When a fellow NFL player posted an antisemitic quote, Zach Banner publicly denounced hate and encouraged all communities to uplift one another instead of being divided by hate.
Zach Banner, offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the National Football League, woke early on July 8, 2020, and began scrolling social media. Stunned, Zach read about a controversy surrounding a post by fellow NFL player DeSean Jackson who promoted a quote about Jews extorting America and inaccurately attributed the words to Hitler. The post was already several days old and in the process of being revoked by Jackson. While Jackson’s team denounced his remarks, the League and others in Zach’s online network and community failed to react to the hateful message. Zach knew if someone had spoken about the Black community in that way, the backlash from his network would have been instantaneous. Why should this situation be different? Zach’s initial reaction that the post was hurtful became an urgent desire to speak out.
In a two-minute emotional video and written introduction posted across his social media accounts, Zach explained, “This video is to… help us move forward as a community. Not to harp on [DeSean Jackson’s] mistake, but to progress by educating ourselves. We can’t move forward while allowing ourselves to leave another minority race in the dark. #Equality.”
Zach credits his parents and cross-cultural upbringing with instilling a strong sense of empathy for others. His mother is Chamorro and immigrated from Guam when she was sixteen, and his father is African American. Still, growing up outside of Tacoma, Washington, he didn’t know any Jewish people and admittedly lacked knowledge about antisemitism in America.
Zach’s empathy compelled him to speak to his community from the heart at this moment, pleading with people to recognize the embedded hate in Jackson’s words. He says, “There’s a common misbelief amongst Black and brown people – I know this from growing up, and I’ve heard it, and I’ve listened to it – that Jewish people are like any other white race… you don’t understand that they are a minority as well…”
Zach challenged his community and social network to consider why these messages of hate were acceptable. He implored people to think bigger in ways that make us all better, concluding, “Change your heart, put your arm around people, and let us all uplift each other.”
The need for this change in hearts is urgent. In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported 2,100 antisemitic acts, the highest number of incidents in the forty years since ADL began tracking hate. By 2020, 62% of Americans — and 88% of Jewish Americans — report antisemitism is a problem. In the weeks leading up to Jackson’s controversial statements, several pop culture icons and public officials used similar antisemitic language to little rebuke. The indifference that followed Jackson’s and others’ antisemitic remarks was terrifying and all too common for many in the Jewish community.
Amid the rise of antisemitism, Zach’s experience informed his words. On Saturday, October 27, 2018, a tragedy took place that challenged him as a human. As he left his Steelers team meeting, where he and his teammates had been preparing for their game the next day, he heard helicopters. A familiar sound from his youth, Zach recalled the helicopters were out of place in Pittsburgh. Then he learned the news: a man walked into a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood that morning, intending to kill Jews. He opened fire on the small group of worshippers, murdering eleven people and injuring six.
Zach reacted immediately with a sense of familiar horror. It reminded him of a book he cherished as a child, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham.” In the book, a family moves from Michigan to Birmingham, AL, and witnesses the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, resulting in the deaths of four black girls by members of a Ku Klux Klan splinter group. “That’s that same gut-wrenching hurt that you feel when you hear such things; you can’t support that. You just can’t support anything like that,” Zach said.
However, antisemitic attacks have not exclusively come from white supremacists, such as the Tree of Life massacre. A study of antisemitic attitudes uncovered high rates among Black and Latino respondents, and recent attacks in the New York area have come primarily from African Americans.
Zach knew he had to act to share his empathy when he posted his video, although he was nervous. He had never responded publicly to antisemitism. In college at the University of Southern California, his teammates discouraged him from speaking out for fear that it might jeopardize his position on the team. As a professional athlete with a large following, he felt he had to use his platform for good, but he understood there are risks in speaking out.
One risk, Zach felt, was that he wasn’t an expert on antisemitism. Even though he knew what Jackson said was wrong, he was still nervous. Banner says, “It’s hard when you talk about race, especially when you’re defending somebody who is not you, who is getting insulted by someone like you. I had to get my facts straight. I had to explain, why is that wrong? And how do we move forward?”
Zach’s video message was not universally well-received; some chided him for focusing on other communities. However, Zach felt inspired by his experience using his platform to open minds. He saw further opportunities to educate people. “How many times have you seen that happen in history?” he asks. “Just to be able to see change, that is what being human means.”
Zach’s message called attention to unchecked hate and shattered the silence often following antisemitism. Because of his action, he has grown new connections to the Jewish community. For Zach, this is another opportunity to teach people empathy and learn together. During a panel discussion in Pittsburgh on antisemitism, Rabbi Jeffery Myers acknowledged that the racism experienced by communities of color was different from that experienced by white Jews, who can hide their minority status. This allyship is what Banner sought in standing up against antisemitism – tapping into empathy to build alliances.
Zach Banner’s commitment to speaking out against antisemitism stems from the values his parents instilled in him as a child and his desire to see the best in people. Zach’s willingness to leverage his influential position helped to usher in new forms of allyship and understanding.
“When it comes to this fight against hate, this moment against antisemitism and hate is very, very minimal in the overall picture of a fight,” Banner recently said. “It’s a blessing to be able to get hugged by Jewish families saying thank you. It’s a blessing to get hugged by Black and Brown families, saying thank you and whites and anybody. That feels great. But the best feeling in the world is to go through a whole year, a whole lifetime of not experiencing hate or racism or any forms of it.”