Editor’s note: In observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Forward is resurfacing some of our recent coverage related to the Black-Jewish experience and racial justice. This article originally appeared in July, 2020.
As an offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Zach Banner is paid to throw all six feet, eight inches and 350 pounds of his body between his team’s quarterback and would-be assailants. Recently, a spate of comments made by other professional athletes gave him a new cause to put his weight behind: blocking antisemitism from seeping into racial justice movements.
In a live-streamed conversation July 23 with other Pittsburgh activists hosted by Bend The Arc, Banner, who is Black and Chamorro and not Jewish, spoke about his commitment to developing his knowledge about Jewish culture as part of his broader mission both within and beyond his sport.
“As a member of the National Football League who wants to continue to dominate and rise on a personal level, and also as a Pittsburgh Steeler, I just want to let you know that the change in the locker room is coming,” Banner said.
The panel brought together voices from several social justice spheres. Joining Banner on the videoconference were Jasiri X, a hip hop artist and founder of the artist/activist collective 1Hood; Julie Mallis, a visual artist and director of Repair the World, an international Jewish social justice group; Michelle King, an educational equity expert; and Graie Hagans, representing Bend the Arc, and Jonathan Mayo, a baseball journalist and an active member of Bend the Arc Jewish Action: Pittsburgh.
In a session that lasted nearly two hours, the panelists took turns sharing their experiences dealing with racial injustice and ideas for combating it.
When it was Banner’s turn, he described his fear of the police as a Black man in America. During routine traffic stops — he sheepishly conceded earning some speeding tickets — he still fears for his life.
With it ingrained in him from a young age that white people would always be suspicious of him because of his skin color, Banner had once turned that suspicion in the opposite direction.
“Growing up, anyone with white skin I just believed didn’t care,” he said.
Now, he encounters the same sentiment among the youth in the Tacoma, Washington, community he grew up in.
“There’s a common misbelief amongst Black and brown people — I know this from growing up and I’ve heard it and listened to it — that Jewish people are just like any other white race,” said Banner. “You can mix them up with the rest of the majority and don’t understand that they’re a minority as well. For you to have me here, I want to use this opportunity to show that to them.”
Later in the conversation, Mayo,who is white, said he wanted to do more to combat stereotypes using his platform, and asked Banner what had motivated him to respond to NFL player DeSean Jackson’s anti-Semitic post. Banner said it was about holding a peer accountable. Then he turned the question on Mayo.
“You have a very large white audience as well, just like I do in the National Football League, and you need to take responsibility as a writer and as a media person. I’m not trying to jump on you brother, but I’m urging you to keep being brave.
“Don’t apologize for it — just own it.” (Then he teased Mayo for covering “such a boring sport.”)
“Your challenge is accepted,” Mayo replied. “I will continue to push myself.”
At University of Southern California, Banner made Jewish friends, who he described as family members in a two-minute video response to DeSean Jackson’s inflammatory post that has received over 750,000 views on Twitter. Jackson’s post excerpted a quote falsely attributed to Adolf Hitler, in which Jews are portrayed as conspirators bent on dividing the Black community.
Banner’s message invoked his connection to the Jewish community, which was deepened by the murder of 11 Jews in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Banner was in his first season with the Steelers at the time.
“Just to empathize in that situation, and to hear things like anti-Semitic comments still happening, on that platform, I’m simply here to take steps with you guys to abolish that,” Banner told the panel.
Since posting his response to Jackson, Banner’s odyssey into Jewish culture has taken a flavorful turn. Upon receiving a special shipment from a social justice-oriented bakery called the Challah Back Girls, Banner recorded himself trying challah for the first time, delivering rave reviews. The Challah Back Girls are donating a portion of their July proceeds to Banner’s foundation.
Banner’s excited documentation of his experience has earned him a Jewish following, which has adopted him with equal enthusiasm.
“Other than challah, I’m really not too educated on the Jewish community so far,” he admitted with a smile Thursday night. “That challah was really, really good. The people who made it have souls and spirits as well, and they have a history.”
I really don’t want to talk to people who make anti-Semitic comments. I honestly just wanna make ‘em look dumb real quick and move on. Don’t waste time attacking DeSean Jackson. He’s fighting for his job and his public image — that’s on him. But if we waste time trying to fix him, or Ice Cube, or Nick Cannon…we can’t move on.”
As Banner pointed out, action would speak louder than words, and it has to come on a bigger stage. When Michelle King, an educational equity expert who was moderating the session, referred to the professional athlete apart from the three professional activists, Banner stepped in to correct her. “I need to challenge myself and step into that role as well,” he said.
“Unfortunately we’re going to have more views at the Super Bowl than we will on this YouTube video,” he added. “So it’s up to us with that kind of platform.”
Zach Banner speaks out for Black and Jewish understanding