How Should We Define “Systemic Racism”?

If we want to live in a more equitable society, we have to confront the reality of systemic otherism.

Every spring, on the first night of Passover, Jewish families all over the world gather around the dining room table to reenact and reexperience the exodus from Egypt. This year will mark the 3,333rd anniversary of the Jews’ emancipation from slavery.

According to rabbinic tradition, the Jews were enslaved for 116 of the 210 years they dwelled in Egypt. And for the final 86 years, they were subjected to backbreaking, spirit-breaking, soul-crushing labor.

Even after the exodus, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. The Jews were sentenced to wander through the wilderness for 40 years because they failed to live up to the responsibilities that come with freedom.

And then, once they settled the land of Israel and established self-rule, the nation was constantly embattled against the surrounding nations — the Canaanites, the Moabites, the Midianites, the Philistines, and more.

Further still, in the waning days of the Jewish monarchy, the Israelites were conquered by the Assyrians, and later by the Babylonians, after which they were ruled over by the Persians, the Greeks, the Syrians, and the Romans, who scattered them across the face of the earth. Their persecution continued at the hands of Crusaders, Almohads, Inquisitionists, Cossacks, Ottomans, Tsarists, Soviets, and Nazis.

Without question, the Jews are the most persecuted people in the history of the world.

Leave the Past in the Past?

But what effect does all that history have on the life of a typical Jew today? What does any of it have to do with me? The isolated outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence are hideous and deeply disturbing. But they are isolated. Most Western Jews go about their lives feeling secure and comfortable with their place in the modern world.

Nevertheless, remembering the exodus remains of paramount importance. Because if we don’t learn the lessons of the past, we won’t find our way from the present into the future.

This is a mindset deeply embedded in Jewish tradition. It is part of the prophecy revealed to Abraham, the first Jew, and revisited by generations of prophets across the centuries:

Your descendants will be small in number, scattered to the four corners of the world, despised and persecuted among the nations.

In other words, it was foretold from the earliest times that the Jews would suffer at the hands of systemic anti-Semitism. Which has led countless observers, historians, and social scientists to ask:

How have the Jews survived for over 3000 years?

It’s not by dwelling on the persecution of the past. It’s by retaining a knowledge and understanding of history that produces an awareness of identity, an awareness that has empowered Jews throughout the generations with a sense of purpose and mission. We only look backward so that we can find our way forward.

Except when we don’t.

During his run for president, Senator Bernie Sanders was asked what his Jewish identity meant to him. He answered with one word — the Holocaust. And the sad irony is that there’s a term for exactly that: Holocaust Jew.

It’s not a compliment. It means a Jew who has forgotten everything about who he is except the most recent episode in a seemingly endless history of attempted genocides. It means a Jew who has accepted upon himself the status of victim. And that’s exactly the opposite of the outlook Judaism teaches.

What is freedom? Freedom means empowerment and responsibility. It calls on us to reject slave mentality and victim mentality. Yes, the Almighty saved us from oppressors. But now it is our job to save ourselves. It’s a job we have to face every day of our lives. And If we continue to think of ourselves as victims, we will never succeed in our pursuit of a higher calling.

A Common History

The story of African Americans, though not as long as the story of the Jews, is every bit as oppressive, every bit as dehumanizing, every bit as soul-crushing and spirit-crushing. Kidnapped from their homes and their homelands, sold like chattel, worked like animals, treated like second-class citizens even after they were freed — it’s a stain upon European and American history. And, as we know, the effects weigh upon the black community to this day.

The question is, what can we do about it now? Do we hold great-great-grandchildren responsible for the sins of their white ancestors? Do we exempt great-great-grandchildren from personal responsibility because of the mistreatment of their black forebears?

What about whites and blacks who came to the shores of America long after slavery had ended? Are they and their children considered victims and oppressors merely because of the color of their skin? Isn’t that a formula for perpetuating victim mentality, for fanning the flames of resentment and tribalism that threaten the stability of our society?

Do we still believe in Dr. King’s dream of a better future in which all people are judged by the content of their character? Or has that kind of colorblindness become politically incorrect?

If we want to move forward, we have to face two very inconvenient truths:

First: we can’t fix every problem. There will always be racists, anti-Semites, misogynists, and people who hate. Second: the bigger the problem, the harder, slower, and more complicated, the solution. There is no quick fix.

The great sage Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the job, but neither are you free to neglect it. Since we have to start somewhere, perhaps the first step should be to carefully define our terms. What do we mean by systemic racism?

By Another Name

We can’t mean that the legal or governmental or economic system is intentionally racist. If it were, the United States would never have had a two-term black president, a black vice president-elect, two black secretaries of state, a black national security advisor, attorney general and UN ambassador, two black supreme court justices, black college presidents, black CEOs, and on and on.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Thank you for your words Yonason. You are a wonderful man of great wisdom.Your term “otherism” is exactly why I despise generalities. We’re able to place other people in buckets, when if we talked to them, we’d find out how individualistic they all are.

    I’m grateful to have exposure to your teachings. Thank you for using your voice so powerfully.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, JoAnna. Labels are useful as starting points, but they are wicked when we use them to imprison one another. Getting to know people as individuals is hard work, sometimes scary, but often surprising and frequently serendipitous.

      I’m glad we’re allies in the culture wars.

  2. Yonason, great insights!

    And in point of fact . . . action . . . all doing . . . happens in the present. So . . .

    We can only begin in the present moment…

    And if we fail to do so, the troubles will continue to grow, passed from now’s generations to the next. Ever onward.

    Looking at “Who are we?” has great impact. For when you know your own values — you can be open to connecting.

    Connecting can deepen respect. And lead to a level and span of communication that’s been lacking due in part to the oh-so-many -isms of society.

    Otherism is a good word here…

    Your historical background examples help show difficult problem in view of growing forward to solve the environment that keeps it going.



    • It’s always gratifying when readers take my words to heart, Cynthia. I’m glad to have you as a partner in combat all the caustic isms that threaten our peace and harmony. May we preserve our humanity and spread it to others.

  3. Yonason, your article is enlightening and much to the point. I don’t know if our society will ever become unified in the way that I remember growing up in the 50’s, where you could ride your bike without fear, perhaps the screen door was never locked, that what was taught in school was the history of our existence, not blaming anyone who disagreed with us, where sitting down at the table with the family brought converstaiton and teachings. Where you looked and saw how others suffered, and yet Americans were willing to help those outside the US, even those within, but now the mindset that has evolved is one of selfishness, greed and power. That will change things not for the good, but for the evil. Still, with all that being said, many of us who carry the faith in God have hope and know that good will overcome evil. Still, compassion, love and kindness needs to come from all who want peace.

    • Thanks for your lovely comment, Lynn. We need faith in the Almighty and faith in ourselves. I believe that things are not as bad as the media portrays them, but their vision of chaos and intractable division may become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we don’t reclaim the values you describe. All we can do is our best. I’m grateful for voices like yours that move the needle in the right direction.

  4. Dear Yonason,

    That was one of the most direct, straight to the point; a strong but gentle description of reality. There is still much that needs talking about, addressing and openly aired and you have opened a door; not wide open, but sufficiently to create a dialogue. An understanding; genuine empathy. Thank you for sharing such wisdom. Having read your other articles, you certainly do fly a flag of Peace and Kindness and where there is an overall longing for those ideals they could become a reality.

salon 360°