Barack Obama's Election Heralds a Fresh Chapter in Jewish and African-American Relations, One Written by a New Generation of Leaders

By Epstein, Nadine | Moment, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Barack Obama's Election Heralds a Fresh Chapter in Jewish and African-American Relations, One Written by a New Generation of Leaders


Epstein, Nadine, Moment


It was a hot July day on the Jersey Shore in 1970. I was riding waves on my raft a few blocks from my house when I noticed smoke rising from the nearby city of Asbury Park. Being a curious kid, I hopped on my bike and pedaled to its source. Peering around patrol cars and fire engines into the impoverished black business district, I saw burned-out buildings and looted shops. The city's reputation was marred, triggering a white exodus.

This riot was part of the great civil unrest sweeping the United States at the time. I knew little then about the pent-up frustrations of urban blacks or the complexities of race relations, but I was old enough to pick up on the ambivalence some Jews felt toward African-Americans.

They carefully avoided driving through black parts of town, shook their heads at the mention of Black Power and privately used the Yiddish word schvartze. At the same time, they considered themselves staunch liberals and believed in legal, social and economic equality for African-Americans.

Much later I learned Jews had been among the civil rights movement's strongest supporters and were numbered among the founders and main benefactors of the NAACP and other groups. That partnership between races, forged over the century, was severely tested during the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. My personal education took place in Chicago. During the 1980s I lived in Hyde Park, then, as now, an integrated oasis on the city's South Side, once heavily Jewish but then and now largely black.

As a young reporter, I regularly traversed the large swaths of the city that had been decimated by riots and wrote about poverty, crime and hopelessness. The Robert Taylor Homes, the giant housing project, awaited those who could no longer find jobs. Gangs proliferated. Inner city institutions, especially schools, were struggling to cope.

It was a time of larger-than-life African-American political personalities. I covered Jesse Jackson at the South Side headquarters of Operation Push, housed in a former synagogue left behind when Jews fled to the suburbs. I wrote about Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, another neighbor. My time in Chicago overlapped with that of the city's first black mayor, the late Harold Washington, who lived down the street from me and whose steps I was regularly assigned to follow.

Now we have the nation's first African-American president--whose home is in that very same Hyde Park--moving into the White House. To me, his election heralds a fresh chapter in Jewish and African-American relations, one written by a new generation of leaders. Barack Obama won the presidency with the support of Jews who held high leadership positions in his campaign and provided financial backing. …

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