The panelists came to San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club on May 1 to celebrate a book that vividly details the shared struggles of minorities in the U.S. and the continuing battle for justice for people of all colors, ethnic backgrounds, religions and sexual orientations.
But the members of the panel discussing “The Good Fight: America’s Ongoing Struggle for Justice,” spent most of the evening sticking to their own agendas and digressing from the we’re-all-in-this-together focus of the book.
The 260-page book, which includes 180 photos and a dozen essays, was commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League. It was co-authored by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt, with Smolan moderating the 90-minute panel discussion.
DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, focused on police abuse and the high incarceration rate of young black men. Andrea Steele, founder and president of Emerge America, talked about the need for more women to run for elected office.
And Ray Suarez, former chief national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, spoke of immigration problems and how Latinos are still treated as outsiders in the U.S.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, came closest to talking in more general terms, deploring the poison of online hate and the current lack of civility in public life. He also was emphatic in his denunciation of the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks in mid-April.
But Greenblatt, who originally was selected to help develop the curriculum for an upcoming anti-bias training day at Starbucks stores, failed to mention that he has been dropped from that role. Black activists who object to the ADL’s support for Israel and its unsettled relationship with Black Lives Matter had called for the ADL to be removed from that role. The ADL remains a long-term adviser to Starbucks on its educational efforts.
The coffee-table book features everything from century-old photos of women’s suffragists to shots of Native Americans protesting the Dakota Pipeline in 2016. It includes commentary on issues such as racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia.
Though the panelists did point to various social justice groups and leaders who learned from each other — Suarez mentioned that Cesar Chavez, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were aware of each other’s work — they mostly focused on problems specific to their individual communities.
To Steele, the solution to today’s social justice problems would be electing more women to public office.
“Let’s give the ladies a chance in this country, let’s see what we can do,” she said. “We will never see progressive policies until we change the policymakers.”
Mckesson focused more on the broader system and the need to change a culture in which he said police and other officials are forgiven for abusive practices against black men.
Suarez said change will come as Latinos make up an ever greater proportion of the U.S. population.
“One of the frustrating and persistent things for this community of 50 million people is they have been Americans throughout the entire history of the country, yet are treated with a kind of permanent foreignness that they can’t get out from under,” he said. “There’s a really weird sense that no matter how long you’re here, no matter how long you’re a part of the place, you’re still an outsider.”
Greenblatt said the vitriol and bigotry on the internet can only be combated through education, and also called for a “restoration of norms” in American society without calling out the Trump administration by name.
“I want an environment in which the judiciary isn’t trashed, in which the press isn’t impugned. I want the disappearance of vulgarity from the public square,” he said. “You can’t legislate or litigate your way out of hate.” Ultimately, he said, education is “where we need to be investing, to make sure the next generation is inoculated from that kind of [hate] in our society.”