These days, we often hear that, while whites may or may not be aware of their personal racism, we are less aware of systemic racism. I doubt that’s true.
Raleigh Smith was a black guy who worked for my family, and other families, throughout my childhood. He had a job in shipping in the company my father ran, and he lived in a neighboring town. He drove my father in and out of Manhattan every day as they both went to work. He was my father’s chauffeur.
He also did a variety of jobs around our home. I have an early memory — I was probably 9 or 10 years old — in which I was sitting at a table eating breakfast or lunch. I think my sister was also there. Raleigh was working literally beneath our feet. He was on his knees and scrubbing the floor below us.
I recall looking down and feeling that it was strange that a grown man, close to my parents’ age, was on the floor cleaning below us. There was something about it that felt odd; that was not right. I remember thinking that his brown skin had something to do with why my sister and I were seated at the table and he was below it. Of course, at that age, I had no wider context. But I knew something was strange. I knew something was wrong.
A few years later, my family took a Caribbean cruise. The ship went to the usual places — St. Thomas, Nassau, and so on. But the stop that has stayed with me all these years was Port-au-Prince. Haiti was ruled by the corrupt and despotic “Papa Doc” Duvalier. I knew nothing about Haitian politics. But, as a kid looking down from the ship’s railing, I was transfixed by the flotilla of small boats that greeted us, each paddled by Haitian kids who were my age, and each entreating passengers to throw coins over the side which they would dive into the water to retrieve. Even as a not-particularly-sensitive 12-year-old, I was reminded of feeding the seals at the zoo. I was repulsed, although I could not have articulated that then. And I was unable to turn away until my family, not knowing where I was, had me paged. We were going ashore, moving from the ship to an air-conditioned car that would take us to an air-conditioned restaurant that had as much to do with Haiti as the planet Neptune. Even during the brief moments we were out of the car, we were accosted by outstretched, begging hands—from kids, from people missing limbs, from people who appeared famished or insane or both. I knew there was something wrong with this.
During the years that followed, I became more used to what I knew. It was part of the background. As a student at an elite boarding school, I participated in a debate about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I argued for it, as did most of the other Jewish students and some fellow travelers — mostly kids from the South as I recall — who had been granted admission to the WASP bastion of Phillips Exeter Academy. Those opposed were mostly associated with Young Americans for Freedom about which I knew nothing at the time. I simply judged them as preppy scum which missed the point that I was in the same pond. There were a few black students at Exeter in those days. The best known were recruited athletes. In general, adolescence did not build on what I’d known when Raleigh was under the table and when my family arrived at Port-au-Prince. On the contrary.
During the past 40 years, I have taught about the Holocaust at the University of Michigan. I include a lot about the connections between Nazism and American racism. My students know that American eugenicist Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race was the first English language book translated into German during the Nazi period and celebrated by Hitler as “my Bible.” They know that “whites only” park benches in America were the model for segregated park benches in Nazi Germany. They know that the most popular “hygiene” magazines in the US celebrated Nazi Germany, “fitness” for the best and weeding out the rest.
They know. I know.
But there is a chasm between what one knows and what one does. Twenty years ago, I polled a large group of colleagues in Holocaust studies, asking whether anyone knew anyone who did anything — even as simple as a letter to a newspaper or to a Congressperson — during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Out of a few hundred Holocaust scholars I asked, one person may have known one person who did something.
During the past week, I presented this fact to another large group of which I’m a member — an association of “Holocaust educators,” whether as teachers or in organizations like museums. Good studies have long shown that Holocaust education — for all the good it does — may not yield the particular outcome of enhanced civic engagement. There is no shortage of students who celebrate what they learned. But beyond those who already are activists — grounded in family, community, and political or religious groups with activist traditions — what one knows is only very loosely connected to what one does.
There are enough of us who know. The challenge of the present moment will be how effectively, persistently, and collectively we act. Most of that is not learned in museums or in schools.