosaic.” The mayor never bought into the “melting pot” and countered with a different vision. In a mosaic, each tile or each community has its own shape and color, but from a distance, it forms a picture of coherence and overwhelming beauty. The forces of modernity can lead to the homogenization of experiences and images. The same cup of Starbucks coffee you buy in Long Island can be purchased in Hong Kong. But we need to make the world safe for diversity. For local brands and distinct life experiences. We need to welcome what we don’t know and learn from it instead of hiding from it and hating what we don’t understand.

This past year of illness, death and isolation has been made worse by these acts of racism and xenophobia. A masked elbow bump is no substitute for a more welcoming embrace. The electronic images of hatred dominate our consciousness when they could be countered by the day-to-day acts of human kindness one always experiences when our lives are lived in three rather than two dimensions. The battle against bigotry is long and seemingly never-ending. The marches and vigils to protest racism resumed with increased momentum over the past year. The late John Lewis was correct when he said that:

“Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”

While the struggle is difficult and at times discouraging, it is always worth the effort and I believe in my heart that we “shall overcome someday.” We can never give up or surrender.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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