Once again, racism has come to the fore in society. Not that it has ever come close to going away, but progress was made after the turbulent 1960s, such as in an upward social mobility of many African American people and the elections of President Obama.
However, many were left behind and still subject to ongoing micro and macro aggressions.
Moreover, 400 years of racism has produced an intergenerational transmission of trauma, which can leave African Americans more vulnerable to be re-traumatized by current trauma. And current trauma we surely have, in police brutality and the higher loss of Black lives from the coronavirus pandemic, among other many other examples. In many ways, this is like the even longer history of antisemitism in the world, which suggests some basic aspects of human nature that must be overcome.
What are those aspects of our brains? One is an inborn, hard-wired tendency to fear the other so that we tend to cling to our own tribe, small and or large. Unfortunately, skin color, that is darker skin color, can be an easily perceived assumption of someone being the Other to lighter skinned people. Our natural fear response is varying degrees of fight-or-flight.
Second is our tendency to scapegoat others for our own failures and weaknesses. My wife will tell you that I do that to her, but hopefully less over our 51 years of marriage! Failure can be a threat to our self-esteem, which can be alleviated by blaming the other. If only we realize that failures are what we learn from best.
Within the Jewish people, we certainly also have diversity in skin color and group attachments. One of our groups consists of Black, brown, or darker colored Jews, depending on your identification preferences. For the sake of unity and inclusion, I like to say that we are all people of color and tend to use the term African American instead of Black American, unless I am talking with someone who prefers something different. Indeed, we should always remember that from the standpoint of science, we all came out of Africa and presumably had darker skin way back then.
Why, then, is there cause for hope in these traumatic times, including hope for what the Jewish people can do? What always can potentially override these exclusionary tendencies is our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that can analyze our emotional reactivity, control it, and think rationally about what to do. That is why discussing what to do about racism, and doing it calmly and respectfully, is so important.
One of the ways to think rationally is to have a set of values to refer to. We have that in Judaism. It is tikkun olam, to help heal the world. Racism within and outside of the Jewish people can be healed.
In my own field of mental health, we’ve made great strides in taking better care of African American patients, as well as incorporating the voices and lived experiences of African American people, patients and colleagues. Even so, we also must reinforce inclusion and unity over discrimination and disparities.
Another of the relevant human nature tendencies is to pay more and better attention to the beginning of a crisis or disaster. That is why it is usually so heartwarming to see how many people can help right away. However, such reactions typically dissipate after the acute crisis is over and we go back to usual, to what can be called a hug-and-shrug response.
Leaders that unify us can be so helpful, but if that is absent or inadequate, all of us can still do our part. That is why now is the time to update our anti-racism efforts and institutionalize them, so that our attention and concern is maintained.
Steven Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He is a regular contributor to the Chronicle.