FAIR LAWN, NJ—On Tuesday, June 23, St. Leon Armenian Church of Fair Lawn, NJ, hosted a virtual forum, Racial Injustice and Responsibility with a live audience from more than 460 households. The event, which has since been viewed by an additional 600 households, examined the legacy of racial violence and inequality, and the responsibility of non-perpetrators in sustaining regimes of racism.
The event was jointly sponsored by AGBU Ararat, Armenian Bar Association, Armenian Network of America—Greater NY, Daughters of Vartan-Sahaganoush Otyag, Justice Armenia, Knights of Vartan-Bakradouny Lodge, National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR)/Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Lecture Series on Contemporary Armenian Topics, St. Leon ACYOA Seniors, and Zohrab Information Center.
As poignantly recognized by NAASR’s director of academic affairs Marc Mamigonian at the start of the forum, the support of these sponsoring organizations reflects a recognition that collectively and as individuals Armenian Americans do not exist separate from the larger issues of American life, and that racial injustice and responsibility— the theme and title of the evening’s talk—may be as large as an issue that exists in America because it lies at the root of so many other problems.
Mamigonian moderated the discussion along with Dr. Henry Theriault, president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Panelists included Dr. Jermaine McCalpin (Chair of African and African American Studies at New Jersey City University), Dr. Michael Rothberg (1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies at UCLA), and Kohar Avakian (Ph.D. student in American Studies at Yale).
Diocesan Primate Bishop Daniel Findikyan opened the forum with a prayer for peace and asked God to “listen to the cry that rises from every corner of this fragile earth, from our human family torn by violent conflict.”
Bishop Daniel offered brief opening remarks endorsing the intent of the forum. “Racism is an issue that we should not be talking about only in these recent weeks of unrest,” he said, “but it’s something that should be at the core of every sermon of ours as clergy; it should be part of our regular discourse … particularly in the Armenian Church, because we have been the victims of racism … and because our creed, our faith, holds that racism in any form, differentiation among the creatures of God, is completely incompatible with the very core of what we believe.”
Just before handing the program over to the panelists for an intellectual and ethical journey, Dr. Theriault noted that, just like when confronting deniers of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides, the evening’s purpose was not to debate whether there has been and continues to be mass systemic oppression of Black and brown people in this country. He pointed out that “those who refuse to see what is going on today and what has gone on for so long are making a choice. This is not a choice we want to debate.”
In further comparison to his and Dr. McCalpin’s advocacy for Armenian Genocide recognition and reparations, Dr. Theriault shared that “history does not just heal itself and that harms of the past—unless rectified by symbolic and material action—not only continue to have destructive impact on victims but actually increase in destructive power over time.” He closed with a recognition that a history of violence does not excuse today’s Armenians from taking responsibility in the fight against racism in the United States. “In reality,” he said, “there is no neutral place on racial injustice in the United States; it is time to pick our side.”
Prof. Rothberg elaborated on the theme of his book, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators, arguing that the categories of victim, perpetrator and bystander can only give an incomplete account of a person’s connection to injustices past and present. In subtle and structural ways, he suggested, the consequences of injustice filter throughout a society and time; even those that may feel no personal or group involvement as a perpetrator can still be implicated in a prevailing system of inequity.
“Acts of injustice,” he explained, “especially acts of racial injustice, but also gender violence, gun violence, effects of climate change, exploitation of workers, colonial violence—all these forms of violence— are only possible because a large group of implicated subjects stands behind a much smaller group of direct perpetrators or agents of violence; so what I mean by implicated subject are those of us who enable, perpetuate, inherit and benefit from both historical and contemporary injustice without directly perpetrating those injustices.” Echoing Dr. Theriault’s sentiments, he related this both to the broader contemporary American scene and the experience of Armenians and Jews who “have inherited legacies of victimization, suffering, violence, and genocide” by recognizing that “we are today implicated subjects; we are responsible for the kind of violence and racism that are affecting other people.”
Kohar Avakian–an Armenian, Black and Nipmuc scholar—offered insights from her ongoing doctoral study of racial formation in the Armenian Diaspora, detailing legal constructs and court decisions that facilitated racial and socio-economic inclusion for some while perpetuating barriers for others in Worcester, MA. She brought to light the differentiated experience of Armenians, other Asians, Blacks and Worcester’s dispossessed indigenous Nipmuc population of which she is a descendant. To grasp the nuanced dynamics of systematic racism, the emerging scholar advised viewers to consult the works of academic titans including Angela Davis, Tony Morison, Alice Walker, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Kimberle Krenshaw and Saidiya Hartman. Her plea to viewers was to look at questions of Armenian identity in new ways and from novel perspectives, including the “broader contexts of settler colonialism, slavery and Asian exclusion.”
Prof. McCalpin’s talk drew on his voluminous research on the Armenian Genocide and the transatlantic trade of Africans. He examined the evolution of systems of oppression, from enslavement to mass incarceration, inflicted upon the Black community. “Black pain is not only for Black people,” he said. “It should be the pain of everyone who loves justice” just as “the cause for justice for the Armenian Genocide is not just the responsibility of the Armenian people.” His foray into issues of denial, recognition, justice, reparations and reconciliation established explicit links between Black enslavement in the United States and the Genocide of Ottoman Armenians. He focused on levels of culpability and responsibility in maintaining and disestablishing (not reforming) our country’s racist architecture while noting that “white silence gives continued consent to police brutality and racial injustice.” He ended with a quote from author and activist Angela Davis: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, you must be anti-racist.”
On the heels of the panel discussion, St. Leon Armenian Church has organized an online seminar for high school students titled “Names, Monuments, and Racism: A Global Perspective.” Prof. Khatchig Mouradian will lead the four week course, which explores how rethinking the words we employ and the monuments we erect in public spaces constitute important steps on the path to confronting racism and injustice. The course will examine case studies from the United States, Armenia, Turkey, Germany, Lebanon, Namibia and Japan.
Chris Zakian also contributed to this report.