by Dr. Steve Burnstein, 222
Born and raised in the largely Jewish, predominantly Caucasian Logan section of Philadelphia, we counted six synagogues that represented three denominations of Judaism, all within a relatively small area. We even had a ritual bath, or mikvah, in the neighborhood. In my class at the Logan elementary school, there was a single student of color and every one of our neighbors on the street where I grew up was white. It was not until I matriculated at Central that I experienced racial and ethnic diversity for the first time. This was as much a part of my Central education as the subjects I studied.
By referencing concurrent, but similar events it is not difficult to establish the motivation for George Floyd’s odious treatment and his groundless killing by officers of the Minneapolis police department on May 26, 2020. In fact, both were predictable and Mr. Floyd’s murder was a carbon copy of prior heinous actions by police that were documented in the senseless killings of Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri, 2014), Walter Wallace (Philadelphia, 2020) and so many other African Americans. Equally revelatory to me was the fact that more African Americans died in police shootings during 2019 than in protests related to Mr. Floyd’s killing the next year1. Racism had been a scourge throughout history, but it was not until the 17th century that it reared its ugly head in the United States as slaves were brought to the Americas from Africa and the Caribbean in chains.
Our three sons grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a neighborhood whose demographics were predominantly white. Perhaps, the fact that Logan was so homogeneous made Cherry Hill seem diverse. Nevertheless, it was not unusual for me to come home to what my wife described as “the United Nations of Cherry Hill,“ our sons at the kitchen table engaged with their friends in conversation and attempting to empty our refrigerator. I do not recall ever being witness to a racist incident that involved them or their friends.
Shortly after George Floyd’s death, our youngest son, Keith, age 40, asked me if I acknowledged racism and considered it to be a long standing and serious societal problem. Although I felt that his two-pronged question was rhetorical, my answer was, of course, “yes.” Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was already active in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in New Orleans where he lives. This did not surprise me, but his next question caught me off guard. “Dad, since you attest to the existence of racism and its negative effect on society, do you feel that you might harbor some racist beliefs yourself?” I never considered this to be a problem until my son posed his question and thereby demonstrated how easy it had been for me not to think of myself as racist.
Despite the fact that my Father often made racist comments, I thought I’d been successful in avoiding their influence, never feeling that his intention was to have me agree with his opinions or to emulate his behavior. Perhaps, I was naïve by attempting to change his ingrained beliefs, but I never gave up .
Nevertheless, encountering a group of African American men on the street at night results in a reflex, fearful emotion that I first experienced as a child. I have always regretted this, but still have difficulty controlling it.
In a subsequent conversation, my son asked me how I might become a voice that decries racism. “OK, Dad, since you acknowledge that racism is widespread and hurtful and that it has had an effect on you, what are you going to do?” As the result of some self examination and after the consideration of various options, I decided to become involved in the BLM movement at Central. Several AACHS board members joined me on a committee in order to respond to problems at the school whose genesis seemed to be related to matters of racial equity and inclusion. Our focus would be to draw upon the resources of AACHS to help in providing a more comfortable atmosphere for the students through a partnership with faculty, alumni and administration.
A group of talented and dedicated AACHS Board members began to meet and collaborate with existing BLM groups such as Central Alumni for Black Lives (CABL), Black Lancers and The African American Student Union) AASU. Working with fellow board members Alana McGill, 256, Marisa Block, 265, Cecil Johnson, 244, Josh Liss, 247 and AACHS President Chuck Steinberg, 221, has been a productive and satisfying endeavor resulting in the publication of information on the goals and objectives of the AACHS Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and plans for several projects. A relationship with the bright and enthusiastic members of CABL has generated many ideas to benefit students who are currently impacted not only by problems with racism, but also by the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of AASU and the Black Lancers have offered invaluable suggestions and insight. We are now working with Elizabeth Williams Wesley, Director of Equity and Inclusion at the school, most notably in an effort to increase the matriculation of African American students which was recently found to have decreased. As always, President Tim McKenna is utilizing his leadership skills to assure that the students continue to experience the kind of education and conducive environment that brought them to the school.
AACHS has given myself and my colleagues the opportunity to support a cause that merits careful and deliberate consideration and encourages participation by all, irrespective of race or ethnicity. That cause is the elimination of systemic racism and its replacement with programs that support diversity, equity and inclusion.
Activities of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee
- BOM Members working with CABL, AASU and Black Lancers
- Membership: Steve Burnstein, Josh Liss, Alana McGill, Cecil Johnson, Marisa Block, Chuck Steinberg
Goals and Projects
- Expand the number of people of color on the AACHS board by helping the nominations committee to identify and recruit graduates who worked with AACHS as students +/or have interest in joining the board or one of its committees
- Create an alumni network offering students information on careers, undergraduate and graduate education
- Work with President McKenna, the CHS DEI Director and others to increase the number of African-American student matriculants and help to assure their success at the school
- Help CABL, AASU and Black Lancers to achieve their goals and offer assistance with their projects as a coalition including the Committee on DEI
- Eliminate any and all systemic racism at the school
Author’s Note: My love and profound thanks to Keith, our dear son. Remembering my Dad with love and respect
Footnote: (1) USA Today; MacDonald et al. 7/6/20