The speech

Full text and recording of Van Jones’ speech at the UJA-Federation Wall Street Dinner

On Monday, Dec. 5, CNN host Van Jones delivered the keynote address at the UJA-Federation of New York Wall Street Dinner in New York City. Below is a recording of the speech followed by its full text.

I am going to start off with an apology. 

I’m going to start off with an apology for the silence of my community and for the speech of my profession. 

When we were hit as a Black community with appalling anti-Black bigotry and racism that the whole world saw on a video, we expected and insisted that everyone stand and roar back against that hatred, and people did. By the tens of millions, people marched in a pandemic — by the tens of millions — non-black people, to say, “We will not accept this sort of racism, this sort of violence, this sort of hatred on this planet.” People marched by the millions. 

And yet, as this wave of hatred has been building against your community, we have rationalized over and over and over again, responding not with a roar, but often with barely a squeak, and sometimes a shrug. As a result, we now have the shock to you, the pain to you, and the humiliation to us of having an African-American icon praising Hitler and Nazis. And we act like we don’t know where the hatred came from. 

And I want to say very clearly: When it was a drip, we did not turn it off. And now it is a flood. And I want to say to you, I apologize for the silence of my community. The silence is over. And I want to say to Kanye, who I know: Ye, nay! Ye, nay! Ye, nay! Ye, nay! No more, no more, no more. 

You have awoken in this community a determination to stand up for what’s right. And I apologize it’s been this long in coming. You’re going to see a change going forward. You’re seeing it already — the fight back now happening in the Black community against anti-Jewish bigotry, the pride that people have in standing up against this anti-Jewish bigotry in our community. But I owe you an apology before I say anything else. 

I also owe you an apology for the speech of my profession. The media, of which I’m a part and a proud part, has done all of us a disservice. Because we have managed, I think, to convince you of something that’s not true.

I think we’ve managed to convince the country of something about itself that’s just not true. If you watch cable news, if you watch the mainstream media — right, left or otherwise, you will come away with a perception that there are so many awful people in this country that nothing good can be done.

If you’re on the right, you’ll think there’s so many awful socialists and race card players and woke supremacists that nothing good can get done. If you’re on the left, you’ll come to the conclusion that there are too many Republicans that are all bigots and that all are greedy and all hateful, and nothing can get done. If you’re Black you’ll say there are too many white folks who are either consciously or unconsciously racist. If you’re white, you’ll say there are too many Black folks who want to play the race card, and it’s just too many awful people and nothing can get done.

And what I want to say to you is, that is not the truth. Yes, there are some awful people in every group and community. It’s true. It’s the small problem that we have, though. It’s the smallest problem that we have.

The biggest problem is, that in every group that I see, you have so many awesome people who really care. There’s so many awesome Republicans who really care. There’s so many awesome people who really care in every group, every faith, every denomination, every sexuality, every kind of human being ever born in this country — so many awesome people who just don’t know what to do. Who just don’t know how to help. 

We don’t want to waste money or time, we don’t want to give offense, but the vast majority of people are awesome. You don’t have an awful people problem, you have an awesome people problem. And if you understand that, there’s hope. We depress you by not standing with you and we make you feel more dispirited than you should by just showing you the negative. 

But what you appreciate, appreciates. And that’s what’s so important about tonight. What you appreciate, appreciates. So we get a chance to appreciate a Dan Loeb. We get a chance to appreciate a Solita. I get a chance to appreciate the Aleph Institute and I get a chance to appreciate — yeah, give them a round of applause — a Jonathan Greenblatt and so many others. 

But I also want to appreciate something else. This tragedy of Black folks and Jewish folks not standing together when you’re under fire is not in keeping with who we really are. People say, “Black folks and Jewish folks have conflict. You know, Van, I understand what you’re saying, but there is, honestly, there’s conflict between the Black and Jewish community and I think you need to acknowledge that.” I say, “OK, fine. There is conflict.” You know why there’s conflict?  We’re all friends here. You know why there’s conflict? Because there’s contact. 

There’s contact for a very long time. The only white folks that were crazy enough and courageous enough to march with Black people were Jewish people. Those were the only folks who were willing to stand with us, the only folks who were willing to go into court, the only folks crazy enough to go get a law degree and then go into court and start helping us were Jewish people. 

Yeah, there’s conflict because there’s contact. We know each other. We know each other. But that contact doesn’t just produce friction, it also produces light. And the light that has come from us standing together is why you have the America that you have. We have to tell people that. We can’t expect for the next generation of Black and Jewish kids to guess that or to know that but I’m lucky because my godmother is Dottie Zellner. I’m her godson. 

And Dottie Zellner was one of those crazy Jewish kids in 1964 who had heard about what happened with the Holocaust and said she was not going to let racism and violence win. Crazy Jewish kid. And she was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: Black and white kids who decided they were going to risk their lives and go down south and break the back of Jim Crow.

And my godmother was the one that they picked to do the picking. They trusted her so much. They thought she had so much just good common sense that she got to decide which Black kids and which white kids could go and which ones were going to be too nutty and needed to stay back on the campus. That was my godmother, she’s still got good sense. And she buried her friends — two Jewish kids and a Black kid who got murdered that summer so we could have a real democracy. We had 300 years of slavery, a hundred years of Jim Crow terror and a bunch of crazy Black and Jewish kids went down in one summer and broke the back of Jim Crow. The light that we don’t talk about. 

And because we don’t talk about it, then the haters say whatever they want to. And it’s time for us to tell the truth. The reason this country is a democracy at all is because Black and Jewish people have loved each other, and helped each other, and supported each other, and stood up for each other. That’s why you have a democracy. Because the best in your community and the best of our community stood together. That’s why you have a democracy.

I want to say to the young people who are here: [Gestures to young person near the front] (unintelligible) I know your daddy. I love Dan Loeb. That’s my homeboy. That’s my soul brother.

We let you down. We let you down. We didn’t tell the truth about what our communities have done together. Now, the liars are winning. But I promise you — me to you, brother, me to you — I promise you, you’re going to see it turn. Because as long as we’re divided, we feel awful. As long as we’re separated, we feel awful. As long as we’re turned against each other, we feel awful. But when we come together, we’re awesome. We’re going to be awesome together. Thank you.