Today’s young activists are our country’s hope
Henri Parens weeps just once when recounting his escape at age 12 from a Nazi detention camp: upon mentioning his mother, who insisted he flee alone, and who later perished in Auschwitz.
Parens does not dwell on his personal tragedy. Rather, he uses it to inspire others, especially children, to take responsibility for the world they will inherit. “I’m going to talk about the Holocaust, but I don’t want you to just think of the Holocaust, I want you to think of what we human beings to do each other,” the 92-year-old survivor and child psychiatrist tells a class of youngsters in the opening frame of “Zaida,” a stirring documentary about his work with inner-city children of color who, like he, have suffered trauma. Although the trauma that Parens observes in his patients is not war-related, it stems from the very malignant prejudice that killed millions of Jews, including his entire family, and which he has spent his 60-year career working to prevent.
Someone else who has spent years thinking about malignant prejudice is the filmmaker behind “Zaida,” who happens to be Parens’ granddaughter, and, full disclosure, my daughter. Yet, her grandfather’s story only partly motivated Sophie Parens to make this film. The other impetus was her horror over such prejudice; the kind that drove white supremacists to march in Charlottesville; murder 11 Black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston; and nine white Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; and, that, most recently, incited white police officers to murder George Floyd and then Rayshard Brooks, both Black. Such tragedies drive the 24-hour news cycle and social media feeds that Sophie, her fellow millennials, and Gen Z-ers have grown up with. But instead of becoming inured to these events or succumbing to cynicism, they have, like Henri Parens, transformed their rage into a global movement for racial justice. Weeks after Floyd’s and Brooks’ deaths, young people of all races, ethnicities and gender identities continue filling streets across the country, demanding racial justice. They are the force and hope that America needs.
My Boomer generation was once that hope. Indeed, protests of the 1960s spawned a range of social and political change, including the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But these legislative gains fell short: they never dismantled the systemic racism, injustice and violence that define life for Black Americans. They never righted the wrongs of my public-school education, which reminded me every Thanksgiving that the Mayflower brought the Pilgrims to America in 1620 but taught me zilch about The White Lion, the ship that in 1619 brought the first Africans destined for enslavement; about the deadly demise of Reconstruction; the Black codes; the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre; Jim Crow; or, the Great Migration. And, they most certainly did not meaningfully sustain the national spirit of protest that marked my youth.
I’ve tried tapping into that spirit over the years by participating in civil rights protests. But my involvement, though heartfelt, has been limited to a few safe marches on the National Mall in Washington, DC, down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and around my middle-class neighborhood. By treating all people equally, attending peace vigils, raising my children in a racially and ethnically diverse community and, campaigning for Barack Obama, I figured I was doing my part.
But I am starting now by learning, most importantly, that doing my part means owning my ugly unconscious biases — like assuming that any Black woman in my town is a maid or a nanny — and connecting the dots between these pernicious stereotypes and the institutionalized racial injustice that they perpetuate.
Because of Ibram X. Kendi, who notes that, “The heartbeat of racism is denial, and the heartbeat of antiracism is confession,” I am surveilling myself, exposing and eradicating each bias as it appears, like the insidious, creeping mold that it is.
And, because of young activists’ rallying against malicious prejudice in all its forms, I have hope. As Henri Parens tells his young audience, “I need you guys because what happened to me will happen again, unless people like you take on the responsibility of doing something, so that it not happen again.”