“Racist / Not Racist” – It’s Not a Check Box

Since police officers murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, our nation has been torn asunder.  Largely peaceful protests in cities all across America, and even abroad, are unlike anything I have witnessed in my life.  It feels like we have been building to this moment.  What happens next will be determined by how well we can listen to each other and whether we are willing to look honestly at ourselves and our institutions.

Speaking about race is so difficult.  It is deeply personal.  It is tragically polarizing.  

While our congregation is diverse, the majority of Congregation Sinai’s members have white skin. As someone who is not black, I am cautious to speak about the Black Lives Matter movement.  I do not want to condescend or claim to understand someone else’s experience.  I come to this as a man with white skin, as a Jew, and as a Rabbi.  

I am not a racist.

I wish it were as simple as that, but racism is not a binary question.  There is no check box that says “I am a racist” or “I am not a racist.”  If there was, I would hope that all of us would check the “I am not a racist” box.  But that would be too easy.

This is a really touchy subject for white people.  Many of us reject the idea that we are complicit in racism.  Why should I be blamed for somebody else’s hate?  At that point, the conversation about race is over.  We have to be able to get past the racist/not racist – check the box approach.

Every system contains inherent biases.  Every person is permeated by them.  I see a human, and my mind immediately makes assumptions based on what I perceive: the color of someone’s skin, the shape of their eyes, their name, their accent, their gender.  These biases come from our family, our society, our community. We cannot eliminate these biases, but we can strive to become aware of them.  

In 1619, the first ship filled with African slaves arrived in Virginia.  400 years later, our society is still infected with the virus of racism.  It permeates all of our social institutions: law enforcement, the justice system, healthcare, education, and housing.  Talking about “a few bad apples” misses the point.

Terms like systemic racism and inherent bias have become part of the national conversation.  Major corporations, organizations, schools, and religious institutions are rushing to look at how their own policies and practices, whether intentional or not, have discriminated unfairly against black people and perpetuated racism in our society.

My email inbox is flooded with official position statements issued by nonprofit organizations, institutions, and companies – including a local sporting goods store.  I am sure yours is as well.

Both schools my children will attend next year sent out emails yesterday announcing multi-step plans to better support students of color.  These emails were sent after alumni publicly shared their experiences of racism when they attended those institutions.

Congregation Sinai has a great relationship with the San Jose Police Department.  When we have a concern, we get a quick response.  Joelle and I have direct cell phone numbers of the officers who are tasked with counterterrorism.  Officers join us every year for our Emergency Preparedness Shabbat evacuation drill.  They proactively call us to warn us of potential areas of concern.

Personally, I have never been afraid of the police.  I have never been pulled over for any reason that was not legitimate.  When I have felt the need to call the police, I have never hesitated.  I have never felt that I was being followed around in a store.  I have never had a random stranger cross the street to get further away from me.  I have never been considered for a job on anything other than my merit.  I have always lived within a short distance of vast quantities of healthy, affordable groceries.  I have always known that if I got sick, I would be able to see a doctor who would take my concerns seriously.

None of this should be remarkable.  This is exactly how it should be.  For everyone.

But we know that it is not.  Forget the studies and the statistics.  Just listen to black people.  When a black person in this country says they are scared of being shot by the police; that they do not think the justice system will give them a fair trial, that they were followed around in a store while shopping; that they were pulled over while driving the speed limit; that they were not given pain medication while they were giving birth in the hospital – I don’t have the right to tell them they are wrong.

After all, we hate it when people do that to us.  As Jews, when someone who is not Jewish denies or belittles our history of suffering persecution and genocide, we get furious.  You don’t get to tell me that, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, that part of my identity is invalid.  It is patronizing and anti-semitic.

If we are going to accuse those who were silent while Jews were being slaughtered, what does it say about how we should act when our neighbors are being mistreated?

When African Americans say “I can’t breathe,” both literally and figuratively, we have to listen and act.

As living creatures, we are hard-wired, biologically, to discriminate.  We are essentially tribal in our social behavior.  I favor those who are part of my group over those who are not.  That is the animal part of us – our survival instinct.

As human beings made in the image of God, our essential task is to rise above that instinct.  The Torah’s challenge to us, to humanity, is to answer Cain’s fundamental question to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with an emphatic “Yes!”

This does not come naturally or easily.  We Jews, of all people, should know that.

It should not come as a surprise to learn that all three major Jewish movements issued statements this week.  I am going to read a section from each, without identifying its author. 

“The national rage expressed about the murder of Mr. Floyd reflects the depth of pain over the injustice that People of Color – and particularly Black men – have been subjected to throughout the generations. In recent months we have seen, yet again, too many devastating examples of persistent systemic racism, leading to the deaths not only of Mr. Floyd but of other precious souls, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.”

“We call upon those in government and law enforcement not only to preserve the law, but also to restore justice, fairness and a sense of compassion to all. Inciteful language must cease, and efforts must be expended which will educate our society away from racism and towards a better understanding each for the other.”

“We join in the collective call for peace and reflection during civil unrest, but understand that to achieve this end we must act. For these reasons, [we] call on legislators at the national, state, and local levels to fundamentally change their approach to law enforcement and the justice system so that they serve and protect all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. We encourage our own members to reach out to other communities, to Jews of Color, as well as to local law enforcement to help lead and shape these endeavors within the community.”

That was from all three movements, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, although not necessarily in that order. You probably could not tell which statement came from which.  The point should be obvious.  Institutional racism exists at all levels of society.  Continuing to go about our lives, with the “I am not a racist” box checked is insufficient.  Every major Jewish institution in America agrees with that.

Elected leaders, law enforcement, civil servants, and the rest of us have an active role to play. My wife pointed out an inspiring passage from one of the Psalms that we sang together during this morning’s services.

Who is the person who desires life, who loves long years discovering goodness?

Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies

Turn away from evil and do good, demand peace and pursue it.

Psalm 34:13-15

If we want to see goodness and peace in the world; if we truly love life—we cannot be passive. We have to actively demand and pursue it. This moment surely calls for such action.

So what can we do?

First of all, we need to go out of our way to listen, without judgment, to Black people.  Before jumping in with solutions, we have got to listen to those who are suffering.  Reach out, with sensitivity, to black friends and acquaintances.  Hear their stories

Donate money.  Whether you care about education, health care, justice, poverty, job training, or political action.  There are plenty of ways to put money to work.

Get involved with justice efforts led by Black organizers.  It is not for non African Americans to set the agenda.

We have to take an honest look at ourselves.  How do issues of race play a role in our lives, with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates?

We also need to look at our own institutions.  I have been thinking a lot this week about how inclusive we are at Congregation Sinai.

One of our core values, which we developed with our Vision Statement a few years ago, is:  We welcome all types of families and individuals into our community.

Are we living up to that value?  To answer that, we need to hear from all of our members, listening especially to the voices of Jews of color.

It will take time, but I pray that we are reaching a turning point.  Our nation is desperately in need of healing.  

I would like to recite a prayer that we know well.  The Prayer for Our Country.  We have said it many times during Shabbat services, so many times that we tend not to pay attention to what it means.  Like many of our prayers, it strikes a discordant tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. 

Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them the insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may once again abide in our midst.

Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.

May this land under Your providence be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more.”  And let us say: Amen.

4 thoughts on ““Racist / Not Racist” – It’s Not a Check Box

  1. I despaired yesterday When you said nothing on the racism issue on our Shabbat Zoom Service! I am impressed with what you have articulated on the racism issue! Yishar Kochechah! Al Sporer

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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