LaKeith Stanfield, Clubhouse and the Evolution of Inter-Communal Dialogue

For decades, the Jewish American community has built strong relationships with the Black American community. Lately, however, it seems as though tensions between the two communities are at an all-time high.

Last Wednesday night, the popular audio chatroom app, Clubhouse, hosted a conversation titled, “Did the Minister Farrakhan Tarnish His Legacy by Being Antisemitic?” The conversation quickly descended into anti-Semitic hate speech, and the room was shut down by the moderator. Right away another session was created, titled, “Someone Ended the Room about Farrakhan.” This second session went viral and was attended by one of us (Noam).

Noam could not put the phone down. He heard talk about “the Jews and the slave trade,” “the Jews” creating pornography, “the Jews” controlling the media, the Jews not being “the real Jews,” why the media is so “pro-Israel,” a smattering of praise for the Former Head of the PLO Yassir Arafat and some strange debate about Hitler’s character.

At some point the Academy Award-nominated actor, LaKeith Stanfield (“Straight Outta Compton” and “Judas and the Black Messiah”) entered the room and was made a moderator (Clubhouse assigns the moderator role to the most high-profile individual in the room). When a Jewish woman reprimanded Stanfield for not shutting down the antisemitic conversation, Stanfield explained that he was merely there to listen, and it was not his place to limit people’s ability to express their opinions.

As news of the event went viral in the Jewish world, backlash against Stanfield grew. On Friday, Stanfield apologized for the antisemitic remarks made in that Clubhouse conversation, saying, “At some point during the dialogue the discussion took a very negative turn when several users made abhorrent anti-Semitic statements, and at that point, I should have either shut down the discussion or removed myself from it entirely. … I unconditionally apologize for what went on in that chat room, and for allowing my presence there to give a platform to hate speech.”

It was a strong statement. The kind of statement the Jewish world has increasingly witnessed.

This event is the latest in a series of Black celebrities apologizing to the Jewish community for antisemitic remarks. Although these apologies have happened in the past, their growing frequency is a new phenomenon, the result of our new digital lives bringing down the conversational barriers created by a history of urban politics, mistrust, white flight and division.

Jews and Blacks often celebrate how our communities joined the fight against segregation. But this celebration often hides a larger story of two communities living apart from one another, increasingly divided politically and geographically. That means that while some Black Americans harbor anti-Semitic prejudices, it has historically been very hard for Jews to actually hear such prejudices enunciated.

In 1959, Elijah Muhammad, the early leader of the Nation of Islam and mentor of Malcolm X, came to Newark, New Jersey, to give a speech. In an attempt to learn what Muhammad was saying about Jews, the American Jewish Committee mobilized the Newark Mayor’s office and the local chapter of the Urban League to send two Black undercover “agents” to the event. While in this instance there was no anti-Semitic rhetoric reported, the event reveals how difficult it was for Jews to access Black intra-communal dialogue. Bringing together multiple organizations and political powers was made possible only because Muhammad had come in close proximity to an established Jewish community.

But with Jews moving to the suburbs and urban school districts becoming increasingly de facto-segregated, the second half of the twentieth century saw fewer opportunities to hear one another. More often than not, the only thing Jewish Americans heard from the Black American community were comments made by Black Nationalists about “the Jews.” As public anti-Semitic remarks by the leaders of the Nation of Islam, such as Louis Farrakhan, became all too common, Jewish Americans were, of course, unable to hear what ordinary Black Americans were saying about Jews in private conversations.

One rare and significant example of a private conversation going public was a 1984 conversation between the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Black Washington Post reporter, Milton Coleman. In that conversation, which eventually became public knowledge, Jackson referred to Jews as “Hymies” and New York as “Hymietown.” It took Jackson over a month before he officially apologized to a group of national Jewish leaders at a synagogue in New Hampshire.

But the internet, modern media, and social media have completely rewritten the rules on private and public dialogue.

the internet, modern media, and social media have completely rewritten the rules on private and public dialogue.

In July 2020, Jews were in uproar over antisemitic tweets by Philidelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Jackson’s soulful apology video went viral in the Jewish world.

A few days later, actor/comedian Nick Cannon engaged in a “private” conversation with Richard Griffin on Cannon’s podcast in which he “promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.” Cannon initially refused to apologize until he was fired from his own TV show. After that, Cannon went on the record apologizing for his comments, admitting he had much to learn and saying that he would be “the sacrificial lamb as a member of the entertainment community” in an effort to bring  Black and Jewish communities closer together.

And then there was this Clubhouse conversation.

The increased frequency of these controversies reflects the extent to which private dialogue is now publicly accessible. Cannon’s personal conversation on his podcast, which was geared towards a niche audience, made him and his guest feel comfortable saying things that in previous decades would not have been meant for public consumption. And the echo chamber of social media creates an environment that makes people feel safe sharing thoughts that may be offensive to some people outside their “feed.” Dialogue that may be thought to be semi-private and intended for the “in” crowd can quickly become public. And the power of every word said on these platforms are amplified by the introduction of celebrities to the conversation.

While these events may be a cause for concern, they also reveal tremendous opportunities for inter-communal dialogue. First, the ease with which intra-communal dialogue becomes inter-communal dialogue can result in greater accountability and education. Nick Cannon’s unintended inter-communal dialogue resulted in not just a backlash but also his commitment to learning about antisemitism. Secondly, interactions between community members are no longer limited by shared, physical geography, which creates more opportunities for dialogue and understanding one another.

The question is, to what extent these platforms, these shared spaces, are being used for constructive inter-communal dialogue. Cannon’s continued dialogue with the Jewish community and Stanfield’s followup call with Jewish educators are conscientious uses of these platforms for inter-communal dialogue. But how do we use the platforms to bring more than just celebrities into the conversation?

Ultimately, the answer comes from embracing these platforms as a shared space. This means individuals from both communities, whether leaders or ordinary people, should attempt to make their Facebook, Twitter and TikTok feeds diverse by following individuals (leaders, celebrities and ordinary people) from other communities. Jewish Americans should be watching Netflix’s “Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History” and Black Americans should be subscribing to our YouTube channel, where we explore Jewish history and culture. And, of course, Jews of Color can play a critical role in bridging the divide and serving as a model of diversity, inclusion and acceptance.

It then becomes our responsibility to expand the borders of our shared space by liking posts, commenting on posts and retweeting posts. This will compound the number of those who can be a part of the inter-communal dialogue, disrupting the negative cycle of the echo-chamber. With a focus on respect and seeking to understand one another, these platforms can become the new community centers of cooperation between and amongst our people.

We all have the opportunity and therefore the responsibility to learn from each other, grow and ask questions. There is no more pressing need in the world than good education. And historically, there has never been a more powerful tool than digital media to ensure we all construct the necessary education we need.

Micah Smith is an award-winning filmmaker and senior vice president of film and television at OpenDor MediaDr. Noam Weissman is senior vice president and head of content at OpenDor Media and Unpacked for Educators. OpenDor Media is a Jewish educational non-profit company that creates videos, podcasts, articles and films that are animated by a nuanced educational approach.


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