by Marc Herstand, MSW, CISW
White Nationalists, Ku Klux Klan members and Neo Nazis marching with torches, armor and weapons, shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. Three Neo Nazis with semi-automatic weapons staring across the street at a Jewish synagogue during Shabbat services while their fellow marchers chanted “Heil Hitler” when they passed the synagogue. A Nazi sympathizer drives his car purposely into counter demonstrators, killing one and injuring many. The President of the United States claiming both the marchers and those protesting the marchers were equally responsible for the violence. Is this really America in 2017?
The tragic and sickening events the weekend of August 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia are a sobering reminder that racism and anti-Semitism are alive and well in the United States. Emboldened by candidate and now President Trump’s rants against Muslim and Latinos and his tolerance for racist and anti-Semitic groups and individuals, we have seen an uptick in hate crimes in this country over the last year.
As a Jewish American in my 60’s, I don’t recall this level of anti-Semitism in my adult life.
As social workers we are called upon through our Code of Ethics to “…act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group or class, on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, or mental or physical disability”. (NASW Code of Ethics 6.04 (D))
How can we translate these lofty principles into action? The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a community guide entitled, “Ten Ways to Fight Hate” that discusses practical things we all can do to fight hate in our communities. A summary of this document can be found under Action Item on the home page of our website and I hope to distribute the guide at our annual conference. The guide can be downloaded at the following link: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/ten_ways_to_fight_hate_2017.pdf.
The “Ten Ways” are: 1) Act; 2) Join Forces; 3) Support the Victims; 4) Speak Up; 5) Educate Yourself; 6) Create an Alternative; 7) Pressure Leaders; 8) Stay Engaged; 9)Teach Acceptance; and 10) Dig Deeper.
I encourage all of you to read this guide. There are concrete actions we can take in each of the ten areas that can make a difference in our communities. In this column, however, I would like to focus on a few of the actions recommended by the guide.
First, I think it is important for all of us to get out of our comfort zones and get to know individuals with a different racial, ethnic or religious background than ourselves. There are many ways of accomplishing this objective including going to services at houses of worship (churches, synagogues, mosques etc.), going to community festivals, participating in community dialogue groups, or simply reaching out to neighbors and acquaintances with diverse backgrounds. After participating in a Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir, my wife and I decided to visit the church of their very dynamic choir director. The experience for me at Mt. Zion Baptist Church was extraordinary, humbling and tremendously moving. My wife and I have also participated in a Jewish-African American friendship group in Madison.
Secondly, when there are racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, sexist or homophobic incidents in our communities, schools, etc. we need to speak out against these incidents. We also need to work to change bad policies affecting communities of color or other marginalized groups. As social workers, we are trained (and often born to be) advocates and leaders. We know how to bring people together and truly listen to others. Let’s use all these skills to promote tolerance and fight hate in our communities.
Third, personal reflection is very important. We are all subject to societal influences that create unconscious bias in the areas of race, religion, gender, ethnicity and other areas. This bias affects our actions and certainly affects the actions of public officials like police officers, teachers, medical professionals and even social workers. It is important that we constantly explore our biases and privileges and understand how this operates in everyday life for our fellow citizens who may be of a different race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. In many of our communities there are opportunities to participate in study or dialogue groups on race, as well as workshops on racism, white privilege and related topics.
I do believe that most people oppose hate and violence and want to promote tolerance and acceptance of everyone in their community. However, they may need someone to organize or lead them in this effort. Let’s use our social work skills and mobilize our communities for tolerance, keeping in mind as former President Obama stated many times: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”