WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — January 5, 2020 — The explosion of public expressions of bigotry is breathtaking. We had thought that, as individuals and as a society, we had moved past the acceptance of awful and indefensible behaviors. The evidence is otherwise.
Laws had been passed. It wasn’t legal to discriminate. Penalties had been enhanced. Do wrong and you paid a price. Images and customs that demeaned were called out and often ended. Traditional lines were crossed. A black president was elected.
Yet, as we close a decade, we are in the midst of a series of events that undermine any confidence in our willingness to live in peace and acceptance with our neighbors.
The most obvious expression of hatred comes in violence. Machete-wielding madmen, masked rioters, gunmen with particular grievances take the place of the assassins and lynch mobs of less-recent history.
There is also the less-visible bigotry of institutions and systems. Look no further than the broad tolerance of violence against women among our cultural and entertainment elites.
There is also the persistence of hateful attitudes and historic wrongs that are woven through our individual lives. Statues, images and stereotypes surround us.
It is understandable that we experience these things most deeply when we belong to a victimized group. Our identities shape our reactions to individual outrages. I grew up in the civil rights era, when the legal consequences of slavery and segregation had a reckoning. But I also learned to fight back when anti-Semitic threats were made to me on the school bus. And I knew that the two struggles were indivisible. Nobody prospers when only their group is protected.
How do we come to our present predicament? There is an argument that what’s happening now is the way it’s always been, that the progress we were so proud of was just an illusion.
I think that’s not correct. In substantial ways, we have rejected the violence, institutional bias and stereotypes of the past. We are relatively more decent and fair than we were and in practice there are better opportunities for each of us than there were before.
It may be that such progress left us complacent and gave place to the smaller but still numerous purveyors of bigotry. We certainly can’t look to political leadership of any ideology for a way out. It’s on us.
The most difficult consequence is the recognition of the special burden that falls on victims. Anger and recrimination are understandable but hurtful. Victimized groups have the duty of vigilance and self-protection. They also have a special burden of showing compassion and forgiveness. We cannot overcome bigotry without them.
We are undergoing a test of faith. Values we thought enshrined in daily life seem abandoned. They are not, or rather they do not have to be, if we persist in them.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Happy New Year.
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Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.
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Original publication by Times-Union on January 5, 2020.