As I wrote in Part I, what struck me about the cruelty that Black people experience in America, from slavery times to today’s police murders, is its resemblance to the pogroms my forebears fled.
My parents and grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States hoping for both safety and prosperity in the goldene medina, the land where the streets were supposedly paved with gold. They did encounter anti-Semitism in this country—my aunt Helen changed her name to a Polish one so she could get a job, and my accountant cousin Fred moved to California because Wall Street wouldn’t hire Jews—but they weren’t afraid for their lives. After suffering through the Great Depression, Jews prospered along with the rest of the white working class during the post-World War II boom times.
In recent years, though, anti-Semitism in America—including violent attacks and mass shootings—has spiked. According to Voice of America, “In New York City, home to the largest Jewish population in the U.S., nearly half of all reported hate crimes involved Jewish victims, with the total number of anti-Semitic criminal incidents jumping 31% to a record high of 271.”
However, in comparing anti-Semitism with the anti-Black racism in America, it is most important to remember that Jews do not experience police violence as a result of their ethnicity. Jewish parents don’t have “the talk” with their children, a discussion nowadays focused, in Black families, on how to stay safe while interacting with law enforcement. Most of the Jews I’ve known, except those of us who were gay, have regarded the police as an agency they could call upon for protection, and not as an instrument of persecution.
My friend Carolyn’s forebears did not come by choice. For 246 years, from the arrival of the first African captives in 1619 to the end of the Civil War in 1865, the overwhelming majority of her people were enslaved. (A few were granted or managed to purchase their freedom, or escaped.) I find it almost unbearable to read about the cruelties inflicted on those held in chattel slavery—whippings, rapes, murder, sales of babies away from their mothers’ breasts—but if certain politicians have their way, books telling the truth about those cruelties will be banned from schools and libraries.
In 1862, during the Civil War, in an attempt to end slavery, Lincoln offered the owners in Southern states a monetary compensation for their “property,” but all the states refused. Eventually, he signed a law giving them an average of $300 per released individual—the equivalent of $8,886 today. This only applied to the District of Columbia, since Congress defeated the bill that would have applied it to the other states. The money came from the government, which means from the taxpayer. Essentially it was ransom paid to those who had benefited from the exploitation of slave labor, while giving nothing to the victims.
After the Civil War we had a brief period of Reconstruction, an attempt to give equal rights to the newly freed men. (Not to the women of course, no matter what their race. We still don’t have the Equal Rights Amendment.) And then, starting in 1877, came the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, legal and de facto segregation, the chain gangs and convict leasing, election poll taxes and “literacy tests,” redlining in real estate, laws penalizing crack cocaine (used primarily by Black people) 100 times more severely than for powder cocaine (used predominantly by whites), stop and frisk of mostly young men of color, mass incarceration…and murder by cop.
A 1990 law authorized the FBI to collect hate crime statistics. I spent some hours perusing that agency’s reports, from 1996 to 2021, and preparing the chart at the end of this post. (The numbers from 2022 aren’t available yet.) Alas, their statistics are dubious. First, they are based on information from local law enforcement, and thousands of those agencies don’t even participate in the program. Of those that do participate, 88% said, incredibly, that they had no hate crimes in their jurisdiction. And about half the victims of hate crimes—like victims of rape—never report to the authorities.
Of course, law enforcement agencies do not consider any beatings and murders by police to be hate crimes.
Moreover, the Department of Justice said that the overall number of agencies reporting in 2021 decreased from 15,138 previously to 11,834 currently, “so data cannot reliably be compared across years.” And, per the Voice of America News (itself a government-owned entity), for 2021 the FBI report excluded data for New York City, Chicago and most of California.
Still, pathetic as they may be, the FBI statistics do show some trends. Black people are only about 13.6% of the United States population, yet around two-thirds of reported hate crimes were racially motivated, and around two-thirds of those were directed against Black people. Jews are an even smaller demographic, about 2.4% of the population, but about a sixth of reported hate crimes were motivated by perceived religious affiliation, and around two-thirds of those were directed against Jews. This has been consistent over the decades.
As I observed in Part I, when we combine the level of reported hate crimes against Black people with police violence against them, we have what I can only understand as an ongoing pogrom.
Nevertheless, despite the persistence of virulent racism—and anti-Semitism—in America, there has been some progress. In my lifetime I saw the end of legal segregation. In 1990, my junior high school ceased being called after slave owner John Marshall, and was renamed after a Black educator, Mary McLeod Bethune. All over the country, statues of Confederate generals are coming down.
Name changes and public monuments are, of course, only symbols, just a part of the public discourse—but that discourse shapes attitudes. It was no accident that when Trump kept referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus,” hate crimes against Asian-Americans increased by 150%.
I still have hope. I want to live long enough to see the realization of the Dream.
* * *
Below is a chart I created, based on the FBI’s annual reports.
FBI Hate crime statistics:
Total hate crime Total racially Total religiously
Year Incidents motivated % anti-Black motivated % anti-Jewish
2021 7,262 4,706 63.2 1,005 31.9*
2020 8,263 5,227 54.9 1,244 54.9
2019 7,314 4,930 48.5 1,715 60.2
2018 7,120 5,155 47.1 1,617 56.9
2017 7,171 6,050 48.6 1,749 58.1
2016 6,121 4,426 50.2 1,584 54.4
2015 5,850 4,216 52.2 1,402 52.1
2014 5,479 3,227 62.7 1,140 56.8
2013 5,928 3,563 66.5 1,223 60.3
2012 5,796 3,467 66.2 1,340 62.4
2011 6,222 3,645 71.9 1,480 63.2
2010 6,628 3,949 70.0 1,552 67.0
2009 6,604 4,057 71.5 1,575 71.9
2008 7,783 4,934 72.9 1,732 66.1
2007 7,624 4,956 69.3 1,628 69.2
2006 7,722 5,020 66.4 1,750 65.4
2005 7,163 4,895 67.9 1,405 69.5
2004 7,649 4,863 67.5 1,480 67.8
2003 7,489 3,844 66.3 1,343 69.0
2002 7,462 3,642 68.3 1,426 65.3
2001 9,730 4,367 66.4 1,828 57.1
2000 8,063 4,337 66.5 1,472 75.3
1999 7,876 4,295 68.9 1,411 78.6
1998 7,755 4,321 67.1 1,390 77.8
1997 8,049 4,710 66.2 1,385 78.5
1996 8,759 5,398 68.1 1,401 79.2
*As noted above, 2021 was the year the FBI excluded data from New York, Chicago, and most of California, all of which have high percentages of Jews.
Thank you for this very comprehensive and personal essay.