Richard Marcus is a member of Progressive Massachusetts and is on the Steering Committee of Progressive Watertown. Watertown's chapter held a series of forums on Race and the Criminal Justice System in 2016. He was invited to speak at the MetroWest Rally for Respect: Love Trumps Hate.
The racism that threatened my father was not easily seen.
On the day of my Mother & Father’s first wedding anniversary, they witnessed the Nazi Army marching into their home city of Vienna, Austria, under a cascade of flowers and cheers.
What my father had fled in his hometown of Berlin, was following him and it was time to flee again. Fortunately through luck and circumstance my parents were sponsored by a Jewish family in Dorchester and were able to flee to safety. The special privilege that allowed me to be here today was that my father didn’t “look” Jewish. My father’s family was fully assimilated and no longer practicing Jews, so my father was not circumcised. When my father was stopped in the street by the Gestapo and was made to pull down his pants, he passed the test. Had he been I would not be standing here.
My parents were lucky to have found a sponsor. If they hadn’t they would have been killed. In 1925 a Republican Congress closed US immigration by enacting strict immigration measures. They were tired of the flood of immigration in the US; from Italians, the Irish, the Jews, and Chinese, and wanted it to end. The new measure in America was “I fought for what I have, why should we let you in to take it away?”
Suddenly free passage to America, and opportunity was restricted. Immigration was restricted to 150 per country/per year. When WWII broke out, there were no special provisions for Jews fleeing extinction instead people said “there might be Nazis sneaking in among them.” Sound familiar?
Just as today people say no Muslims, no Syrians, etc, this is not new in our nation’s history where once there were signs that read “Irish need not apply”, “Italians not served”, and of course, the Jim Crow era of segregation where blacks and whites could not even share a water fountain. We have come together to end prejudices before, we must rally to end it again. Immigration has built this nation, and is what makes it so unique. When people yell “America First” what it really will lead to is America last.
But my journey has secured my place in this society. When I awake each day, I am free to go where I please. When I walk through a store no one follows me. When I am driving my car, I never worry that a broken taillight will lead to my arrest. And I know if my car is broken down by the side of the road, a policeman will not approach me with gun in hand.
Yet a black baby boy born tomorrow stands one chance in three of becoming part of the legal system. A black or Latino person with pot is 700% more likely to be arrested than a white person. And, once before a DA or a judge, a black or latino person is much more likely to not be given the benefit of a doubt than a white person.
Some people say Black Lives Matter. Some people say White Lives Matter. Aren’t they the same? No. Just because we label some parking spaces as handicap, there is no need to label all the others as Non-handicap. There’s no need because it’s obvious. It should also be obvious that being a black or brown person in America is not the same as being a white person in America. It’s a given.
No one labels a person white, unless they want to identify that person as NOT black or brown. Yet we “white people” don’t acknowledge our advantage, partially because for us it’s ALWAYS been that way, partially because we can pass it off by saying “we didn’t create the system”.
Racism is America’s original sin. A white society established itself here at the near extinction of one race and the enslavement of another race. If that isn’t racism, what is it? And it will remain so until the playing field is leveled.
You hear a lot today in our political dialogue about the “system is rigged.” Oh yes it is and it has been that way for a lot time. Being white comes with assumptions about you that favor you today in America. Being brown or black requires you to demonstrate what you do that makes you fit in. What we don’t acknowledge is the end of the previous sentence, which really means “fit in the white society.” Yet “we as a society” expect the wronged to right themselves. The playing field must be leveled by the advantaged, not the disadvantaged. As I sat down this morning to write these few words an image came to me of the black teenager with his pants slung down low and how that always struck me as inappropriate. Today I question myself and ask simply, “why should I feel threatened by that?’ “why should I even care?”
I am learning all the ways I contribute to this inequality. None of it was intentional, none of it with malice.
Just as we are told in improve our posture, we now must find MORE ways to improve ourselves as inclusionary. Slowly but surely I will become better.
Bob Dylan wrote “the ladder of justice should have no top and no bottom”. Helping someone climb that ladder does not put me lower. I must teach myself that…every day from here on. Maybe today will be the beginning of your conscious effort to reexamine why black lives should matter in your life. While the Journey begins with each of us, I am reminded of my favorite quote, by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”