by Eleanor J. Bader

The New Organization Uniting Allies to Combat Racism

When the National Anti-Racism Alliance (NARA) began to come together in Spring 2019, its purpose was explicit: “a nonviolent community of people who think racism is out of control in this country and who are publicly willing to identify themselves as anti-racist fighters.”

NARA’s founder, Mark Naison—an African American Studies and History professor at Fordham University—welcomed any-and-all but emphasized that “the NARA label is particularly important for anti-racist whites to display, as it lets our friends of color know that they can count on us in a crisis to stand with them.”

Rhode Island activist Nomi Hurwitz is one of NARA’s moderators, facilitating a largely-online discussion—on Facebook—between members who share information, debate strategy and tactics, and address the many ways that racial bias poisons our lives.

She and Eleanor J. Bader spoke by phone in mid-February.

Eleanor J. Bader: What drew you to NARA?

Nomi Hurwitz: I have known Mark Naison for a number of years. I met him through friends on Facebook and have benefited from reading his work. When I heard that he had started NARA, I wanted to join.

I’ve been fighting against racism for a long time. I started at 18. Now, more than 30 years later, I want to learn more about how to undo it, how to confront it when I see someone being harmed or hear a derogatory comment.

In Providence, where I live, I’ve heard white people say things that are disrespectful to African American or Latinx people, things like ‘They only have their positions because of affirmative action.’ I’ve heard white people blame their lack of success—that they can’t get published, for example—on the fact that they’re white. These comments are racist. And they can be lethal. Twenty years ago, Providence off-duty police officer, Cornell Young, Jr., an African American, was shot and killed by two white officers who did not recognize him in plainclothes when he attempted to intervene and stop a crime that was then in progress.

EJB: NARA has been around for less than a year but it already seems to have grown a lot.

NH: It has. At first, I expected it to be a group for white people, but it became clear right away that many people of color want to join and take leadership roles. We’re now about 2200 strong, and members come from every part of the country. We even have members in Canada, England, and Sweden which is not surprising since racism is an international problem.

Still, we’re a group in formation.

EJB: What has NARA done so far?

NH: So far, we’ve joined events that were organized by others, rather than organizing anything ourselves. We use the NARA Facebook page to publicize protests, inform people of things that are happening, and get the word out about racist incidents. Basically, we share information. We hope to eventually be visible outside of Facebook in order to show a face-to-face, anti-racist presence at meetings, conferences, rallies, and other events.

To date, though, our primary function has been to remind white anti-racist allies that it is incumbent on them to listen, be humble, and be supportive of folks who have experienced racism directly. We also encourage folks who hear or see someone being victimized by racism, to call it out and not be passive bystanders.

Lastly, we encourage NARA members to ‘come out,’ putting anti-racist signs on their office doors if they have an office, or sticking a Black Lives Matter bumper sticker on their car if they drive. We also sell NARA tee-shirts, hoodies, and hats so folks can wear an anti-racist statement. These seem like simple, but effective ways to promote anti-racist messaging.

Racism is such a deep, constant issue in the US. It’s impossible to confront every instance, but we all need to confront it when we can. I’ve seen police pull Black people over and, when it’s possible, I’ve stopped my car to witness what’s happening. We can ask the person who was pulled over if they’re okay, demonstrate real concern for them, and let the police know that we’re there. Furthermore, we can take photos or videos to document what’s happening. This is a small risk for white folks.

EJB: Is NARA exclusively focused on racism or does the group connect racism to other forms of oppression?

NH: We are constantly in dialogue with one another and acknowledge intersectionality, the link between racism, class oppression, homophobia, sexism, ableism, and other types of privilege. It’s one of the things I like most about the group.

But I want to stress that it is up to us, as individuals, to educate ourselves about these things, to honor the scholarship that already exists around race and other forms of bigotry.

Many white people, in particular, give lip-service to anti-racist ideas, but have looked to people of color—or to women, the disabled, the poor or to the LGBTQ community—to educate them. NARA tells white people that they need to be open to being challenged and ready to listen and learn about the complex realities of oppression.

EJB: Have any issues been contentious?

NH: Yes. There have been disagreements about anti-Semitism and how it fits in to other oppressions. And there is no consensus on Israel-Palestine. These discussions are ongoing and there is great disagreement among NARA’s Jewish members—it’s like the old joke, three Jews, four opinions—but we think it’s important to air our conflicts.

At the same time, I think we, as Jews, can do a lot more than we are doing to oppose racism both within and outside of the Jewish community. Many of us have some privilege and all of us who are white benefit from our whiteness.

There is a lot of good writing by Jews of color that we can refer to. One person I’m particularly drawn to is Michael W. Twitty, an African American man who is a Judaica teacher and culinary historian. His book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, won the James Beard award. There are also loads of moving essays by Jews of color who describe attending synagogue and being asked what they’re doing there, or when they converted. 

What about politics?

Members support different people for the Democratic presidential nomination. People can become quite heated in criticism of candidates and sometimes impatient towards others who don’t share their views or strategies but we haven’t endorsed any candidates. 

As we continue to grow, we want the dialogue to stay focused and not get derailed by trolls or people whose main purpose is to sell something to NARA members. As a moderator, I want to encourage constructive debate about racism.

There are rules. There is no reason for anyone to be unkind to someone. We can be critical without name-calling. If someone is mean or disrespectful, the moderators and administrators can give them a warning and, if necessary, remove them from the group.

EJB: Does anyone outside of NARA inspire your activism?

NH: Many years ago, I met writer-activist Grace Paley. I’d read her work and was honored to be able to thank her for writing so powerfully, for taking on racism and other issues, even though she was criticized for doing so. She never let this critique slow her down. I also knew Howard Zinn. He was a mensch. He did not put on airs and promoted Jewish values, including being self-critical and working to increase justice. He taught us not to give up, which inspires NARA.

EJB: What’s next for NARA?

NH: We don’t tell people what to do or not do, but we will continue to urge people to ask questions, find resources, and do whatever they can, wherever they are, to fight racism and other forms of prejudice. We intend to continue helping one another to be brave, risk-taking upstanders. Those of us who are white will be allies with anti-racist individuals and groups locally and nationally since our lives depend upon this.

© 2011 Lilith Magazine