Fighting Covid-19 and Racism With the Same Tools

By Aaron Weil

We are living through one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history. If the ravages of Covid-19 weren’t bad enough, we were then thrust head-first into the greatest economic shock in our nation’s history, surpassing even the Great Depression by some measurements. Most recently, our nation has been torn apart by the pain and realization that what happened to George Floyd represents something even more dangerous than the previous impacts combined: the unaddressed ravages of unchecked racism in our society that threatens the very social fabric that holds this nation together.

Paradoxically, we can deploy the same tool that is being used to address Covid-19 to fight racism in our nation: education to change human behavior. We have heard for years that racism is not a biological condition but a learned behavior. Humans aren’t born to hate; we must teach hatred in order for our youth to learn to hate, and they must be taught to fear, for we are not born to fear people either. 

At Central Florida Hillel, we recently started to reopen our facility, in line with new state reopening guidelines. After three attempts, we realized that it wasn’t working. Our initial assumption was that all we needed to do was share safe distancing and disinfecting protocols and then our office would become a safe space. 

But as a recent article entitled “The Psychology of Wearing a Face Mask” pointed out, human behaviors are based on psychology, and until we address the underlying psychological issues behind the reticence to wear a mask, we cannot hope to be successful at evolving human behaviors.

Racism is no different. Our nation has tried in the past to legislate “tolerance” (an admittedly very low bar) with changes to the Constitution. The 1964 Civil Rights Act made significant legislative changes and yet we still find ourselves with a problem that feels as bad today as previous times in our nation’s history. 

Eradicating racism cannot successfully be done by laws alone. To evolve our nation, we need to address the psychological underpinnings of racism and create educational opportunities to learn new ways of seeing “the other” among us. Just as our leaders are learning that legislation alone will not get a nation’s citizenry to change their behaviors on mask wearing and social distancing, we at Hillel understand that rules and regulations are not enough. We must address the underlying psychological foundations of racism, of exclusionary politics and its impact on the neighbors we see, as much as its impact on the neighbors we will never meet.

During the summer months, Central Florida Hillel will be meeting with students from all backgrounds at the University of Central Florida to help our students learn what their peers of color are experiencing, feeling, and fearing and why they are hurting and feeling so angry. 

As Jews, we know all too well where this insensitivity towards injustice can lead and thus our voices need to be among the loudest. We can understand frustrations about not being seen, as Jews were the victims of more hate crimes last year than any other minority group in the U.S. We know the fear, hopelessness and anger, and that feeling that nobody cares about our community and its history. 

Now is the time to stand together with those who are suffering in our midst and are, quite simply, not feeling safe. As Jews, it is not only incumbent upon us to act, it is a moral, theological and ethical responsibility.

Like so many gardens that have sowed the seeds of change that have impacted our nation over the years, the college campuses will not only create the next generation of leaders, but they are also the breeding grounds from where the next generation of trends will emerge. Thus, it is necessary that college campuses be at the forefront of creating citizens who will put on a mask just as easily as they are willing to see beyond it.

We have learned through trial and error that politicians alone cannot defeat the teachings of hatred. Now is that time for all of us to focus on education.  If a nation that practically never wore masks can learn in a relatively short time to put them on, then we can also learn about our own racism and how we might begin to operationalize anti-racist behaviors. 

Aaron Weil is the Executive Director and CEO of Central Florida Hillel which serves over 6,000 Jewish undergraduate students at The University of Central Florida, the largest undergraduate institution in the United States.