Greetings everyone and thank you, Jeff, for that very kind introduction.
I am honored and grateful to receive the Courage Against Hate Award. Thank you for this special recognition and for all that the ADL does to advocate for a more just and tolerant world. This organization has fought for equality for over a century, not just for the Jewish community, but for the voiceless people of every race, faith, orientation, and background.
You know what all people who suffer discrimination and social injustice know – that if hate lives anywhere, it lives everywhere and affects everyone.
Today, our country is becoming increasingly polarized, intolerant and angry. Many of us lock ourselves in residential enclaves and congregate with like-minded people. We send our children to schools that are increasingly segregated by race and social class. We tend to consume traditional and social media that agree with our biases. This allows us to hide in the false security of our own beliefs without opening our minds to different perspectives. In our political discourse, many of us resort to the lowest common denominator of groupthink -- dehumanizing those we oppose – defeating the ideals that made our pluralistic nation strong in the first place.
And now we are facing three simultaneous crises – the SARS CoV-2 pandemic, the economic downturn affecting a broad swath of households and businesses, and the harsh reality of the systemic social injustices that continue across America.
The protests and the outbursts of violence and destruction we’ve seen this year may have been ignited by the murder of George Floyd and similar egregious events, but they are fueled by the longstanding pain and anger of people across our country who have been denied the freedoms and opportunities that our democracy should provide to everyone.
Opportunities for good health, unbiased treatment by police, quality education, and access to economic security.
We cannot wait for another George Floyd tragedy to drive the momentum of reform efforts – we must all take responsibility now for driving the changes that will remove systemic racism and hate in our societies and commit to social justice and equity for all.
At the same time that we are becoming an even more diverse society, we are seeing a shocking reality: a resurgence of xenophobic, anti-Semitic and racist ideas, that play to people’s fears and resentments.
Fundamentally, we humans are homophilic. That’s a fancy word that means we tend to be somewhat tribal in nature.
Human cohesion, or a sense of belonging, helps us survive and deal with challenges we face as members of our tribe, so to speak, but it can also lead us to suspect or even fear those who are different.
Our subconscious is constantly aware of who is “us” and who is “them.” Perceived similarities of backgrounds and values make it easy for us to “connect” and build strong and lasting relationships with certain people.
We all have these unconscious inclinations or, if you will, “algorithms” that affect our decision-making based on normative beliefs and behaviors which stem from a combination of past experiences, customs and traditions that have been passed down to us through the years.
But there are downsides to our subconscious inclinations.
When we are surrounded by people who are like us and see the world as we do, we fail to appreciate what we have in common with those we regard as different.
The challenge is how to get beyond these beliefs and norms. The good news is that through self-awareness and empathy we can.
We can be reprogrammed. We can leave behind the dogmas of hatred and division. That is why we need ADL and groups like it. They can help us learn to appreciate rather than fearing or despising those who may think or look different than us.
ADL understands that the rhetoric of hatred and bigotry cannot be ignored. It must be actively countered, as it has real-life consequences — incitement to discrimination, hatred, hostility and violence against those we perceive as fundamentally different especially marginalized groups.
We know from historical, as well as recent experience, that there is a correlation between hateful and divisive rhetoric and hate crimes.
One cannot think about Nazi Germany without thinking of the Holocaust. The late Elie Wiesel, a man of moral clarity and courage, reminded us that we must not stand silent when we see and hear hatred raising its ugly head as was the case when threatening neo-Nazis descended upon Charlottesville, VA.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy… whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
Groups like ADL urge all Americans to take personal responsibility for helping to promote a society that is more just, rational, tolerant and inclusive.
In the U.S., we have never sufficiently grappled with our painful history with respect to racial oppression of African Americans -- the consequences of which are still being felt today.
The American institution of slavery was eventually abolished by the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution. But what the 13th Amendment actually did was end “involuntary servitude.”
It did not end the pernicious beliefs that allowed Africans to be kidnapped, bound in chains, transported in the holds of slave ships, and held in brutal captivity for centuries in the United States — a country that was founded on the stated ideal that all men are created equal.
It is as though we are afraid to say out loud that slavery was morally justified by a deeply-held ideology of white supremacy. By the idea that black people are less evolved, less capable, less deserving than white people. The continuing evil of slavery and the following century in which Jim Crow, lynching and other means of racial oppression were protected under color of state and federal law in these United States is the narrative of racial difference, the fiction that black people are less than fully human — as our laws once held: just 3/5 of a person.
Following the troubling death of George Floyd, I believe we are at a potentially defining moment, but that moment will pass unless we are willing to confront the presumptions of inferiority, dangerousness and guilt that are assigned by many to people of color — and black people, in particular.
If we are going to achieve meaningful change when it comes to systemic racial injustice in America -- which can be seen through disparities in education, housing, employment, law enforcement and opportunity, in general -- we are going to have to be willing to take uncomfortable steps.
We’ll need the courage to face the unpleasant truths about our history of racial inequality. As Bryan Stevenson puts it, “We need an era of truth and justice, of truth and reconciliation.”
As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to help move our society past racial inequity and division rather than leaving this for future generations.
Our society needs organizations like the ADL to help strengthen our resolve. You motivate us when we are falling short. You fight hate in all its forms – whether through anti-bias training for law enforcement, or by standing up for marriage equality, or exposing extremism. Your efforts echo the solidarity America has had in its greatest moments. Rather than fight for one community, you fight for equity for all, and by doing so, you make us all better.
We’ve been seeking a fair and just America for nearly 250 years. But I remain hopeful, despite the renewed pain 2020 has brought us. We must continue to raise our voices together, no matter our faith or race, so that we unite against hate and make sure others know it has no place in the communities and institutions we’re building.
Merck, like ADL, is an organization committed to helping to achieve inclusion, justice and freedom for people around the world. Specifically, we are committed to helping people win freedom from disease and suffering, and we work hard to make sure that our products — like our Ebola virus vaccine which is used to fight outbreaks of that deadly virus in Africa -- reach the people who need them.
And, as Merck’s CEO, I can bring opportunities to others by guiding the company to promote economic inclusion and social justice in all of our undertakings.
Success requires moral leadership, people with vision who are guided by sound values, who can make principled decisions for the greater good – even if these decisions are economically or politically unpopular. We need leaders like my CEO predecessors at Merck, who put patients before profits and established a company committed to saving and improving lives. And those leaders of the ADL, who understood injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere and so they united to stamp it out.
So, in closing, I thank the ADL for this tremendous honor. As an African-American man, I know I have been privileged in my life – privileged by educational opportunities that are not typically provided to inner-city children. I try to remember the words of the late John Lewis, a man of great physical and moral courage and an icon for civil and human rights: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up; you have to say something, you have to do something.”
I try to do my part to extend those opportunities to others, and I would do so even if my work was invisible. But knowing others see it – and feel it worthy of recognition – brings me hope. No matter how hard the effort, or how long it takes, we must persevere in our quest for social justice.
I am honored to accept this year’s Courage Against Hate Award and to stand strong with you and all the great people of the ADL and Merck to demand the best of our country and ourselves. Thank you.