Getting it Right in Defining Racism
As an organization founded at the onset of the 20th century, ADL has weathered massive moments of change including the Holocaust and world wars, domestic unrest, economic upheaval, and more. Along the way, ADL has helped to make America a safer place for the Jewish people and for all marginalized communities. I take pride in its accomplishments such as standing up for equal rights for Black Americans long before the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s or calling out recent presidential candidates for their poisonous rhetoric towards marginalized/underrepresented communities to providing the training that helped a rabbi and his worshippers survive a hostage ordeal at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas last month.
At ADL, our founding charter is our true north, originally written in 1913 and unchanged for more than 100 years. As our founders imagined, our mission is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment to all. They tied together these ideas because they believed that the Jewish community would not be safe unless all marginalized communities were safe. And we believe that no one should be persecuted, demeaned or discriminated against because of their identity, whether that’s a matter of faith, race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, etc. That goes for government actions as well as personal actions. People should be judged by who they are, what they have accomplished, and their innate potential.
This belief fuels our commitment to call out antisemitism and interrupt intolerance whenever it happens and whoever might be responsible. We do this work irrespective of partisanship or politics, focusing on right and wrong. And as we do this work, we try to adapt to the times, but we certainly don’t always get it right.
Sometimes these errors are small — an errant comment, a poorly worded press release, or maybe a failed partnership. And sometimes these errors are big, such as not recognizing a clear case of genocide or feeding the flames of anti-Muslim bias as happened with the Cordoba House controversy.
But all of them hurt.
As a case study, take ADL’s definition of racism. A few years ago, ADL updated our definition to reflect that racism in the United States manifests in broader and systemic ways and to explicitly acknowledge the targeting of people of color — among many others — by the white supremacist extremism we have tracked for decades. While this is true, this new frame narrowed the meaning in other ways. And, by being so narrow, the resulting definition was incomplete, rendering it ineffective and therefore unacceptable. It’s true, it’s just not the whole truth. It alienated many people who did not see their own experience encompassed in this definition, including many in the Jewish community.
In all honesty, as I re-read it this past week, it struck me that it didn’t even speak to my own family’s experience with the racism they experienced as Jews from the Middle East.
Many people noticed the change and called it out, taking to Twitter to vent their feelings. Some of these critics were allies operating in good faith who wanted us to do better. There also were numerous detractors who seized upon this issue as confirmation of a sinister plot to promote a political agenda or stop fighting antisemitism altogether. This certainly isn’t true, but with enough outrage and an Internet browser, a zealot can “uncover” a conspiracy in every digital breadcrumb.
And yet, even tough moments can be opportunities for introspection and improvement. Indeed, since we are entrusted with the safety of the community, we don’t have much margin for error. We need to acknowledge the issues so we can address them.
First and foremost, after internal consultation and external engagement, we updated the definition on our site, drawing upon the research of Professor Robert Livingston of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University and what he calls his “simple definition”:
Racism occurs when individuals or institutions show more favorable evaluation or treatment of an individual or group based on race or ethnicity.
Professor Livingston, as he notes in his book, took great care in developing his simple definition to allow room for, among other examples, “German racism against the Jews, Greeks or Turks.” Even as we make this change, effective immediately, we intend to use this framework as a jumping off point, and will continue to review not only this page but each of our definitions. Additionally, we are going to conduct an after-action analysis to review how we develop all of our definitions in terms of process and culture.
But we aren’t going to make this entirely an internal affair. This moment offers an opportunity to experiment and learn. And so, we are going to open ourselves to comments on our new definition of racism from the public. We are going to invite feedback at adl.org/comments, a new page we have developed specifically to take ideas in a productive fashion and move beyond the mindless trolling on social media. This page probably will evolve and improve over time, but I hope it will serve as a platform for discussion, one that will elicit constructive outside input rather than rely solely on ourselves or even solely on the outside experts to whom we will also reach out. In short, we know we will not get everything right and there is much more to do — and we hope this is a productive way for you to share your views with ADL about our definition of racism — or anything else you find on our website that needs review.
By all indications, our country is as divided today as at any point in our collective memory. It is not a matter of “bothsidesing” to acknowledge that there are well meaning people who take different positions on the same issues, whether they identify as Republican or Democratic, Conservative or Progressive. So we will do our best to listen to all sides as we move forward.
Unfortunately I suspect that this very statement of fact will inflame partisans on both sides who claim a monopoly on morality. And I fully expect that, no matter what measures we introduce, some will castigate ADL as too liberal even as others simultaneously slam us as too conservative. This is predictable. But I can promise that we will try to remain apolitical so that we remain rooted in firm principles not the faddish politics of the moment.
This means that we will be unrelenting in our work to defend the Jewish people, calling out whomever might defame or discriminate against any in our community and engaging with those willing to learn. We will mobilize in support of other marginalized communities, rallying against anti-black racism, anti-Asian hate, xenophobia, anti-Muslim bias and other forms of identity-based hate. We will create inclusive spaces for Jews of color along with Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews whose experiences and stories too often have not been heard both inside our own community and within the larger society.
We will build alliances, even with unlikely allies, if they share our values and want to advance our mission. We will fight back against the rising tide of extremism that directly threatens all vulnerable communities, whether it manifests as right-wing violence at the US Capitol or left-wing violence in Times Square or radical Islamist-inspired violence at a synagogue in Texas.
We will advocate for America and our democracy because it is the most pluralistic and resilient form of government in the history of the world. We won’t pull our punches on the danger of the Big Lie or mythologizing January 6 as anything other than a treacherous act of domestic terror. We will operate as an unapologetic advocate for Zionism for which, after millennia of suffering and cruelties at the hands of majoritarian populations in Europe and the Middle East, Jews do not need to apologize. And we’re not about to stop calling out the evil antisemitic tropes or the ugly bias motivating the many who delegitimize the only Jewish state in the world.
In summary, we will respond to the rise of hate by scaling what works even as we address our shortcomings so we can be even more effective. With a constant focus on culture and some new strategic initiatives, I’m confident we will improve. At the end of the day, enhancing our processes and exposing our positions to ferocious debate and rigorous inquiry won’t weaken our organization. It will make us stronger, battle tested and better prepared for the challenges of these complicated times.