Talking About Our Race Problem

Saadiah McIntosh, Brandeis University


My name is Saadiah Benzion McIntosh, and I am a proud African American and Jewish man. I’ve had the distinct privilege to attend some fine Jewish institutions in my hometown of New York City, and I feel extremely fortunate to have received the education given to me by my parents, my peers, and my teachers throughout the years. I will forever be grateful to the Yeshiva Day Schools I attended for providing me with the tools to succeed as a student of history in a richly diverse top tier college, Brandeis University. As I reflect on my pre-collegiate academic career, though, I wonder: why did I learn so little about the history of my people? Yes, I’ve learned plenty about the plight of the Jewish people. In the academic settings of which I’ve been a part, the plight of the Black American has rarely been discussed and certainly never examined in the way it deserves to be. Thankfully, over the course of my time in college, that has changed.

As I write this, news of two more police-related deaths of Black men dominate the day’s headlines. Keith Lamont Scott of Charlotte, North Carolina is the latest Black man to have been killed due to police violence. The killing of Terrence Crutcher, an Oklahoma native killed by police in the week before I began penning this, struck a chord with me in particular.

On one of my last days in High School, a few friends and I were reflecting on those four formative years we were just finishing up. After nostalgically recounting our first day of school with one another and revisiting the circumstances under which we had all met each other, one of them admitted to me that, at first, he was hesitant to approach me. He said I had seemed “intimidating.” At the time, this was outrageous to me if only because I endeavor to treat everyone with the utmost respect and to be an immediately calm and approachable presence. In hindsight, I realize that my friend had unwittingly but effectively showed me that racial prejudice is not something of which the Jewish community is devoid. The Jewish bubble may be comfortable for many of us, but, clearly, as a man of color, I had learned that it was not always safe for me. Without uttering a word or committing a single offense, my friend had preconceived notions of who I am. In thinking about that today, 5 years after the fact, I am still stunned. Crutcher, killed last week at the hands of law enforcement in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was quickly antagonized because he “looked like a bad dude.” I, too, have been the victim of antagonization because, as told above, I “look intimidating.” The only difference between my story and Crutcher’s story seems to be that, unfortunately, he was dealing with an armed police officer. If that had been me, and it very well could have been, I might be dead today for no justifiable reason.

Black people across the United States of America are hurting. They’ve been hurting month after month and year after year as story after story of the marginalization and horrific mistreatment of Black bodies comes to light. I regard these stories as unfortunate but unsurprising realities of life in America. When I caught wind of the deaths of Crutcher and Scott, I was deeply saddened. Of course, I must mourn Black life in a way that is suited to my needs, and I shall continue to do so. But, at the same time, I also felt numb. I could become angry or forlorn, but mostly I felt then, and I still feel now, like there’s nothing else I can feel. I have felt anger. I have felt sadness. I have allowed myself time to wallow in my own people’s self pity. At this point, though, I feel as if I have nothing else left to feel.

Among many other Black victims of police brutality, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner and now Crutcher and Scott have become martyrs in my head.  As many of us remember, all of these were cases riddled with controversy that speak to the state of race relations in this country. The deaths of these young men have forced me to realize exactly how unimportant the wellbeing of young men of color was to the law enforcement officers in the incidents. These men had their lives taken away from them, so who’s to say the same couldn’t happen to me?

Because these men look like me, I can see myself in their shoes. But because these men do not look like most of my friends in the Jewish community, they may not be able to see themselves in the shoes of these young men who have died at the hands of law enforcement officers. For this reason (among others), many of my own Jewish peers may never discuss these matters in a formal academic setting. They may never grapple with the plight of the contemporary African American community. As a student in a number of predominately White institutions, these matters were not discussed much. Yet, the challenge of race relations in the United States is one that I see as greatest challenge of my own life. It is an issue with which we all need to grapple.

I am tired of feeling alone. I do not want to feel like every time a young Black man is killed due to police violence, I have no one to talk to and no one who understands me. I am sick of hearing that these young Black men “need to learn how to act” or that they need to stop acting like hoodlums. These are some of the conclusions many of my peers are quick to jump to, which is painfully illustrative of a bigger issue within our Jewish communities, but also within American society as a whole.

Whether or not these young men are innocent of wrongdoing, as people, we all must seek to understand the historical moment at which African Americans find themselves. There are reasons why we so routinely hear of these incidents, and those reasons cannot be callously boiled down to an assertion that young Black men and women are “thugs”, “hoodlums” or “need to do better.” To make such grandiose assumptions about large groups of people is shortsighted, unfair, and most of all reflects a lack of compassion for a group of people that has and continues to endure nefarious racism.

Most of my own Jewish friends, however, have nothing to say when it comes to matters of race relations in the United States. I cannot honestly say that many of my Jewish friends are willing to openly discuss these difficult subjects. They may feel a lack of connection to these events, or that it is not their place to comment on these matters. Alternatively, it may be comfortable not to tread in the often-contentious waters of racial injustice in America.  In my experience, rarely have I come upon an opportunity to have a real discussion with a fellow Jew about these matters. As a Black man in America, this is disconcerting. But as a member of the Jewish community, it is heartbreaking.

I will never be fully comfortable in any Jewish community if my concerns, fears and very livelihood are not regarded as important by those who surround me. I, as well as the small community of Jews of color in our country, am no less important than fellow White Jews. As people of color in this country, we are no less important than our fellow White citizens. This seems like a harmless, obvious assertion of self worth, but this simple sentiment is not one that I see in practice.

As a member of the Jewish community, I constantly hear of the trials and tribulations of White folks. Now, in this moment, I implore all of my White friends to be willing to do the same: be there for your friends of color — whether they are Jewish or gentile. Listen to their needs. Do not dismiss their fears, and by extension their very livelihood. You may not always agree with them, but that should not stop any of you from critically engaging with their concerns, which are deep-seated and steeped in our nation’s history.

I realize that some may not have regular interactions with people of color. is not an excuse to ignore the systems of oppression that so clearly pervade life as a Black citizen of the United States of America. White folks: Educate yourselves as to why so many people of color feel as disenfranchised as I do. Endeavor to understand how these systems of oppression manifest themselves in our world, and do not expect people of color to do all of the critical, emotional, and intellectual  work regarding the issue of race relations in our country. And most of all, think about why achieving socioeconomic parity for communities of color seems to be such an elusive endeavor.

Life at the intersection of Black and Jewish has not always been easy. The tension between these two facets of my identity has shaken me to the core. It is my hope that my White Jewish counterparts work to ensure their brethren of color do not have to feel the way I have been feeling in the future.