The Power of Allies — What We Owe to Each Other

November 2, 2020
A small group hold a candlelit vigil to mark what would have been the birthday of George Floyd, in Windrush Square in Brixton on October 14, 2020 in the Brixton neighborhood of London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

I was almost 40 when my parents first told me about their lives in Vienna during and after the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany). We were having afternoon pastries and coffee in a Washington, D.C. café in June 1994, after a family visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Both my parents lived through the Anschluss and Kristallnacht, their lives disrupted by expropriation of property and home, expulsion from school, the threat of incarceration and the daily fear of harm from a regime that based its policies on the dehumanization and destruction of a people. Separately, they fled their homeland for the United States. They both struggled after they arrived in the United States, facing bias because they were Jews, immigrants and had a German accent.

In conveying their experiences, my parents remarked that their vicissitudes seemed part of another life divorced from their current lives in the United States. My sense of their stories was that they were dream-like in their telling, devoid of the horror and fear that I assumed must have loomed large in their experience.

The killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by a white Minneapolis police officer, the killing of many other Black men and women, including Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and a woman using her white privilege to retaliate against a Black man who requested that she leash her dog, all came during a pandemic whose impact disproportionately landed on Black and Latino shoulders. The shocking examples of the pain, perniciousness, and pervasiveness of racism have continued.

The demonstrations and protests catalyzed by these tragic killings have focused sorely-needed conversations on police brutality and practices, the role of police in society, and overt and implicit race-based bias. The issue played a role in the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, but now seems somewhat overshadowed in the November election coverage. Nevertheless, a wall of societal denial appears to have, finally, shown cracks.

I am not Black, but these issues are deeply personal to me. The recent events leading to the demonstrations remind me of my parents’ experiences growing up under a government bent on their extermination, which sensitized me to the dangers of explicit bias and dehumanization. During my 25 years with my partner, a Black man, I have heard of his experiences with the police, including when he was followed one night in Beverly Hills while walking to his parked car. The police continued to follow him as he was driving, until he had left that city’s limits. Having spent time with my partner’s family, I have heard — amid all their successes and accomplishments — stories and comments about actual and expected mistreatment by white people, or how the cards are stacked in their favor. I recently read a racist email to an office where my partner’s niece was hired. I have seen the social media posts by his cousins, successful Black women who have witnessed disrespect and microaggressions.

Close friends who are Black have told me of encountering bias. For example, while one of my friends was out one night on his own, he was asked for two forms of identification to enter a club. We had been there a week earlier and had been granted entry without showing ID At some firms where I have worked, I have noticed subtle questioning of and judgments regarding a Black job applicant, questioning that was different from those directed toward white candidates.

My partner’s extended family offered many lessons in love, acceptance, and support as I became integrated into the family. One lesson from several years ago exemplifies how the simple courage of having someone’s back — being an ally — can make a difference when he or she faces bigotry:

For a few years, my partner’s family participated in what they called Family Church Sundays. Every couple of months, the extended family attended the church of one of the family members and ate brunch together. One Sunday, the family attended the church of my partner’s cousin and his wife in Long Beach. My partner, our then-young son and I joined them. This was years before the U.S. Supreme Court held that same-sex marriage is entitled to the same recognition as marriage between a man and a woman.

After about an hour of prayer, the pastor started to exhort the congregation about the abomination of same-sex marriage, and admonished church members not to tolerate the sin of lesbian and gay relationships. My immediate thought was that, while I abhorred the message and did not want my son exposed to such hate, I also did not want to disrespect my partner’s family, who had included us in their gatherings. But before I could decide what to do, the couple whose church we were attending stood up, the rest of the family stood, and we filed out of our pews and exited the church. No drama, nothing said, but also no question about where the family stood. They stood behind their relative, his partner and their son.

No drama, nothing said, but also no question about where the family stood.

I owe the same simple acts of courage to my partner, his family, and my Black friends and colleagues. Over the years, I have worked to promote diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in bar associations, non-profit organizations and my firm. I have lent legal and personal support to Black non-profit organizations and, years ago, I supported actions to protest the racist practices of bars and clubs in West Hollywood.

While my son attended many of the protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality and reported how meaningful his participation was, I have not attended them because I am in a higher-risk category for COVID-19. Seeing my son’s engagement and the living example of the years’ long support of my partner’s family, I now feel compelled to speak out publicly against anti-Black racism.

My involvement in LGBTQ rights and in my profession’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, my experience with my partner’s family and my peers and my son’s recent activism have taught me that progress is forged through a personal sustained commitment to action. Pledges of future support, funds and programs, if actualized, are significant. But the depth of systemic racism — that is, racism that is embedded within society or an organization as normal practice and, thereby, self-perpetuates — and its consequences compels an immediate focus on change.

Many companies and banks generously pledged hundreds of millions of dollars of future support to Black causes and community programs after the death of George Floyd. Yet when many of the same banks administered the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) loans, Black and other minority-owned businesses were inherently disadvantaged by the program’s design. Because the banks attempted to maximize the benefits the program offered to them in the form of higher fees for larger loans, many of them went to white-owned, well-connected businesses with prior relationships with the banks.

The true test of how white-led businesses and banks show their support in fighting racism will be in their everyday operations — how they recruit, hire, and treat employees, whether they expand the distribution of work opportunities, whether they are willing to take a risk in doing things differently, exploring new networks and seeing job candidates in a new light.

But the need for action is not limited to businesses and banks. The public must insist on strong policy responses from government officials. The protests in which my son participated sought to push for policy changes in policing and the provision of medical and mental health services. Real change requires sustained public pressure for public policy that more fairly allocates government resources and supports and protects the populace. These changes will require a willingness to engage in difficult conversations about the kind of society we want and how the government can best support that society and protect the people in it.

We cannot blame the failure to address core issues like homelessness, affordable housing, and jobs only on corrupt politicians or special interests. The failings also rest with us, the voters who put the officials in office and do not hold them accountable. We must maintain a commitment to civic engagement, not only during the hype of an election, but every day. Just as my partner’s entire family stood up and walked out on a homophobic sermon to support their gay relative and his family, real change starts with a personal commitment to standing up for those most impacted by failed government policies.

We must maintain a commitment to civic engagement, not only during the hype of an election, but every day.

The current moment presents promise and opportunity. My experience and history offer examples of the successes of sustained political involvement: the passage of civil rights and voting rights laws, the push for changes in drug testing and approval protocols during the height of the AIDS crisis, and marriage equality — to name only a few. I have lived through and heard my parents’ stories of the devastating consequences when we fail to engage civically as governments enact policies neglectful or intentionally harmful to disfavored or despised minorities, until it is too late.

Now is not the time to allow the creation of painful memories that we will, in the future, seek to relegate to the past. It is a time to engage, to stand up and to act. If the events since May have not called us to action, what will it take?

William Weinberger is an attorney with a business and employment litigation practice in Los Angeles and serves on the Board of Trustees of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform Synagogue.


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