An open letter to black America from a white, Jewish man of privilege


Dear black Americans,
I’m a white, Jewish man from Pittsburgh who, over the last year, has watched videos of Eric Garner being murdered, read about Tamir Rice being murdered, and shuddered over Ferguson after Mike Brown was murdered. On television and online, I’ve been confronted with disturbing images of black bodies being destroyed. And I’m telling you, I can’t bear it any longer. I can’t bear to learn any more details about Sandra Bland. I’m sick to my stomach, losing sleep, feeling unsteady. Yet you keep showing me images, telling me stories. And I have to look away.
It’s too much.
Which is to say: good. Don’t let up, not for a second. Make me and all of white America feel uncomfortable until police stop murdering innocent women, men and children. Make us feel perpetually uneasy until our criminal justice system – “the New Jim Crow” – no longer exists as an institutional tool to disenfranchise black citizens. Get in our faces and make us unable to ignore you until the United States is no longer as dangerous for black Americans as war-torn countries like Myanmar.
Confront us in our social media feeds, disrupt our travels, interrupt our lives.

Of course, none of you need my invitation. And some, perhaps the activists among you, probably resent my offering one. But let me explain why I am: because if someone like me – a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement – has suddenly hit an emotional breaking point, has become overwhelmed by what I’m seeing on the news, has whispered, I’m done, it means a tipping point exists somewhere over the horizon.
See, if someone like me is starting to look away, it means a saturation point is being reached – a point needed to be reached if the majority of white Americans are to internalize and understand what black Americans have been experiencing for, well, forever.
The majority of white people in this country are not racists in that they don’t actively hate. However, the majority of white people are also astoundingly ignorant, so much so that they might come off as bigoted when confronted about black lives mattering. (This includes those who reply, All lives matter.) But initial reactions change over time when more information is internalized, when more uncomfortable truths are revealed, when more unsettling images are seen.
And as reactions change, so too do voting patterns and priorities. I admit that mine have. Because, honestly, before the advent of Twitter and smart phone cameras, livestreams and liveblogs, I was mostly in the dark. I had no idea. I was just like most white Americans: a blithering idiot when it came to what black people experience in America.
In all likelihood, I still am to a degree.
But I’m learning, and changing. I’m now somebody who demands that Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and any politician who wants my vote, clarify how they intend to make sure black lives matter from a policy perspective. I didn’t used to be this way, but I am now. (The same progression has occurred for me with regard to Palestinian lives, but that’s another story.)
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that, in America, “it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”
I can’t deny that it has not been my heritage, as a white American. It has. But I cannot bear the thought of that heritage being passed on to my children, to their generation. This is the fear I have for my children – that those among them will continue to oppress and hate. The fear you have for your children?
Whether or not they will live.
And it’s that fear which makes me cheer Bree Newsome and celebrate Patrice Cullors. It’s what compels me say, please, make all of us uncomfortable, confront us and challenge us.
Until such fears no longer exist.
David Harris-Gershon


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

28 thoughts on “An open letter to black America from a white, Jewish man of privilege

    • It matters because Jews have gone through similar situations and through others finally saying enoiugh is enough has it improved, but lo and behold anti-semitism is flourishing in Europe. And it turns out a large number of them are Muslims, the most hated group in the West at the present time.

  1. Thanks David, for saying what many of us have been feeling in one way or another. Being a Jew has a lot to do with my reaction as it has to do with yours. I vividly recall when I realized that, one way or the other, I have been insulated by my privileged white skin. It has nothing to do with whether or not I wish to be and everything to do with automatic perception. Even more to your question, Freddie, it has everything to do with my being a Jew. As a Jew I believe that all human beings deserve to be treated as human beings. It is my Jewishness that repels me from the image of Jewish racists in their treatment of black humanity, Jew and Gentile alike. We may not even have asked for or understood the privilege bestowed on us by virtue of our sameness of color, that’s why the Nazi’s and their fore-bearers insisted that we wear the sign and mark of the Jew – the other. Black skin is not mistakable and doesn’t require any additional sign or mark. Skin alone made Blacks the chosen slave over the Irish, who at one point outnumbered Blacks as slaves in colonial America. As a Jew you would do well to remember our past and consider our present in light of the debt we owe to the unpaid labors of these others that continues down to today, or didn’t you realize that our prisons are present day plantations of slave labor?

    • Leslie, Jews had no choice but towards star and it seems like Nazis knew very well who is Jewish. And we knowcthay being forced to wear a yellow star led to extermination camps. As a Jew, l have nothing to a apologize for. Jews of my parents generation had to fight for rights in the US and at the same time were in,the front lines fighting for Black civil rights. Some Jews like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schweimer paid with their lives.,

      • The ‘Human Condition’ has to be considered as of concern to all of us – and so thanks for these thoughts. And, viewed in that context, the ‘corporatization of governments’ – from international to local (i.e, what in Benito Mussolini terms is defined as ‘Fascism’ – private sector control of the public sector – affects us all. In other words, paraphasing words of English poet john Donne: ‘Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for Thee!’; or, ‘We’re all in this together!’, 99%; Either we hang together or we’ll be hung separately!

      • Yes, all immigrants had to fight for a place in America. My Polish Catholic mother did. But she changed her name, learned to speak perfect English, and “passed”. Because her skin was white. My white Southern father, family here since 1800, was a benign racist (as most of us are today). Knew many African Americans, but they kept their “place”.
        We need to confront the racism in ourselves, learn to see it, and to not act on it. Involves the courage to see ourselves in a less than glowing light.

  2. After having read the letter and the few comments/replies posted, I have to say that it saddens me, first, for the way we, as human beings, have treated each other, and it leaves me feeling uneasy, that someone would say something like “make us uncomforable, confront us, and callenge us” or to “disrupt our travels, interrupt our lives” to a group of people that, long after their ancestors had been sold to slavery and fought for their their freedom and wont it, costing them dearly and paying the price, many of which paid with their very own lives, feel and believe they are owed something more as if they are the ones that were forced into slavery when in fact it has been 150 years since slavery was abolished and there is no one alive today that can make a claim to ever having been a slave, and act as if they should be exempt from having to be subjected to any of the laws of this land, behave in such a manner that already instill fear, create destruction, committing crimes and cause death in many communities and neighborhoods amonsgt, not only white people but all regardless of color, race or ethnic background. They are wasting a wonderful and amazing gift and opportunity they have been given, to never have to experience what their ancestors went through. They would rather sqaunder it rather than better themselves and live off the government and the people than get an education and earn their share. They are a parasite. I, being of Latino descent, having grown up in a low income family, two working parents earning less than minimum wage, as we had entered this country illigaly but having taken the steps required to stay and become legal, barely scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck and trying to make ends meet, stretching every single dollar and pinching every penny, being torn apart by the government from each other and put into the system, taken away from my family and placed in foster care for a year with people that cared nothing for being foster parents, were abusive and only saw me as extra income for themselves, having supervised family visits once a month, and a sister that was taken away and placed in foster care as well from the age of 12 until she was 18, never saw my parents once request any assistance from the government, even though they did qualify for some help, until my mother became sick and unable to work and my father laid off and unable to find any work because no one was hiring. Not until then did my parents give in to get assitance. They worked hard and pushed us to stay in school and pay attention to our studies so that we did not have to work as hard as they did for the kind of life we were living but to have a better life. I, who grew up in unsafe neghborhoods surrounded by all that crime and death, unlike those commiting crime and causing death, refuse to be a product of my environment. Most of the black community do not understand the value of the gift they are given becase most of them now did not have to work hard or fight for what they have so they just throw it away and would rather take to criminal activiy and breaking the law and feel they don’t have to pay the consequences and the white man is keeping them down, when in fact, they are keeping themselves down. They depend on the government to maintain them, even when they are able to work and earn a paycheck and provide for themselves, they would rather do nothing but take from the governemnt and from the tax payer who works so hard to make sure there is something for those that actually do need the help. What’s worst is that those who do need the assistance don’t get it some times and are disqualified for something completely stupid yet it is given to many who definitely don’t deserve it.. Anyone reading this letter, especially someone with no higher education or very little education would take those words in the letter as an invitation and permission to do do whatever it was they wanted to, breaking the law and having no regard for anyone but themselves. If you are gonna tell someone to “disrupt your day and get in your face and interupt your day”, at least provide them a how to, especially when you tell that to a community that given thier history, turn to a life of crime.
    But for crying out loud, please do not tell them to meddle into OUR lives or disrupt OUR lives or disrupt OUR lives or to challenge US or confront US. Saying that, tells the reader that you, have no regard os consideration from other people lives or safety. even though you are part of the you are a supporter of whatever group you choose like Black Lives Matter. Makes me question your reagrd for any human life as it comes off a contradiction saying something like that.
    I apologize to everyone if I insulted anyone. not my intention, it just sent me off for a loop, but I feel I had to say everything i said. Whether it makes sense or not is now another story. Or if it even matters or one thing having anything to do with the other. I felt it matters completely so please forgive my randomness of it all.

    • As I white guy, I read your rambling comment with a little amusement. Let me make some points as clearly as possible so even a racist caveman like yourself can understand.
      1. You seem to enjoy making sweeping generalizations about blacks. Guess what? That makes you a racist.
      But I’ll play your game:
      2. I find it interesting that you, a Latino, would question the law-abiding nature of blacks, especially since I see so many Latinos flooding into this country illegally, breaking OUR immigration laws.
      3. You say blacks are parasites. For many whites in my home city of San Francisco, illegal Latino immigrants are considered the greatest parasites. Oh, and you’re also considered trash.
      Phew! Sorry if I offended anyone, but I had to get this off my chest!

      • Thank you George.
        Oh, and Will, you did receive Government services – foster care… And, what about immigration laws… But, hey you are far superior to every single black person in the world.
        You are the perfect example of divide and conquer mentality.

        • While will obv didn’t articulate perfectly
          he has some valid points that the white American liberal needs to accept, no matter how uncomfortable they are, if we are to make real progress. The Latino community has been a very successful immigrant story, as has the Chinese…they also face horrible fascism (Latinos are literally told ‘go home’) but are as a whole doing better than African americans in US….while the history of racism is a cause we must address the problems wIthen the black community of we truly believe ‘black lives matter’…now most crime stats are biased and depend greatly on who the police target so I disregard those and don’t say one group is ‘more’ criminal….one exception is murder….murders are not subject to bias like ‘random’ drug searches….and the facts are blacks who make up 13% of population commit 50% of the murders. A black person is infinitely more likely to be killed by a black person than a white (or any) police officer….o I destined the historical and current climate which creates these disparities but we must acknowledge them (even though it’s uncomfortable) and start to find solutions if our goal is truly a society where ‘black lives matter

          • James, I’m really tired of the bs example of blacks killing blacks when racism is the subject. Did YOU know that more than 80% of whites are killed by OTHER WHITES. So exactly WHAT is your point. Crime is down, FYI, but has nothing to do with cops killing unarmed black men and women at a disproportion rate.
            It my also help you if you would do just a teeny bit of research. Black Americans are denied housing in certain communities more than any other race INCLUDING Hispanics. Black Americans are least likely to be called back for a job interview than any OTHER race. There are people who send resumes with the name J. Jones and receive numerous call backs compared to “Jamal Jones”. You act as though you live on some other planet. YOU are exactly the problem of which the author speaks. As long as people like you refuse to face the reality of what black Americans face daily in this country, the WORLD will continue to see us as a RACIST society.
            BTW, did your parents give you “the talk”? If not, ask any black person (if you know one) exactly what it is.

          • Hey there Sabreena, I’m Australian and my few black American friends I don’t know well enough to ask…what’s “the talk”?

          • .
            Minnie, just in case Sabreena doesn’t see this, the “talk” is black parents teaching their children how, essentially, to minimize their chances of being murdered by police. It’s a conversation virtually every black parent has with their children, fearing for their lives daily because of their skin color and what that could mean if they encounter police.

        • WOw, ok, thanks.
          First I don’t claim to be better or superior to any one. I am not perfect, I never claimed that the latino community is better than the black community. Everyone has their bad apples, white, black, brown, yellow, or whatever.
          As far as foster care, you are joking right? I didn’t ask for foster care you are so freely calling Government service. I was taken away from my family and placed into foster care with people who were abusive and cared nothing but getting the money the government was paying them for themselves. Those people, they were parasites. I am not saying that all balck people are parasites but many of them that depend on the gevernment and would rather do that than better thanselves and actually do something with their lives, tose are the parasites, whether they be black hispanic or whatever ethnic background they are, pick one, anyone.
          And what about immigration laws? Yeah so many people come here illegally. I did mention that I came here illegally, or did you not read what I worte. I didn’t choose to come here illegally. I was 5 years old and was brought here. So what? My family did what we had to do to become legal and be able to stay here legally. I got my education and I am doing someting with my life and still continue to try and improve my life and better myself as oppose to those that prefer to live off my tax dollars. As a matter of fact, yes, that makes me better and far superior. Better and superior than every single black person? No not at all, but definitely then a lot of them.

      • THere is no need to be condescending. If you would like me to give specifics I’ll be glad to provide those for you.
        And as for calling me racist, it takes one to know one.
        Again, I am not saying that every single black personis a parasite. I know plenty of people and have some friends myself that happen to be black, who happen to be doing well for themselves and actually taking advantage of the opportunities given to them.
        Oh and Immigration is a joke. This country was founded by immigrants. So don’t come at me with illegal immigration.

  3. My Mom never told me I was part Jewish till I was 26 years old, and the mother of two crawling babes. She stopped at my house on the way to the big city for something or other, and over coffee, in a low voice (?why?dunno, only me and two crawling infants for at least 100 ft around).”There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time, well, I’ve already told your brothers [both younger than me], I don’t know why I haven’t told you….” “What is it, Mom, was I illegitimate??? It’s OK, really, it’s OK!” “Oh, no, nothing like THAT! It’s, it’s..[nearly swooning from hyperventilation] just that your great-great grandmother was, was, was….a Jewess!” I was so elated to think I had a direct connection to the Old Testament, and not just Jane Doe, WASP, Midwestern, middle-class, brown hair, blue eyes, size 8 shoes, utterly boring. “But, Mom, why did you wait so long?” She reminded me that we lived in New Orleans pre-WWII, and she said the Times-Picayune had stories all the time about the round-up of Jews in Germany, Poland and elsewhere, plus she was learning new things every day about the deep south (we were from the north, and besides that my dad worked for the gummint). She reminded me that we always had a maid, “and even the maids had maids”. Mom later became a successful writer, and she paid attention to things. She had already noticed that the KKK hated not only Blacks but Jews, and Catholics, too. Undercurrents everywhere. When my Dad decided he would leave his gummint job to enlist, he went to Monroe, LA, where they had an enlistment station, and tried to enlist. I’m sure he was wearing his searsucker suit and panama hat. Mom said he showed them his ID, and they could see he was a gummint attorney. They asked for his birth certificate, but he couldn’t produce one because he was born in Oklahoma Indian Territory before it was a state (my grandpa went down for one of the land runs, didn’t get anything worth keeping, and they came back up to Flyover Country back to the family farm, but Dad was born in OK). So then the southern recruiters had a little fun at my Dad’s expense: “Well, Mr. Doe, if you’re who you say you are and want to join up so bad, why you can just go back up to FlyoverCountry and enlist at Fort X, not too far from where you came from, and get somebody to sign an affidavit attesting as to your identity!” Mom said Dad was furious, but said nothing, and that’s what we did. Our Black maid, Miss Clarice, loved me and my baby brother, who had black, curly hair, shoe-button black eyes, and olive skin, and it made her so proud that when she was strolling him, people assumed he was hers, and would exclaim, “Why, he’s a Creole child!”, whereas I was fair skinned & blue-eyed. Dad quit his job, we boxed up everything, made preparations to move back north. Mom said she thought she had by then figured out all the invisible undercurrents of life in New Orleans, when Miss Clarice said (I quote Mom), “Mizz Doe, I sure wish you wouldn’t leave, but I know you’ve made up your mind….I cain’t do nothing for you, or Mr. Doe, or Janey, but you know: when them Japs come, they’re gonna make the Black man king and the white man slave! But I can take little Johnny! I’ll black his face and raise him for my own!” Mom said she knew that Miss Clarice was serious, and meant it as a way to save at least little Johnny Doe. Mom was so moved by her sincerity, thanked her from the bottom of her heart, but declined the offer as kindly as she could, and so surprised at what Miss Clarice had said, she knew instantly that she would never completely understand the deep south. She instantly realized that the Japanese had already been soliciting support from oppressed deep south Blacks, literally playing the race card, playing into their hopes of escape from such oppression. So all this was just background to explain as best she could that in 1941, with the outcome of the war anything but certain, with a last name like “Doe”, why go around telling people you’re part Jewish? There was plenty of anti-Semitism in this country. She said they just got in the habit during WWII, and the years went by, and she realized that we deserved to know about “Grandma Dorothea Heymann Sarstedt”. who was from a prominent Jewish family near Braunfels when she fell in love with a Gentile, and expelled from her family. They came to America, and the rest is history. What Mom didn’t know before she died, and I didn’t find out till I was almost 50, was the kicker: my Dad’s uncle uncle Otho Offutt rode with a guy named William Quantrill from start to finish, and participated in the massacre of every white man they could find in Lawrence, KS, in August of 1863, but it wasn’t because they were white! It was because they were abolitionists and partly a double-or-nothing payback of a raid by the Kansans on Osceola, MO, killed 167 men, the worst act of domestic terrorism till the Oklahoma City bombing. I must say I reeled a bit when I learned and later verified it. I don’t claim to know or understand much, but all those revelations and memories have given me plenty of food for thought over the years. I’ve come to a a sticking point: Was it just dumb luck, or fiendishly cunning forethought on the part of American slave owners to specifically seek Black African slaves, who would never get far if they ran away, ’cause they could be spotted from 500 yards, instantly identified as slaves, no hope of blending in or assimilating. Even manumission was no guarantee. and that still remains true today to some real extent: just look at the recent videotaped for all to see wanton killing of unarmed Black men by cops. As for me, I have found it useful to remember that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw….anything. Archie Bunker should have had some ancestors such as mine.

    • Wow, what a fascinating family history. There were initially more Irish slaves than African slaves. A friend of mine is doing her PhD on the history of Irish slavery in the south. It was that the Irish kept causing too much trouble, staging riots, causing too many problems, that they weren’t wanted anymore. When the next lot of Irish slaves came, they were redressed and told to pretend they were from England, but the plantation owners were soon onto that, so they decided to stick with the African slaves and that’s when black slavery took off. So I am told.

  4. David,
    Thank you for this article. Thank you. The more people who start to understand what institutionalized structural racism is then we are closer to ending the legacy of racism in this country. But, it is hard for people to understand what privilege is and how to use it to change oppression. And, yes, voting is definitely one way – and demanding action from our elected officials.

  5. Outstanding letter…Please take the time to read till the end……in the mean time …Keep the pressure up….keep the knowledge coming about our culture…heritage… accomplishments…..we are more…we are taking a stand for more…..we need to understand who we are and where we came from……our history was corrupted….now we face the truth about ourselves……

  6. Great letter. I have been struggling to find a way to express much of what you said and I thank you for writing it.

  7. David,
    It is difficult to become aware of the reality Black America must live with, I agree. I also share your compulsion to look away, and to my chagrin, I often do look away as yet another case of police lynching Black men, women and children in the U.S. comes to my attention. It hurts. It sickens. I also admit that reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me burns. I have compared it to holy words- it burns in some ways as if it were written with black fire on white fire, right into my consciousness. A wonderful teacher I work with said to a class we taught together, recalitrant one day at their work: “That’s right! It hurts! Learning hurts! New knowledge forces new pathways through your brain– it hurts!! But that’s how you get stronger! Embrace it!”
    Obviously, it is a dichotomy to embrace pain. But we Jews are uniquely suited to this– we layer sweet and bitter at Pesach, shatter glass at weddings, pray for those in mourning on Shabbat. That is why I was saddened to read the part of this piece asking African-Americans to continue to work to raise white people’s consciousness about police shooting their children multiple times in the body and finally in the head, and then being left for four and a half hours in the street, blood running freely, brain matter exposed, a warning to others who might dare to answer back to a police officer. White Americans saw the video of Eric Garner being strangled on the street. They know Tamir Rice, a 12-year old child, was shot within two seconds of police arriving on the scene. Tamir was playing with a toy gun in a park.
    White Americans are also aware that we are not treated this way when our own kind actually commit heinous crimes. The theater shooter, the Montgomery murderer, the kid who stabbed those poor students and teachers at the suburban school here in Pittsburgh– all safely apprehended. The Montgomery murderer enjoyed Burger King before he went to jail, courtesy of the police officers who had him in his custody. We all know that. I admit I know this because of activists and their work. I am grateful for it. But what I’m trying to say is that there has to be an end to how much of this stuff I know before I begin to ACT. By the nature of our shared religion, David, we are called to act before all else. It is nobody’s job to keep telling me this stuff. It is at some point my job to take on the knowing, the finding out, and the acting– myself. Because I am finally, responsible for my brother. As we know.
    We liberal Jews are mightily proud of our disproportionate rate of involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. We should be. But how many of us are interested and involved in the fact that a Jewish family’s firm is currently displacing elderly, handicapped and impoverished residents of a low-income apartment tower in East Liberty? How much time and interest do we take in the ethical choices our community makes, and the impact those choices have on other minority groups?
    Yes. I know. Our annual Mitzvah Days, our volunteering, our gifts to charity, etc. We do good in our community. But we aren’t spotless. We make mistakes. If we consider ourselves and our choices in light of the fact that our African-American sisters, brothers and children walk out the door AFRAID every day, we must ask ourselves: are we doing enough? Truly? Can we face God and answer that in the affirmative?
    I know for me, personally, that answer must be no. And I can’t ask African-American activists to continue to make me aware. I have the responsibility to make myself aware. Because I can. Because that’s my job. As a Jew and a human being.

  8. David, I’m a fan of your book and was friends with Ben. However, this letter falls short. You do what so many of us white folks do, and you demand that the people of color educate us, rather than taking the initiative to seek stories and educate yourself. Why is it always the minority’s role to educate the majority? Their lives are not here to teach those of us in power a lesson. The disabled are not here to humanize the able (see tropes like Rain Man). The black are not here to bring compassion to the white. Let us, white folks, acknowledge our white power and seek out our own education, through literature, media, and real friendships with people of color.

    • .
      Rebecca, you have misunderstood my post. This has nothing to do with “education” and everything to do with “disruption” – the foundational element of activist-based protest. I take plenty of initiative to read stories and educate myself. However, those who do not – either willfully or because they have no occasion to – will only be confronted with the pain of black Americans if that pain impacts their lives.
      Disrupt, disrupt, disrupt … until nobody can ignore the racism in this country still oppressing (and killing) black Americans.

      • I appreciate what you are saying. I think your statements “confront us…” “Disrupt us…” still are asking (demanding?) the people of color to do the action. Where is our responsibility, as white allies, to do the action ourselves? I should be the one disrupting. I should be the one confronting. My white privilege allows me to be passive, but my ethics do not.

  9. Thanks for your commentary which I appreciate. Just image how we as Blacks feel…terrorized and angry that privilege ensues.

  10. “Black Lives Matter”, Black Lives Matter”, “Black Lives Matter”, Black Lives Matter”. So much focus and emphasis on Black lives. Do not get me wrong, I do not disagree or oppose or arguing that they don’t, but what about the Non-Black Lives? Do they NOT matter? If you are a supporter of “Black Lives Matter”, doesn’t that mean then that you are against all other lives mattering? How much self hate must a person have and loathing for one’s own race, to be a supporter of a specific other race’s lives instead of one’s own race, let alone all races, everyone’s life. ALL LIVES MATTER. Black, White, Latin, Asian, Native, tall, short, young and old, male or female. If you cut a white person, will he not bleed just like a black person? Is his blood not red like that of an Asian person? Does he not breathe the same air just like a Latin person. We all have the same struggles and face a lot of the same challenges, deal with the same issues everyday. So why should Black Lives Matter more than any other life?
    Lives Matter. Period.

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