When I was a teenager, I went to a basketball summer camp in the Catskill Mountains. There were five other white guys and a black guy. One of the white guys was dropping the N-word constantly on the black guy until I challenged him. He knocked me out.
The black guy was Lew Alcindor then, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and we have been close friends ever since. Our immediate bond provided me with a young, urban African-American lens with which to look at racism in America.
I have been a civil rights activist for more than 50 years. Along the way I have learned you don’t have to be a black person or person of color to fight racism, a woman to fight sexism, Jewish to fight anti-Semitism, gay or lesbian to fight against homophobia, or poor to fight poverty.
The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor enraged me. The massive protest demonstrations across America and the reactions to them have encouraged me. At the same time, it can also be numbing. We cannot afford to be numb.
My advice: Try to work through that numbness so that you can become an activist.
Here’s how you can start.
In 1978, I was a professor of political science at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk. I was the American leader of the sports boycott of apartheid South Africa. After leading protest demonstrations for four days in Tennessee, I was working late in my office when two men wearing stocking masks attacked me. They caused liver and kidney damage, a concussion and used scissors to carve the “N-word” on my stomach.
Some people suggested, “Now you know what it’s like to be Black. I told them, “I really don’t know because I can walk away from the fight against racism and re-join the white middle-class. I will never face the daily discrimination that confronts people of color every day.” That was a profound moment for me to realize that truth. No matter how empathetic we may be, and how engaged we may be with trying to be part of the solution, we can never totally understand the situation.
So I think the first thing that we really have to do is listen. There have been a lot of years and decades when white people assume they understood what people in the Black community or people of color are going through. But they really need to listen to the voices in the black community to begin to understand.
Read books by Brian Stevenson, Michelle Alexander, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coats, Barack Obama, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cornell West, Angela Davis and so many more.
Take responsibility of educating yourself.
Raise Your Voice, Volunteer and Donate.
Everybody doesn’t have to be on the front lines, but everybody has to get off the sidelines and get involved in some way.
If you are physically up to it, join peaceful demonstrations about racial injustice. The magnitude of the demonstrations has shown people in power that fighting racism on all fronts is imperative.
You can pick an issue that is important and relates to you. Read about it, study it and find an organization that is doing something about it. Volunteer your time so that you become an active part of the solution.
Donate if you can to organizations fighting against racism.
I think voting is key. And not only voting in presidential election but voting in local elections. Vote for sheriffs. Vote for someone who you think understands what you want for your community and your nation.
Over the past several days, we have seen images in the media of a number of law enforcement officials expressing solidarity with the protestors. We have to make that common, not the exception. Police brutality and all forms of racism have to be crushed.
Look into the sunlight.
I am really proud of what Kareem wrote in his powerful op-ed that appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
He wrote: “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.”