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From the Community | Anti-racism requires facing our privilege, not litigating it

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A few months ago, two Jewish counselors in Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Ronald Albucher and Sheila Levin — filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, arguing that the anti-racism training in CAPS had created a hostile environment for them as Jews. As a Jew who works elsewhere at Stanford, I wish they hadn’t filed this complaint — and hope that others on campus will join me in asking them to withdraw it.

According to their complaint, CAPS undertook a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative similar to many underways at workplaces around the country, including universities. As part of this effort, they had groups of white people and people of color talk separately, which is common and recommended by many experts.

Levin complains that she was pressured to join the white group despite not identifying as white. I understand and share her perspective to a certain extent. Though my skin is white, I’ve never identified as such.

In my mind, I’m still an outsider like my grandparents, immigrant kids who grew up in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But society sees me differently.

I first learned this when I was 19. Home from college, I went to protest then-Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who was speaking to a small crowd in my NJ hometown. I started yelling at him, asking why he thought Haitian refugees on boats should be barred from our shores and was able to get fairly close.

A few well-dressed men with earpieces asked me to step away from the candidate. Thinking they were private security, I did not comply. Only when they flashed their badges and ushered me into the back of a van did I realize they were Secret Service.

They took me to the local police station, where they started the booking process and took my mug shot. Then my dad showed up. He explained that I was a “bright young man” going to a fancy college, and they would not want to ruin my future. They released me to my dad with no arrest, no record. They saw me as white and therefore both safe and worth saving.

Two years earlier and just twenty miles away, several other bright young men around my age had been taken to the police station after a jogger was raped in Central Park. Unlike me, they had done nothing to attract law enforcement attention, but at a time when the media was filled with stories of young Black men committing crimes, their parents were not allowed to take them home. Their lives were damaged forever.

Several of the key events described in Albucher and Levin’s complaint take place in May 2020. But they leave out an important event from that time: on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered. And the nation accelerated a long-overdue reckoning with the ongoing damage that racism is doing to our society.

Albucher and Levin complain that two incidents of anti-Semitism at Stanford were ignored by the DEI committee. To be sure, the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S., including on college campuses, is real and disturbing. But it is different in kind than the racism that people of color have to navigate every day.

It is frankly embarrassing for Albucher and Levin to double down on their complaints — even after George Floyd’s death — by saying they don’t feel “safe” having these discussions with their colleagues. Talk to a Black Stanford parent or student about their safety concerns, and then think again about the use of that word to describe your own experience. My son just started driving, but I don’t have to worry whether if pulled over, he will make it out alive. Jewish students at Stanford don’t have to worry about being targeted by campus police.

To be sure, the adoption of Palestinian rights as a cause by people and groups dedicated to combatting anti-Black racism in the U.S. can make things uncomfortable for Jews on campus. It’s wrong to hold individual American Jews responsible for policies of the Israeli government or think of Jews as racist for supporting the idea of a Jewish state. But nor can we simply equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, or point to uncomfortable questions about how Zionism has played out in Israel as reason for immunity from facing our white privilege in the U.S.

As an elite educational institution, Stanford is soaked in white privilege and needs to work to attract people of color as faculty, students and staff. But now Albucher and Levin have invited a national organization — through their lawyers — to turn Stanford into a cause célèbre for resistance to anti-racism training. Not exactly a great signal to send to people of color who might be considering making Stanford their home.

I don’t know if Albucher and Levin understand the irony of filing this complaint about a training that began with Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility.” But their response is textbook. As DiAngelo explains, one of the unspoken “rules of engagement” she has learned in discussing racism with white people is this: “Highlighting my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience…We will then need to turn our attention to how you oppressed me.”

Perhaps the CAPS DEI program could have been run or framed in a way that was more appealing to people of all backgrounds. But I suspect that most Jews will have a less fragile response to anti-racism training than Albucher and Levin did. After all, we’ve been oppressed for thousands of years, but today — in 21st century America, in the Bay Area — we’re doing OK. We can handle it. And I imagine many Jews at Stanford are willing to face our privilege and try to make things better.

Jason Solomon is the executive director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession and a lecturer at Stanford Law School. The views he expresses here are his own.

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