“One Left Turn Away from Being George Floyd” – Lonnie G. Bunch III on the Struggle for Racial Justice in America and the Black-Jewish Alliance

On the same week of the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, one of the deadliest acts of racial violence in American history, and just one week after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, AJC hosted a conversation with Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and an AJC Project Interchange alumnus, for a comprehensive discussion on race relations and Black-Jewish cooperation in the United States. 

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Looking back on America’s long trajectory of racial injustice, Bunch noted that “America often fails to live up to its stated ideals,” disenfranchising Black Americans. 

Bunch reflected on some of the most inherent inequities in American society, including inequality in access to education, technology, and housing and the issue of mass incarceration of people of color. Although reparations are often viewed as politicized, Bunch believes that addressing these inequities would be the truest form of reparation. The coronavirus pandemic has further revealed some of the deeply-rooted inequalities within American institutions, as Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the disease due to unequal access to healthcare, residential segregation, and an overrepresentation of Black Americans in the prison system and working on the frontlines as critical workers. 

READ: AJC offers ten pieces of literature, journalism, and film to help American Jews understand what’s at stake. Just as antisemitism is a societal problem for all people—not just Jews—to counter, all Americans must come together to combat racism.

Although much attention has been given to the destruction and looting surrounding the protests throughout the country, Bunch asserted that “protest is the highest form of patriotism,” and that the ultimate goal of the protests is to remember George Floyd and call to attention to racial injustice in America. 

Bunch discussed how these protests can be utilized to create profound change. He also spoke of the parallels and differences between the current protests and those of the civil rights movement. “The parallel is that this has happened many times, but can we use it to be part of that long marathon of transformation” as opposed to a sprint, he said.

America has a long history of attempts to reinvigorate the civil rights movement and confront racial injustice through legislation, protests, and the courts (A study commissioned by AJC was cited in the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision that ended segregation in public schools. Read our press release from 1954). Bunch views the current demonstrations across the country as somewhat disconnected and lacking in strategy. Furthermore, he asserted that America is lacking political leadership. Bunch is encouraged, however, by the diversity of people coming together because “collective ownership is part of the key to moving forward,” he said. He is also inspired by the actions of some police chiefs and local mayors, including the Minneapolis police chief who announced in a press conference that all of the officers present at the time of George Floyd’s death were culpable. “To me, that gives me some hope that we are seeing that change… I want to see that change being embraced by the political leadership at all levels,” said Bunch.

READ: AJC’s statement on the killing of George Floyd and the pursuit of racial justice.

Some claim that since many Black Americans, such as Bunch and President Barack Obama, have reached success in their careers, the system clearly works for all Americans. Bunch’s response is that we cannot rely on the exceptions to the rule. He is more concerned about those that are left behind that should have had the same opportunities as he did. “When you look at the totality of the African American experience,” he said, “what I realize is that I am one left turn away from being George Floyd.”

The conversation also touched on the past and present state of Black-Jewish relations. Although our two communities sometimes find ourselves on opposite sides when it comes to Israel, Bunch emphasized the necessity to find common ground. Black and Jewish Americans face common enemies, such as racism from the far right. “We have to remember what we share in common and make clear that, through common unity, we can affect profound changes,” he said.