This article was originally published on CNN on May 21, 2020.
In times like these, history's lessons can provide vital resources – offering warnings for the present and hope for the future. We need both more than ever.
For example, this year marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 1948, in the wake of the Holocaust and against the backdrop of the catastrophe of World War II, the world's leading nations recommitted to the universal idea of human rights; accordingly, the United Nations adopted the General Declaration of Human Rights.
More than 50 years ago in the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a nation gripped in the civil rights struggle with the concept of love as a cure for fear and hate. As he put it in one of his sermons: "Hate is rooted in fear, and the only cure for fear-hate is love."
Today, fear is again taking hold. The coronavirus pandemic has created this generation's great challenge. It has put health care systems under pressure and economies on the verge of collapse. These events have triggered enormous insecurity and make people susceptible to conspiracy theories, stereotyping and scapegoating. With a growing sense of powerlessness, individuals and nations alike have become vulnerable to hate. It's time for our leaders to resist this age-old fear and boldly champion the cause of human rights and human dignity, once again.
The call to conscience is especially urgent to make now, in the age of coronavirus.
Pandemics have often led to discrimination against minorities
Look up a past pandemic in the history books, and you will quickly find one nationality or minority group that some people blamed for its spread. For the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, it was Jews. For typhoid, the Irish. During the 1918 flu pandemic, the Spanish. More recently, HIV produced ugliness toward the LGBTQ community and Haitian Americans, swine flu toward Mexicans, Ebola toward Africans, and SARS toward Asian communities.
As a business leader who represents the Alfred Landecker Foundation (dedicated to educating future generations about the Holocaust and the tragic consequences of bigotry) and a civil rights leader who has worked to reform a criminal justice system that disproportionately jails African-Americans and other people of color in the name of getting "tough on crime," we know all too well what happens when a society decides to scapegoat small groups for big problems. Fear-driven bigotry is anathema to both of us.
Today, we are troubled by growing signs of a potential pandemic of hatred against a variety of vulnerable groups:
In March, a man in Midland, Texas, stabbed several members of an Asian-American family, including two children aged 2 and 6 at a grocery store. According to news reports, the suspect said he "thought the family was Chinese and infecting people with coronavirus." References to the "Wuhan virus" and "China virus" only provide further fuel to hate-filled individuals who bully or assault people of Asian ancestry across the world.
Coronavirus-fueled bigotry and hatred isn't exclusive to people of Chinese descent. Fed by conspiracy theories, anti-Semitic groups are stepping up their activity on social media. In France, former Health Minister Agnès Buzyn, who is Jewish, was the victim of a vicious online attack. In various European countries, as well as Iran and the United States, Jews have been falsely blamed for creating and spreading the coronavirus. This comes against the backdrop of an already-ongoing significant rise of anti-Semitic incidents worldwide and attacks against Jewish communities in the United States, specifically in recent years. In Germany, there were reports of protesters against the lockdown measures taking to the streets wearing the Jewish star and carrying anti-Semitic banners.
Black people are also being targeted. It's not just incidents of blatant bigotry -- such as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms receiving an anonymous text message calling her the N-word. There is also a disturbing blame game -- an ugly tendency to blame some groups for getting sick, more than others. Of course, we should all take steps to safeguard and improve our own health -- especially those in vulnerable communities. But the high rates of African-American Covid-19 cases and deaths are not mainly a result of individual bad choices. The main culprit is a system of racial discrimination that disproportionately leaves black people with the worst jobs, housing and health care options. These factors were devastating black communities long before anyone had ever heard of this coronavirus.
These are merely a few examples of the hatred that is a systemic problem in the United States. We are witnessing a rising tide of pandemic-justified hostility toward Asians, Jews and people of African descent. And we should see that phenomenon for what it is: hatred fueled by fear, which sows division. We need to conquer this disease of the body without poisoning our hearts or minds with fear and hatred. We must not succumb to ugly emotions that will surely divide us, leaving wounds that will take generations to heal.
First, everyone who cares about respect for all individuals must speak up.
Standing up for those who are stigmatized, as the mayors of Toronto, New York, Florence, Philadelphia and other cities have done, is a starting point. We all have an obligation to take seriously Albert Einstein's maxim: "If I were to remain silent, I'd be guilty of complicity."
Second, we need to document the hatred when it occurs.
Carefully tracking the increasing incidents of hate and mistreatment, especially online, is key. The new #StopAAPIHate (Stop Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Hate) campaign collects coronavirus-related incidents of bullying, harassment, hate speech and violence online against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The non-profit OCA - Asian Pacific American Advocates mission recently produced a toolkit to stop Asian-American xenophobia that tells people where they can report hate crimes, and provides strategies for everyone to confront racism when they see it.
Third, we should all be careful what we retweet or repost.
Because social media can spread misinformation or hatred at lightning speed, we face an unprecedented challenge. We have to work harder to reduce social media's destructive forces and harness its ability to do good. Additionally, engineers and designers who make these online tools should be more thoughtful, anticipating abuses and building in safeguards. The tsunami of fear mongering and disinformation is proving that Silicon Valley can no longer build tools and only later think about the destructive consequences. We must design technology from the beginning to take into account all dimensions of human nature and behavior.
Fourth, we need to ensure that facts aren't drowned out by speculation and hearsay.
Conspiracy theories and false information hampered the world's response to illnesses like HIV. Today, social media is where fact and innuendo do battle for our understanding of this pandemic. Lies and hate speech travel online at accelerated speed, enabled by a culture of discrediting legitimate experts. Facebook, Reddit, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, YouTube and Twitter have taken first steps to counter misinformation and break up potentially dangerous debates in echo chambers.
Yet these efforts are nowhere near sufficient, given the scale of the problem and the tech giants' ability and responsibility to prevent the disastrous spread of online hate. If tech companies want to live up to their own hype as facilitators of a more democratic world, they need to do much more.
Fifth, we need to leverage today's advanced technology for good.
In addition to investing in the medical side of coronavirus, we need to invest in the way artificial intelligence and machine learning can detect and eliminate hate speech and bigotry on social media platforms. With proper protocols and ethical considerations, artificial intelligence and machine learning can help us intervene quickly, before ugliness spreads. We welcome the research and advocacy done by universities, such as Harvard and others, on harmful online speech, imagery, and memes, so we are better armed for this pandemic and the next.
Lastly, it's time to teach the children.
Educating young people (and older people, too) to be aware of potential scapegoating is key. It is important to connect the bias we see today back to history. The Anti-Defamation League has online resources and lesson plans to teach about coronavirus and increased racism and anti-Semitism. The National Association of School Psychologists, Facing History and Ourselves, and Teaching Tolerance, connected to the Southern Poverty Law Center, all offer helpful resources for educators.
We have seen what happens when fear grips the world, and we have witnessed the slippery slope from blame to violence. We cannot allow the next normal to be defined by uncontrollable hatred from the intolerant, combined with silent shame from the indifferent. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.
We someday will find a vaccine for Covid-19. But we will never find a quick cure for the bigotry, hate, racism and division that the pandemic has helped to spawn. Only unifying leadership, wise decisions and a humble, loud refusal to give in to conspiracy theories and scapegoating can heal these wounds. This is a time for leaders to articulate unity, not deepen fear and divisiveness.
History shows us that pandemics can bring out the worst in society. But people of conscience still have the opportunity to change how the history of this pandemic will be written. If vulnerable minorities stand together in solidarity -- and if those in the majority refuse to be silent -- this time can and will be different.
Former Chair of the Governing Council
David Kamenetzky is the former Chair of the Governing Council of the Alfred Landecker Foundation, former Chairman of JAB Investors and former CEO of Joh A Benckiser, the Family anchor. He has over twenty years’ experience in senior management and strategy roles at global brands including Anheuser-Busch InBev, Mars, Inc., and Goldman Sachs. Before moving into the private sector, he served as Executive Assistant to the late Ignatz Bubis, pivotal leader of the German Jewish community in the 1990s.
CNN political contributor
Van is a CNN political contributor, the host of the Van Jones Show and The Redemption Project. He appears regularly across the network’s programming and political coverage. He is a popular guest on TV programs like The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher. He also made special appearances on House of Cards and Ava Duvernay’s documentary “The 13th.”