I asked several African-American friends (Jewish) to comment on last week’s post regarding Blacks as examples of academic failure (and success). Their comments, edited for brevity:

Tamar: “I grappled with what to think about the [Sandra] Sellers audio [Georgetown Law Center] precisely because it doesn’t say much on its face, but what it evokes looms large. The actual words lead each of us to nothing more than conjecture.” Sellers’ “angst” about some Blacks having lower grades “perpetuates a stereotype that Black people are stupid. There’s always a bottom when it comes to rankings—so what? There isn’t a need to call out a certain type of student.”

Tamar continues, “Taking race out of it, if she graded students’ work blindly, would the work itself somehow be indicative of a certain type of person? No, it would simply be the student and what they produce against scoring expectations.” Sellers’ comment about “good ones” really “got my hackles up. She harps on the fact that some are at the bottom because they are Black.”

Nia: “We all have some form of bias, taught and/or learned.” This preceded a similar comment on my website from Sandy (not Sellers, Jewish–Ashkenazi). Nia adds, “The most difficult part is how to address our biases without being thought of as racist, homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic.” As to the suspension of two Black students I taught in a writing class at Galileo High—”outrageous. Numerous studies prove that students, especially those of color, do not act out just because they want to be disruptive.”

Michelle: “If there are ‘some really good ones,’ why bring up the latter [Blacks with poor grades] at all? [Sellers] “is practically being self-congratulatory—I’m so sensitive to some of my black students’ grades.” She “set an environment in which fellow non-black students might think less of them, perpetuating stereotypes. She might question her own teaching methods first.”

So, Sandra Sellers’ comments may seem offensive. But, we’ll have to wait for the context of her remarks—if and when Sellers clarifies them. 

Meanwhile, racism continues to challenge America because people from all ethnic groups can be “racist.” San Francisco School Board member Alison Collins, an African-American, lost her position as board vice president for anti-Asian tweets from 2016. One assailed some Asian-Americans as “house n*****s” for using “white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’” She’s suing.

A song from the Broadway musical Avenue Q proclaims, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” We know that humans are tribal, and that includes Jews like me. So, racism versus bias. Sandy writes, “Biases are so subtle and often part of the majority culture, that those people, in the majority, don’t even know they are being offensive.” 

Should we accept racism’s violence and closed doors? No. Might we find opportunities to cut biased folks some slack? Yes. 

NBA player Meyers Leonard (white) hurled an anti-Semitic epithet while playing a publicly viewed video game. He ended up fined, suspended, traded then waived. Yet New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman invited Leonard to his home for Shabbat dinner and a chance to understand who Jews are. 

Like walking while chewing gum, we can shun racism, recognize our biases and also overcome them by joining hands across tribal bounds two at a time.

My short story “Mirror, Mirror” will appear in the spring edition of Avalon Review mid-April.

Enjoyed this post—and the story? Please pass them on. 


  1. Susan E Shapiro on April 2, 2021 at 10:49 am

    Thank you for these last 2 posts, David. One of the things I’ve missed in all the noise surrounding these issues is the nuanced understanding of the complexity human interaction. I am an incomplete and imperfect being and I continue to inadvertently offend people at times, despite my best intentions. I made a commitment to myself to extend to others the assumption that they’re NOT trying to insult me when they make insensitive remarks; I only hope others will extend me the same grace.

    • David Perlstein on April 2, 2021 at 11:36 am

      Applying nuance and cutting slack require considerable effort, Susan. You’re right that we need to do these things, though it’s often difficult in the face of “woke” culture that sees offense bordering on capital in everything.

  2. David Newman on April 2, 2021 at 11:36 am

    Two excellent pieces, David, which provoke two thoughts. Cutting people some slack is fundamentally Jewish. Micah instructs us “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.” That is, we strive to act justly, but we are to temper pure justice with compassion, and we need to be humble enough to know that we don’t know everything we need to know to do perfect justice.

    Looking at the Georgetown Law school incident, I remember that many years ago, when I was a third-year law student, a Hispanic friend lamented that all of the Hispanic students in the year after ours, who had been admitted under an early version of affirmative action, had failed first year. I believed that the problem was that students whose first language wasn’t English may have had a particularly difficult time in a writing-intensive environment, and I pulled together a group of friends to do a writing class for the incoming affirmative action students. Despite our lack of experience as writing teachers, almost all of the students who stuck with our efforts made it through to second year.

    This is not a brag or an effort to score “woke” points. Rather, it’s to point out that efforts to be inclusive have to involve more than just opening the door, which simply sets people up to fail. We actually have to meet people where they are and recognize their needs. And “they” need to accept that our good-hearted, well-intentioned efforts may be imperfect, and that’s OK.

    The Georgetown example strikes me as a teacher’s concern for her students, perhaps for the ways that the school was failing them. If that’s true, then firing her for her inartful expression of her concern comes across as the school’s striving to be “woke,” rather than addressing the underlying reality of what she was saying. It seems to be another example of performative antiracism as a substitute for doing the hard work of changing the system.

    • David Perlstein on April 2, 2021 at 11:44 am

      Great points, David. Since the fired adjunct professor Sandra Sellers has not publicly commented to my knowledge, we can’t know if she was reflecting on Georgetown Law’s work with minority students following admission. I’m wondering if she’ll write a book. I can see any number of publishing houses/imprints finding the subject interesting—if risky.

  3. Sandy Lipkowitz on April 2, 2021 at 3:39 pm

    This is such a complicated and emotionally sensitive issue. It’s very difficult to stand back and have a broader, more objective view. Because as the Avenue Q song say, Everyone is just a little bit racist (or should we substitute biased).

    I for one, am very glad this is being brought up front and center in our society. It’s been the elephant in the room for too long. It makes me aware of my biases, so I can work on them. The first step towards change, is acknowledging the problem.

    Kudos to you for starting this conversation.

    • David Perlstein on April 2, 2021 at 5:18 pm

      Thanks, Sandy. All kinds of elephants in the room confront us. I’ll bring up another—and risk taking flack—next week.

  4. Dorothy on April 2, 2021 at 7:32 pm

    There are so many less-than-evil people who would have benefited from my mother’s advice:
    Never say or write anything you would be embarrassed to see printed on the front page of the Chronicle.”

    • David Perlstein on April 2, 2021 at 9:22 pm

      Sage advice, Dorothy. Kind of reminds me of the old World War Two advice, “Loose lips sink ships.” So many people torpedo the one they’re on.

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