The "Silent Holocaust"

I recently watched President Obama giving a beautiful eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the dear souls shot in Charleston, and it inspired the following writng. I'm not feeling very eloquent after two weeks of deep sorrow about what's happening in our country (there have been so many horrific tragedies, but what happened to those in's impossible to fathom what those innocent people went through) plus personal reasons (suddenly losing a very dear friend, also in a way terrible to imagine). I can barely remember what day it is. But maybe that's why I want to speak honestly and without filter and challenge myself and others to consider the following.


At this moment in history, I believe that many Americans need to stop and take a deep look at their own thoughts and behavior and decide to drop passivity and take action in their daily personal and work lives to help transform our society into an equal, just and inclusive one  (at last). I truly believe this means checking your words and actions every day, in every way, to be sure you are not defaulting to a legacy of thought you didn't create or behavior patterns you inherited. 

For some white people in the U.S., there is a strong need to rationalize or forget or diminish the impact of how our ancestors first decimated the native people on this land and then ripped others from lands far away to come work it for them as slaves. We purposefully destroyed entire families and communities as we did this -- ripping people not just from their homelands but apart from each other to reduce their ability to communicate and organize against their captors. Imagine. We also purposefully prevented people forced into slavery from learning how to read. It was even illegal in some states to teach slaves how to read (12 Years a Slave- a must-see movie--goes into this issue).  While not all whites were directly involved in perpetrating the atrocities of enslavement, and many fought it, we are all now living in its wake.  If you CAN'T SEE how we are still living the legacy of this history, and actively living YOUR life to help change it, then your passivity is helping it to continue along.

I strongly believe there are too many people in our nation who are living in denial about entrenched, institutionalized, and heart-held racism here, and this allows fear to rule and sustains ancient and tired myths about who has value on this earth. It results in a million messages sent every day to people of color, especially black males, most profoundly to boys, that they are "lesser-than," not virtuous or moral beings, simply criminals-in-waiting who do not experience love and pain or deeply yearn for peace. I guess this denial of racism continues because, without it, people will have to acknowledge what role they have been playing in perpetuating the cycles of hate and injustice.  

If you've ever heard me speak at screenings, I often bring up what author Michelle Alexander calls our nation's "silent holocaust": we are systematically under-educating, over-arresting, over-sentencing and over-incarcerating black males to a horrific degree. My guess is there are plenty of people in our nation who would be happy for this to be even worse than it is (those who inspire or perpetrate acts like Charleston), i.e. to see this turn into a holocaust in the more historical sense, but I think many non-black Americans either can't see or are actively ignoring the symbols, precursors, actions and rhetoric that allowed an atrocity such as the Holocaust to extinguish the lives of eleven million people in total (and that allowed genocides to occur in the more recent past in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda and Burundi). In America, our "holocaust" started with slavery and continues today in different forms. Perhaps it is slower and less blunt than what is considered to be a genocide, and fortunately it exists alongside another enlightened reality in which we have as a people twice elected an African-American president and integrated ourselves in most aspects of life. It is different, but it runs along the same atrocious lines. 

So I am going to share a challenge with you that I have made for myself, which is to ask the question: if I were able to go back in time to Germany in the 30s (or Bosnia or Rwanda in the 90s) , knowing what was underway, what would I do? Then ask, what am I doing now?