San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
New editorial page editor tells what inspired his mission.
After a flurry of swastikas appeared, a Black columnist inspired my mission
One morning when I was 10 years old, I woke up to find a trail of swastikas weaving its way through my suburban neighborhood. They were on mailboxes, they were on businesses, they were in front of the home of our local rabbi. The perpetrators scrawled slogans like “Final Solution” and “Hitler’s Children” alongside their work. It was the day before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews like myself. The timing didn’t feel like a coincidence.
Bigotry and antiSemitism in America were somewhat abstract ideas for me at the time. My introduction to the topic came via my father’s story of his first day at college — when his roommate demanded to see my dad’s Jew horns. He wasn’t joking.
My dad always played that story for laughs. His roommate, he said, was harmless. They ultimately became friends. And that was largely my understanding of bigotry in America — the cartoonish domain of the sheltered and ignorant, not the calculating and spiteful.
Violence was for Nazis. And they were in the past, a story my grandparents told.
A bouquet of swastikas at my doorstep, however, suddenly had me questioning everything.
Were Nazis here, too? Living alongside me? Biding their time?
I wasn’t one of the cool kids in my mostly white and Waspy town — rarely picked on, but even more rarely noticed at all. It had never occurred to me that my being Jewish could have influenced my place in this social hierarchy. I thought of myself as a runofthemill geek: inoffensively invisible.
What if I had been seen all along?
It was a terrifying thought. Bigotry is a psychological minefield. And I was wandering through it without a map.
Days went by after the swastikas arrived with no news about their creators. My terror grew. How many Nazis were lurking out there? Was my family in danger?
Each morning, I’d lock myself in the bathroom with the newspaper, desperate for updates. No answers came.
There was, however, one piece about the swastikas in the incident’s fragile aftermath. And it changed my life.
It was by a columnist who was relatively new to the paper. His name was Derrick Z. Jackson, and he was among only a handful of Black columnists in the paper’s history.
I’ll admit that my 10yearold mind struggled to comprehend what was happening when I saw his byline. I was a relatively sheltered kid, but I knew enough to understand that being Black in America was a whole lot harder than being Jewish. Why would someone with what must have seemed like intractable racial concerns of his own put a target on his back to support a small community of relatively privileged suburban Jews?
And yet he did just that. And he did it forcefully and beautifully — risking, in my mind, the wrath of Nazis to express his outrage and concern.
I finished the column and immediately broke down in tears on the bathroom floor. I still can’t find the words to express the gratitude I felt that day. I didn’t know if I was safe. But I knew that someone who didn’t have to cared enough to stand alongside me in the danger zone.
It took me another decade to figure out that I wanted to be a writer. But when I did, I knew exactly what kind of writer I needed to be — one with the same sense of mission I learned from an opinion columnist when I was 10yearsold.
I share this story by way of introduction. My name is Matthew Fleischer and I’m the new editor of The Chronicle’s editorial page.
Journalists aren’t supposed to have biases, let alone reveal them publicly. Well, I’m sharing this one. Journalism matters to me. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It's not a paycheck. It's telling a 10yearold kid that someone cares about their life and the dignity of their existence. And it's raining holy hell on anyone who would lead them to be
And yet it has to be more than that, too. A just society needs to be bolstered by policy and action. And that, of course, is where things get tricky.
I’m inheriting the Chronicle Opinion section at one of the most challenging times in American history. We’re only four months removed from a violent coup attempt to overthrow the results of an American election. Police killings of Black and brown people are an almost daily occurrence. Violent antiAsian bigotry is spreading, adding to the waves of antiLatino, antiMuslim and antiLGBTQ hatred that proceeded it. And, of course, nearly 600,000 Americans are dead and millions more debilitated from the COVID pandemic, a government failure whose catastrophic impacts were not borne equally. The legacy of segregation endures in America, in liberal San Francisco as much as Mississippi.
Above this social strife hangs the scythe of climate change, waiting to take its cuts if we don’t act immediately and decisively.
There are no easy answers to these quandaries. Answers may not exist at all. But we have to try to find solutions.
The best attempts of The Chronicle’s editorial board will be rooted in antiracism, guided by science and always with an eye toward preventing catastrophic climate change.
We won’t always get it right. There are times that you may disagree with policies the board prescribes. When that happens, I expect to hear from you. Over the coming weeks and months we will be rolling out changes in the Opinion section. And one of those changes will be finding more ways to feature your voices, thoughts and concerns.. This Opinion section belongs to the city of San Francisco and the broader Bay Area. Use it. I look forward to meeting you.