Ever since D.C. councilman Trayon White said in a Facebook video that the Rothschilds were behind climate change in poor neighborhoods, he has faced accusations of anti-Semitism.
Things only got worse when he visited the D.C. Holocaust Museum and appeared to leave in the middle of the tour. To add insult to injury, a reporter uncovered a donation to Nation of Islam, the organization helmed by famous anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.
All of these comments and actions resulted is a massive amount of energy among many types of DC folks and some Jewish leaders, who came out to attack and humiliate him.
They should be ashamed of themselves.
White doesn’t need my defense, nor does he need anyone speaking for him. This is his battle to endure and one of the unfortunate aspects of political life he signed up for. However, many in the DC community and the Jewish community need to examine how easily they found themselves mocking a black man who has devoted his life to the public service of America’s most vulnerable.
White serves as councilman of Ward 8, one of the front lines in the American war against the American poor. His district is home to the lowest incomes and highest disinvestment in D.C.
To get a sense of the inequality faced by the people White represents, consider that just across the state, Ward 2 went from a medium income of 114K to 190K over the past five years. Meanwhile, Councilmember White’s went from 29K to 24K for an entire family. Ward 3, just a few miles away from White’s district, has a child poverty rate under 3%, whereas 50% of the children living in White’s district — yes, that’s half –live in poverty. In fact, Councilmember White’s own childhood was one that included actual hunger and actual lack of clean clothing.
Councilmember White overcame these conditions and much more to make a life of service for himself, working with clergy and mentoring youth and finally serving as councilmember to Ward 8, representing America’s poorest children while its richest flourish just miles away.
This is the man you made fun of.
Not only was he mocked, but he was the object of a huge character assassination. Take, for example, the fact that in covering his comments about the Rothschilds, newspapers like the Washington Post ran stories about White blaming Jews, rather than Rothschilds, for the weather. In fact, these papers went out of their way to use the word “Jews” in their headlines. “D.C. lawmaker who said Jews control the weather…” ran a story by Peter Jamison in the Washington Post. “D.C. Councilman Apologizes for Claiming That Jews Control the Weather” wrote Benjamin Hart in New York Magazine. “A DC lawmaker has apologized for saying Jewish people control the weather,” wrote P.R. Lockhart in Vox.
But of course, he did not say that Jews controlled the weather. He said that the Rothschilds did.
Now, you might think that “everyone knows” Rothschilds is an anti-Semitic placeholder for Jews. But this is demonstrably false. One could survey endless people of every demographic and learn that rather quickly. Indeed, it seems pretty clear from his apology that White in no way meant this in an anti-Semitic way.
Furthermore, the only reason editors chose to replace “Rothschilds” with “Jews” in their headlines is precisely because they are not interchangeable. White’s apology meant nothing to the media, who was too busy insulting him to notice. And they continued this M.O. when White took the next step, visiting a Holocaust museum. His visit was accompanied by a reporter from an august publication, who followed him and his group.
And it was here that a Yale educated reporter named Peter Jamison proceeded to follow White around, making fun of his ignorance. This Yale-educated white man and, according to his Twitter profile, proud 6th-generation Californian, wrote a scathing article mocking White for his ignorance.
Granted, White is woefully undereducated about the Jews he is segregated from. And yet, does this justify being followed around by rich white people while he is trying to educate himself, white people waiting with baited breath, hoping for him to say something offensive accidentally? Over and over again, each new exhibit, a new trap was set.
Men and women with educations much more expensive than his and lives much softer than his decided to record every move and comment to paint this Black man who grew up poor, segregated and underserved and represents the poorest, the most segregated, and the most underserved as cruel monsters.
How dare they?
When Councilmember White was accused of leaving early, those same people marking him for character assassination implied that he left because he didn’t care enough, adding to the false story, even though White explicitly said he left because he didn’t want to be stalked by a reporter. “Once I found out a reporter was following me, I stepped off from the group so I can see the rest of the museum by myself,” he said.
After his comments about the Rothschilds, anti-Semites of every form reached out to him and applauded him. So another Washington Post writer, Fenit Nirappil, went in for the kill and used the Freedom of Information Act to capture Trayon’s White emails to somehow associate these messages with White himself. Other writers took to the tactic of juxtaposing his words in parallel with actual Nazi propaganda.
Watching fellow Jews and other people attack a Black man on this side of the fight for national progress with such energy, while some of these same Jews bend themselves into pretzels to overlook or even endorse the white nationalism in the highest halls of power, is painful.
But the biggest gut punch here is that we are pretending Jewish education is showing our brutal historical treatment in ghettos — while in the same breath stepping over today’s ghettos to do so, and attacking a man representing one of them against all odds.
With three times White’s education, 300 times his wealth, and 1,000 times his privilege, we show time and again that with every tool handed to us, we are the ignorant ones in this story.
In 1994, Steven Spielberg learned that some kids in Oakland may have laughed through one of his scenes depicting the Holocaust. Spielberg didn’t drag those kids like the media did. He stepped back and saw the fuller picture. He defended them. He educated them. Then, more importantly, he educated all of us who pointed fingers.
This is a call to take everything into account, even if someone does engage in accidental — and it was accidental — anti-Semitism, especially after they apologize.
We live in nation drowning in segregation, which is the root of all our ignorance. No hands are clean and every house is glass.
Correction: An earlier draft of this piece incorrectly stated that Fenit Nirappil is a graduate of an ivy league, and that his piece post-dated Jamison’s. It also incorrectly stated that White was followed by more than one reporter. We regret the errors.
Rafael Shimunov is an activist and a board member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, whose staff and members authored Understanding Antisemitism: An Offering To Our Movement. Find Rafael at @RafaelShimunov on Twitter.