I’m astonished at how naïve I was as an undergraduate at Hofstra University on Long Island. I thought I was doing something. I now understand it as a nice memory, a little bit of action for the good, but so focused on a detail. I was lost in the woods and couldn’t see the whole planet.
My lovely woods were a 1980s apartheid protest. Hundreds of us called on the university to divest from South Africa. We marched all around campus, on the university’s narrow paths through its Dutch tulips. We poked at Hofstra’s then-motto, chanting, “We teach success, so let’s divest.”
Some students saw our signs and camaraderie and joined us as we walked. That was cool. One man, to my surprise, hollered a nasty word at us as we passed. He turned and fled afterwards.
I wore my Alpha Epsilon Pi shirt and, with my fist literally in the air, made the front page of the Hofstra (… wait for it …) “Chronicle.”
I’m an Ashkenazi Jew and I’d attended a public high school on Long Island that was almost entirely Ashkenazi. I didn’t have a lot of experience with other cultures, though I sure thought I was worldly. For days after the march, people of color who I’d never spoken with before stopped me to say “hi.” They stared and smiled. They glowed at me, but why? What’s the big deal, I thought, aren’t human rights just obvious?
Skip ahead to today.
Today, the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd seems a kind of signpost. It’s a moment for reflection. This is what we’ve come to. It’s a convergence of journeys, mine and the people at Hofstra who so warmed up to me.
Wherever they are, they’ve lived now for decades in an America that I understood poorly in my youth. In their America, you get pulled over and hope the cop is OK. You live in a country where you get the feeling there are quite a few people who don’t want you around. You wonder what your place is. Or so I’ve surmised or been told.
As a Jew, I at least have a scintilla of experience to help me understand. Once, at a wedding, I met a woman who had never really spoken with a Jew. We met at the ketuba. It was perched on an easel at the reception. She saw me looking at it and asked me about it, then asked about Judaism. I gently delivered the basics and she graciously thanked me.
Later, she was drunk and on the dance floor, dancing past me. She laughingly told me I was “going to Hell” and she was not.
I’m left wondering, how can we do better? In a sense, how can we all learn to occupy the same dance floor with love and understanding?
I still feel the outrage that I felt at apartheid, but now I have learned to feel yet more of it. I’m outraged that my fellow Black students were put in a place of so much hunger for equality that I became a hero by simply showing up for the obvious. Over the years since that march, some people of color have been kind enough to teach me something of their experiences, their fears, and I’m outraged they must live with that.
Finally, I’m outraged that Geroge Floyd was killed under the knee of an officer of the law in Minneapolis. No conviction can make this better.
We all deserve a better America. We’ve got to keep working for it.
Rob Golub is editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.