A prominent baby boomer’s profound plea

In some quarters, it is baby boomers who have turned the world upside down and not always for the better. But boomers do undoubtedly still contribute to its betterment. We spotted something from one boomer, Eliot Cohen, the prominent diplomat and dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who wrote to his institution’s wider community this week about his abhorrence of racism. Because some of Cohen’s letter is specific to his personal goal to further diversify his school— amplified by the death of George Floyd— we have eliminated that part. But the bigger picture is profound, and worth reading… and in BoomerCafé’s view, worth heeding.

Hate is not new to me. I graduated from a small parochial school in a class of twenty-six. Six years ago one of my classmates, a shy, gentle teacher, was hacked to death with three others while at prayer. That was the result of hate. Two years ago, one of my father-in-law’s friends took a bullet at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, because of hate. When my wife and I attend Sabbath services (pre-COVID) there is an armed guard present and an elaborate watch protocol in which I take part, because of hate. When my aunt passed away, my cousins discovered that she had kept, hidden but close, the yellow star she had worn in Bergen-Belsen. Hate had pinned that piece of cloth to her breast.

Eliot Cohen

But I am also keenly aware that my experiences are, and forever will be, utterly different than those of black Americans. My grandparents came to this country seeking and finding freedom and opportunity. The ancestors of the vast majority of African-Americans came in shackles. Their view of America was the auction block, not the Statue of Liberty. My lived experience has overwhelmingly been one of hope and progress and liberty, and yet for many African-Americans that is far from the case.

Because my skin is white, I have not had to have “the talk” with my sons. I do not feel the same dread so many black men feel when pulled over by the police. I do not know racism in all of its many forms, from the most cruel and violent to the merely obtuse or even, in some cases, well-intentioned but still acutely painful. I do not have behind me four centuries of the lash and the noose in a country dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created equal, and that for so long failed even to approach that promise.

And now this moment, in which the murder of one black American, following a series of such wanton deaths, has triggered a wave of anger and revulsion.

in our current mood of rage and grief – all the more so for African-American members of our community who may feel that nothing has changed – we must not succumb to despair. That way leads only to the pit of nihilism and endless violence. And it is unrealistic.

We have so far to go in curing the ills of systemic racism and bigotry. The work will not be complete in my lifetime, and quite possibly that of my children. But it is an injustice to the struggle of the civil-rights movement over many decades not to acknowledge the progress that has been made in so many areas, from economic achievement, to attitudes towards interracial marriage, to the numbers of black CEO’s, judges, generals, diplomats, mayors, governors, and yes, chiefs of police in today’s America, as compared with the America into which I was born.

Protest in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Lucia Tyson

Unqualified anger and despair would mean that pioneers like Frederick Douglass or W. E. B. Dubois or the Tuskegee airmen failed. They did not. I refuse to dismiss the thrill that I felt when we elected our first black president, because of what it meant for the hope of America. I refuse to be indifferent to the promise and glowing leadership of Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, and CQ Brown, the incoming Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, both of whose searing words in recent days have brought tears to my eyes.

We should use anger as a source of energy to make things better, and we should heed Martin Luther King’s call not to “wallow in the valley of despair.” We should still hear the cry in his speech at the March on Washington that “even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” I believe as he did that “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” and that it is incumbent upon all of us to strive to make that dream a reality.

These are my thoughts and my convictions. “It is not up to you to finish the work,” the ancient sages said, “but you are not free to refrain from it.” We have a great deal of work to do as a country and as an institution to live up to Dr. King’s dream.

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