The Crown Heights Riots

Despite strong ties in the years after the civil rights movement, the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities of Brooklyn began to deteriorate.  Three decades later, the tension between these two groups came to a head during the Crown Heights riots of 1991.

  1. In which Brooklyn neighborhood in 1991 were there race riots?
    • Crown Heights
    • Brownsville
    • Williamsburg
    • Greenpoint
  2. When white people began heading to the suburbs, what did this phenomenon become known as?
    • Illegal immigration
    • White Flight
    • The Suburb Slumber
    • The White Exodus
  3. Around the 70s, which government policy became a source of division when it tried to address racial disparities in areas like employment, education and housing?
    • Fifteenth Amendment
    • Executive Order 11478
    • Affirmative Action
    • Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education
  4. In the 70s and 80s, public expressions of antisemitism increased in the Black community. In 1984, Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson referred to the Jews as _______:
    • Mentsh on a Bench
    • Hymies
    • Colonialists
    • Dirty Jews
  5. In 2019, which bipartisan group of congress members was formed?
    • The Congressional Caucus on Black Jewish relations
    • One Crown Heights Alliance
    • Blewish United
    • The Senate Committee for Promoting Equality
  1. In 1950s America, Black neighborhoods expanded and white people began heading to the suburbs, a phenomenon that became known as “white flight.” Almost all of the Jews left, although many retained businesses and property in the newly-Black neighborhoods. Interactions between Blacks and Jews, who had previously lived as neighbors, became increasingly defined by employer-employee and landlord-tenant relationships. Over time, Jews came to be seen by Black Americans as more “white”. What does it mean to be seen as more “white” and what are its implications when it comes to identity politics?
  2. When there are simmering tensions between different communities like the ones between Blacks and Jews around the time of the Crown Heights Riots in 1991, who do you think should be responsible for calming the tensions and building bridges? Individual citizens? Communities as a whole? The educational system? Or are political moves the most useful tool in this situation?
  3. African American writer and poet James Baldwin wrote this in the NY Times back in 1967:“I think the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man…”Ask your students to respond to this quote. How would you interpret this from a Black perspective? How would you interpret it from a Jewish perspective? Students should use a two column chart where they can jot down their thoughts for each perspective. Do you think this quote has any relevance today or is it an artifact of 1967?
  1. Critical Thinking: After the Crown Heights Riots of 1991, the African American mayor of New York City David Dinkins visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe (the leading Rabbi of the Chabad Hasidic sect) in Crown Heights. Watch the video of the meeting here then ask your students to choose one quote or idea from the Rebbe that resonated with them. The students should write down the quote, explain how they interpreted it and share a practical take-away for race-relations in America. Some of the quotes can be found below:“I hope that in the near future the “melting pot” will be so active that it will not be necessary to underline every time that “they are negro” or “they are white,” or “they are Hispanic” because they are no different. All of them are created by the same God, and created for the same purpose: to add all good things around them beginning especially with themselves and their families.”

    “New York is a “melting pot” for many nations, may all these nationalities live in good peace, and in harmony, and every one of them should strengthen all the nationalities around them, especially in matters of charity.”
  2. Defending an Argument: Starting in the 1970s, affirmative action became a significant part of governmental efforts to address disparities between white and Black Americans in areas like employment, education, and housing. Some Jews felt affirmative action put Jewish advances at risk and felt the system was too close to the antisemitic quotas they faced in the recent past. Color, they argued, shouldn’t matter. The Black community responded that maybe it shouldn’t but it does. Ask your students to debate the pros and cons of affirmative action. Each group should develop three strong arguments on their side of the debate with strong reasoning and examples to back up their points. Use this link as a starting off point. After the debate, hold an anonymous vote to determine if your students support or oppose affirmative action.
  3. Comparing and Contrasting: Historically Black and Jewish American have both experienced degrees of discrimination and hate. A major goal of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations is to unite these communities based on their commonalities. Create a Venn diagram to highlight the similarities and differences of Black and Jewish American experiences. Reflect upon your findings to determine ways that these communities can unite based on their similarities and overcome their differences.
  4. Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?
    Americans have used the term Melting Pot as a metaphor since the 1780s to describe the “melting together” of diverse cultures into one united American identity and culture. As more and more people immigrate, the harder it becomes to maintain a specific and unique American culture, hence the use of the term salad bowl to describe society instead. Ask your students to sit in a circle and discuss the following questions:

    • Do you think your country is a melting pot or a salad bowl?
    • What experiences have you had with cultures other than your own? What did you learn? What did you enjoy? What made you uncomfortable?
    • What value do you see in a common culture?
    • What value do you see in a multicultural society?
      Additionally, ask students to create a visual representation like a picture collage that depicts the country as either a Melting Pot or Salad Bowl. Have students explain their visuals during the class discussion.
  1. As the experience between Black and Jewish Americans has taught us, the way people see themselves doesn’t always align with how others see them. For example, many American Jews saw themselves as Jewish, not white but many Black Americans saw them as white. Can you relate to this in your own life? Give an example of a time when someone else saw you, your family or community differently than you saw it. How did that affect you?
  2. Imagine you’re a leading member of the Congressional Caucus on Black Jewish relations. What is the first objective that you want to accomplish? How will you get it done?

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