A conversation between two customers in line at a New Jersey supermarket turned ugly when one man denigrated the other with a racial slur and blamed the fellow shopper for the coronavirus pandemic.
With so much else going on these days, it would be so easy to react to such a seemingly minor incident by saying, oh well, these things happen. Times are tough; tempers are short.
But shrugging our shoulders is not an option. Doing so is complicity in wrongful acts that too often are repeated, over and over. Our silence merely emboldens those who would tear apart the fabric of our society, whether through hate or ignorance — or the extremely volatile mix of the two.
It’s not difficult to connect the dots between “little” incidents and the systemic racism that leads to tragedies like the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. When we ignore or accept any examples of people being demeaned over what they look like or where they (or their ancestors) came from, we only open the door for massive abuses and the wrenching reckoning that follows them.
We mustn’t be cowed by fear of being seen as overly sensitive or labeled “politically correct.” This is about being morally and ethically correct in the face of bias and hatred — and that shouldn’t be too much to ask of Americans, regardless of their political party or ideology.
As state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said recently, “COVID-19 is no excuse for racism, xenophobia or hate. Discrimination and harassment in violation of New Jersey law remains illegal even if it occurs against the backdrop of a global pandemic.” It’s gratifying to live in a state where the top law enforcement officer speaks out this way.
Hate crimes on rise
Unfortunately, it also is a state where reported hate crimes are up in recent years. We can’t tolerate such behavior, whether by police, elected officials or “average people.” There is too much at stake for bias to become the new normal.
As the leaders of the major philanthropic and nonprofit membership organizations in New Jersey, representing both the wide range of nonprofit groups and the multifaceted funders of those groups, we feel compelled to speak out against the hateful responses we and our members have witnessed in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our country has seen countless examples of selfless sacrifice and good works over the past weeks, both at individual and institutional levels. We are proud that the members of our organizations have been leaders in responding to the needs of our community.
But to our distress, some individuals are using the pandemic to put forward their bias and hatred toward their fellow citizens.
Times of crisis bring to the surface, on the part of some people, the need to scapegoat. Often, this takes the form of lashing out at particular groups, stirred up by inflamed rhetoric or more subtle code words or phrases, having no relationship to facts. In this time, there have been verbal and physical attacks against people of Asian and Pacific Islander background, as there were against Muslims after September 11 and against African Americans and Latinos in countless other instances. This hatred and these attacks must stop.
The nonprofit sector is the backbone of our communities, providing assistance and education to a wide range of people, in good times and especially in challenging times. Many of these services are a lifeline to people of all backgrounds, religions, ethnicities and statuses in life.
Nonprofit organizations are the vehicle through which people can work together to selflessly assist others. People around the world view the United States as being unique in the breadth and depth of its charitable and philanthropic work, engaging the talents of all individuals, regardless of their economic or social status.
We call upon all people of good conscience in their good work to be alert for hateful words and actions and — always — to speak out against them, both as individuals and as organizations. Our language and our actions do matter.
All of us, and especially people in positions of public trust or prominence, have the obligation to use our works and our lives to assist everyone in need and to honor the dignity and potential of everyone we meet.
We call on not only our own members, but also everyone who serves and volunteers in our sector, to join us in this effort to speak out against racism and hatred and to exemplify all the best that we know our country is.
Linda Czipo is CEO and President of the Center for Non-Profits, and Maria Vizcarrondo is CEO and President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. This commentary is adapted from a joint statement issued by the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers and Center for Non-Profits. Also signing the statement were William V. Engel, CNJG board chair, and Gina M. Plotino, Center for Non-Profits board chair.