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The Man in the Crowd

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Nordin
April 25, 2021

In what serves as a preface to her new book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson discusses a well-known photo from Nazi Germany. In it, a large crowd is shown giving the raised-arm salute to Hitler. Except for one man in the crowd. He stands with his arms folded across his chest. It turns out, according to Wilkerson, that he was in love with a Jewish woman and knew that the lies the Nazis were telling about Jews were untrue.

Wilkerson’s preface doesn’t tell us what happened to the man in the crowd or what happened to the woman he loved. We know from other sources that they did not marry because such a marriage was illegal. They did live together and had two children. The man tried to escape to Denmark alone, but was caught, arrested and jailed for, “Dishonoring the race.” Upon his release several years later, he was drafted, reported missing in action and presumed dead. The woman was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in 1936. Her last known letter was to her mother in 1942. The children were raised in what we would now call foster care.

I have been that man in the crowd. I was in love with and married to an African-American woman for more than 30 years and knew the lies that were told about people of color were untrue. I also declined to go along with the “salute.” In this, I was not and am not alone.

But there is a difference between declining to go along with the “salute” and actively working to tell the truth. There is little risk in failing to salute—although Colin Kaepernick and others would legitimately argue otherwise. There can be extreme risk in telling the truth. John Lewis had his skull cracked and others, like Malcolm X, lost their lives.

I would say that intentionally not raising his arm does not make the man a hero. It makes him somewhat less cowardly. And although I tried to consistently not raise my arm, that did not make me a hero, but only somewhat less cowardly. In this, I was not and am not alone.

I continued, mostly unintentionally and mostly ignorantly, to benefit from and enjoy my white (and male) privilege. I continued to try to support and encourage people of color at work, in my social life and in discussions with my white and black friends and allies. In this, I was not and am not alone.

I was at least moderately successful in my career, my family life and my social life. While I was often like the fly on the wall during discussions that included stereotypical characterizations of people of color, I often declined to raise a protest or cause a scene. I convinced myself I could do more working “on the inside” for systemic changes than I could by directly confronting manifestations of white supremacy. In this, I was not and am not alone.

I could not walk in my wife’s shoes, but I did walk beside her. I experienced stupid and hurtful discrimination, which my wife brushed aside as nothing new. We managed to navigate subtle and not-so-subtle slights of a society based on white supremacy. And, while I was consistently outraged, I also learned to brush it aside. Like the man in the crowd, I also tried to escape from the intolerant society in which I was born. In this, I was not and am not alone.

After more than 30 years together, my wife suddenly died. I wanted to honor her memory and keep social justice in the forefront of ASPA’s vision. I proposed creating the Gloria Hobson Nordin Social Equity Award and offered to endow it. The proposal was accepted but making the award a reality was not in my skill area. I turned to Phil Rutledge, a powerhouse with contacts and an ability to arm-twist like no other. Soon, the award was a prime-time luncheon with almost no competition at ASPA’s annual conference. Phil kept it going until it had a life of its own. Even in creating this award, I mostly was a silent and passive partner. I was just a man in the crowd.

Intolerance has not abated. Social justice has only inched forward. The past four years (and more) have been particularly difficult, as speaking in opposition to social justice became acceptable at the highest levels of American government. It not only was accepted, but also encouraged and essentially became a plank in a political platform. “Very fine people” actively opposed social justice.

Finally, more and more people have become intolerant of intolerance. More and more people have grown embarrassed and ashamed of the “strange fruits” that have sprung from intolerance and a white supremacist society. More and more non-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) have stepped forward to recognize, acknowledge and own the fact that non-BIPOC people are the continuing perpetrators of America’s white supremacist society. More and more non-BIPOC are saying it is past time for the perpetrators of that white supremacist society to take responsibility for “fixing” it. People who had been standing in the crowd on the sidelines now are joining the crowd of protestors. Now supporting social justice is a plank in a political platform.

But social justice has not arrived. Far too many of us non-BIPOC are willing to think standing with our arms folded in a crowd of arm-raised salutes is sufficient. It is not. We must learn how to be antiracist, in the words of Ibram X. Kendi. We must recognize and internalize that being an ally is not enough. As Robin DiAngelo says, “Personal accountability and action are at the heart of being an antiracist.” Antiracism involves an active commitment to dismantling structures that perpetuate racism. Standing with our arms folded is NOT an active commitment. Dismantling structures that perpetuate racism and building new ones that support equity cannot be achieved by silently standing by. Silence is complicit with white supremacy. I and my non-BIPOC brothers and sisters must recognize that we act in our own best interests when we fight white supremacy.

We can hope and pray for an end to white supremacy but we must commit actively to bringing an end to it. I know how to confront white supremacy language. I know how to speak out on the need for change. But these are individual actions. I do not believe I am able to change the institutions built on white supremacy alone. I would appreciate all the advice and help I can get from my non-BIPOC brothers and sisters. It is our responsibility to join the fight—no, lead the fight—for social justice. Because in the end, we want to be able to say, “In this, I was not and am not alone.”


Author: James Nordin is adjunct professor in the MPA program at Sonoma State University. He is a retired federal civil servant with more than 33 years of service as a grants and financial manager and program director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. He has a passion for social equity and created and endowed ASPA’s Gloria Hobson Nordin Social Equity Award. He received his BA from Knox College, his MPA from Roosevelt University and his DPA from the University of Southern California. Nordin can be reached at [email protected]

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