Combating hate and inequality: The square-one syndrome

Combating hate and inequality: The square-one syndrome

One of the organizations that gets an annual contribution from me is the Southern Leadership Poverty Center in Birmingham.

In return, I get monthly requests from it for more contributions, and once a year I get its report covering hate crimes and the fallout produced by domestic terror, antigovernment, antisemitic, and fringe groups of every stripe.

Normally, I harbor good intentions about reading this summary, but usually it joins a pile of other publications, compilations, and bulletins that I had every good intention of reading. This year, however, I committed to studying the attractively packaged report, printed on coated stock with careful attention to fonts and graphics. Much too nice a package for the terrible and disquieting information contained within.

After all, it covers 2021, the year of the Capitol insurrection, Donald Trump’s sulk from office, and the traumatizing effects of the pandemic.

“The Year in Hate & Extremism” minces no words. Rather than dwell on its entirety, I intend to focus on the section titled “Active Antigovernment and Hate Groups.” The SPLC calls out its perpetrators by their geography, the targets of their derision or violence, and other disturbing denominators. The taxonomy is chilling. Some 488 antigovernment entities are listed, as are an astonishing 733 hate groups, and that’s probably an undercount in both categories. (I refrain from using the word organizations because it suggests too much credibility.)

This year, the section on Jew hating and baiting achieved a dubious distinction of sorts. “In 2020, the SPLC first began designating hate groups solely on their antisemitism,” according to the report. But 2021 marks ‘the first year that those groups have been pulled out from under the General Hate ideology umbrella and featured on their own exclusive map.” (Exclusive being used advisedly.) Among those identified are the Goyim Defense League, Institute for Historical Review, and Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. But by far, the greatest number of entries are Nation of Islam cells.

I studied the antisemitism map along with the others, with each one tallying state-by-state totals of the misinformed, the hate-spewing, and the grievance-laden. The bleak headings include White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, Christian Identity, Neo-Volkisch, Neo-Confederate, Anti-Immigrant, Anti-LGBTQ, Anti-Muslim, and a catchall General Hate for the broadest range of bigotries. To better visualize and grasp the cumulative effect of this venom, I also focused on the master map introducing the section. The United States is riddled with blips, each representing one of these festering colonies, and New Jersey, unfortunately, is well obscured with clusters of them.

I was stuck by the fact that every state bore the pockmarks of these poisonous elements. Struck but really not surprised by a national phenomenon that has been metastasizing for years, both overtly and stealthily, stoked by social media, political demagoguery, economic disparities, tribalism, nativism, and centuries-old shibboleths. In addition to the SDLC analysis, the Anti-Defamation recently issued its annual report of antisemitic incidents, showing the greatest rise, especially in the New York metropolitan area, since ADL began tracking this data in 1979.

Yet the extrapolation of these trends into statistics, while important and illuminating, only confirms what most of us in the greater Jewish community already feel existentially.

When I was a youngster growing up in Newark and a teen expanding my worldview in West Orange, I never imagined New Jersey as a hotbed of hate or racism or ethnic bashing. That place always was the South, a place where they spoke with a drawl, didn’t particularly like Catholics, openly hated Jews, and violently despised Blacks. Sure, I was bullied about my religion in high school (at 99% Jewish Weequahic, of all places), and I fought back both physically and with counter-taunts. But it was more about individual street cred than the ingrained, organic system infecting the body politic today.

My first encounter with segregation came in 1949, when I was 7. My family was living in Miami for a year, hoping that the climate would improve my younger sister’s asthma. After a hurricane struck and littered our apartment complex with fronds and branches, I tried to help the Black custodian clean up the debris. The apartment manager, white and Jewish, told me not to assist the man. I didn’t understand why, and when I brought my confusion to Mom, she patiently, and with a pained look on her face, tried to explain the basics of Jim Crow. At that moment, I needed a guide for the perplexed.

My next brush with the South occurred during summer break at Rutgers in 1963. A friend and I were camping cross-country when my car broke down in rural Lanier, Georgia, home of poet Sidney Lanier. By then, the civil rights movement had reached a boil and “outsiders” were immediately suspect. The ramshackle garage where my vehicle was towed inspired little confidence, and the two rustic mechanics who disassembled my car had to call the “Chevy place” to get instructions. Yet they succeeded in fixing the vehicle without any leftover parts, allowing my friend and me to continue on our way. We left fortified with a few stories told to us by the two good ol’ boys, but only because we all carefully skirted the race issue.

Just two years later, I was back in the South, stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana (named for a Confederate general, naturally) to attend clerk’s school as part of my Army Reserve active-duty training. I had just started working as a reporter for the Bergen Record when my military obligation came due. The U.S. Army was still a de facto segregated institution, 18 years after President Truman signed an executive order abolishing the practice in the Armed Forces. Our barracks literally divided into North and South. with the Yankee trainees on the lower floor and their Dixie counterparts upstairs.

It was only six months after the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in neighboring Mississippi. The white southern soldiers chafed at taking orders from the. black sergeants. The company sergeant major, a southerner to the core, ridiculed me at mail call when Mom sent me a salami leaking oil through the wrapper. “You people from New York eat pretty funny,” he smirked. Once, when the northern troops broke out with an impromptu chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” a melee threatened. The tension always simmered just below the surface. Vietnam may have been escalating overseas, but we were also fighting a different kind of war at home.

My wife has relatives who are both Jewish and Dixie born and bred. They are quite proud of each tradition. When meeting them at occasional social events, I first adjusted my hearing to their deep Georgia drawls and then I mostly listened as they described the close but scattered Jewish communities in the South, rather unlike our much larger tribal concentrations in the New York-New Jersey metropolis. (Atlanta, Birmingham, and a few others are the exception.) I am also aware, however, that one branch of the family operated a general store in South Carolina where segregated practices were tolerated into the 1960s.

I have written before about these incidents and others in the Jewish Standard and New Jersey Jewish News. They serve as personal markers of how race and religion and the intersections of bigotry have asserted themselves during my lifetime. Despite the promise of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the mid-1960s and the activism of students and ordinary citizens during protests, sit-ins, and legal challenges, the riots and implosions in Detroit, Newark, and Watts followed, exposing new fault lines in the fight for racial equality. Recriminations surfaced between Jews and Blacks, with the once seemingly indivisible alliance of two groups of “others” fractured by distrust and missteps. More broadly, the bombings and lynchings of an earlier era gave way to a quiet, sour stasis that persisted for decades and is now playing out in ways few of us could predict.

The effects of affirmative action (now limited), economic disparity (now exacerbated), profiling and excessive force by police (now ascendant), wokeness and school culture wars (now everywhere), gender equality (now more divisive than ever), political gridlock (now at its angriest), and rulings by an increasingly politicized and feckless judiciary (now at the Supreme Court) have muddied the waters of what once seemed an inexorable flow toward a fairer, more tolerant, more hate-free republic.

I truly believed that with Barack Obama’s election perhaps, just perhaps, we had reached a post-racial society. To be wrong is one thing, but to be wrong and disappointed is much more dispiriting. Events of the past decade certainly required me to refocus and rebalance my feelings about the nexus between race relations, Jewish values, and bigotry at large. I feel drained by persistent hate and racism. I feel alarmed and on edge by synagogue shootings and church bombings. I feel disappointed that meaningful reform seems to elude policing. I despair at getting the 1% to pay their fair share. This is the cri de coeur of a Jewish American who at 80 feels almost as baffled as he did seven decades ago, when told not to help the Black custodian.

Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a retired editor of the Star-Ledger and a copy editor for the Jewish Standard and New Jersey Jewish News.