Race and Privilege: A lot of things have changed, a lot of things have not!

Picture the scene: Thousands of African-Americans marching in the South for civil rights.  Marching arm in arm, their voices raised in songs of protest.  There are some white allies in the group as well.  Even some Jews and some rabbis.  They are carrying a Torah scroll, a symbol of the Jewish values that compel us to stand with our neighbors and to fight for racial justice and equality.  Setting off from Selma, Alabama, they march together.  Marching to end racial profiling, marching to end discriminatory voting practices, marching to end economic injustice, and marching to end inequality in our public schools.  The year?  No, I am not talking about the civil rights marches of 1965, but rather this very summer, 2015.  50 years on from the original march from Selma to Montgomery, we are still marching.  To quote the rapper, Mos Def, “A lot of things have changed, a lot of things have not!”  The NAACP, along with partners like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, marched this summer from Selma to Montgomery; but they did not stop there – they kept marching all the way to Washington, DC.  And they arrived today.  Dubbed America’s Journey for Justice, thousands of activists travelled over 860 miles to continue the struggle for racial justice in America.

Just as the Jewish community was integral to the original civil rights movement of the 60’s, we must be present again today.  Just as it was 50 years ago, racism and civil rights are still Jewish issues.  A lot of things have changed, a lot of things have not!

50 years ago, the Religious Action Center, known as the RAC, and the Jewish community were leaders in civil rights issues.  Let me ask – how many people in this room supported the civil rights movement of the 1960’s?  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were both drafted in the conference room of the RAC’s offices.  When the Mississippi Summer of 1964 was organized to break the back of legal segregation, 50 percent of the young people who volunteered from all parts of the United States were Jews.  Rabbis marched with Martin Luther King Jr., throughout the South, where some were beaten and many were jailed. Prominent among these was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was a spiritual partner to King in the struggle against racism. When asked years later about that march, Heschel famously said, he felt as if his feet were praying.  And closer to home, I recently saw a picture in Rabbi Kuhn’s office of RS leaders, Vene Gutman, Ed Rosen and Don Bean standing proudly with Dr. King.  Thank you for your commitment, we stand proudly today on your shoulders.

Jews were involved because they knew what is was like to be an oppressed minority.  “Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”  This phrase appears 36 times in the Torah.  Jews were strangers in Egypt, in Medieval Europe, in Nazi Germany, and for a long time Jews, like African-Americans, were even strangers in America.  Brandeis University, my alma mater, was founded because there were quotas for Jews at the Ivy Leagues.  I remember a story my own grandfather once told me.  Like many young Jews at the time, he grew up in Strawberry Mansion and went to Central High School.  When graduation came, he decided to go to Penn State’s Forestry School.  

He was an honors student but when he was in the middle of his first year, his mentor said to him, flat out, “You know Max, after you graduate, you won’t be able to get a job in forestry because they aren’t hiring any Jews.”

And now here we are, 50 years later…and we are still marching.  Rabbis are still marching hand in with African-Americans, carrying our Sefer Torah, the very symbol of our Jewish moral and ethical teaching that commands us to work for justice.  Many in our congregation joined with our fellow Philadelphians to march on MLK day through the streets of Philadelphia, advocating for some of the same issues of equality around our criminal justice system, voting rights, fair wages and education.  A lot of things have changed, a lot of things have not!

Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, but one of the day’s main goals is to move God from a place of strict judgment to a place of mercy. A world that is all justice cannot stand. In a similar vein, our mass incarceration system has swung too far in the direction of strict, harsh justice and needs a reinfusion of mercy.  In one of my favorite passages from the Talmud, the rabbis pose a theoretical question, “What does God prayer during the High Holy Days?”  They answer, “May it be My will that My attribute of mercy outway My attribute of judgement.”

Many groups in the progressive Jewish world are pushing for criminal justice reforms like the victims’ rights and restorative justice movements.  They are working to reframe the criminal justice system to focus on forgiveness and on reintegrating the perpetrator into society.

This approach mirrors the Jewish focus on teshuvah —the belief that every person has the capacity to return to his or her best self.  In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander, claims the U.S. criminal justice system uses the War on Drugs as a tool for enforcing discrimination and repression. These new modes of racism have led to not only the highest rate of incarceration in the world, but also an even greater imprisonment of African American men.  

I have a friend from the neighborhood who was formerly in prison.  He grew up in a poor African-American family in North Philadelphia with a single, alcoholic mom.  Like many of his peers, without proper resources to guide him, he got involved with some of the wrong people and started dealing drugs as a teenager.  Now, I’ll be frank – I had friends growing up in highschool that dealt drugs – mostly weed.  Growing up in Newton, MA, these kids didn’t get arrested, and if they did get caught, they would usually only get a slap on the wrist.  Most of them are now doctors and lawyers, living in the suburbs with nice houses and families.  When my friend from North Philly started dealing, he was quickly arrested and sentenced to prison as an adult on felony drug trafficking charges for multiple years.  When he came out, he was unable to get job.  He was also unable to secure public housing because of his record, and without family to help, he ended up on the streets.  His life was ruined for one mistake he made as teenager.  Thankfully, he now has stable housing and volunteers at the public library.  And I am happy to say that in PA, once his parole ended his right to vote was reinstated.  However, to speak to Michelle Alexander’s message, there are still many states in the US that permanently bar a felon from voting.  

50 years on from the end of Jim Crow, African Americans are still the victims of disenfranchisement.  A lot of things have changed, a lot of things have not!

Over 60 years ago, Brown V Board of Education made discrimination in public education based on race illegal, yet racism still persists in our public education system.  This is the single issue that perhaps hits closest to home for us in Philadelphia.  In a recent study commissioned by P.O.W.E.R. (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), our multi-faith community organizing group, we found a shocking disparity in funding between predominately African-American school districts and predominantly White school districts of similar socio-economic level.  Just to be clear here, school districts across the state that are mostly made up of African-American students almost always receive less state funding than similarly wealthy school districts where most of the children are white.

Let me tell you about another friend of mine, Sheila.  Some of you may know Sheila from the neighborhood or the Common Ground Marketplace, our farmers’ market.  I first met Sheila through our work with POWER.  Sheila has two sons, Skylar and Simeon who go to Spring Garden Elementary, right around the corner, where many members of our community volunteer.  95% of Spring Garden’s students are minorities.  Sheila told me about a conversation she had with one of Skylar’s teacher.  She said the teachers are doing all they can – even spending their own money out of pocket for things like paper.  The principal of the school, Laureal Robinson, said she can only allocate two packs of paper per month per teacher. 

I feel for Principal Robinson, she told me about how this year she had to choose between having an art teacher or a music teacher – how do you make a decision like that?   Sheila said she feels like the system is “setting our children up for failure.”  Sheila is unique though – through POWER and the Education Law Center, Sheila has mobilized other parents at Spring Garden and is actually a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Commonwealth to secure more school funding.

Whether it be mass incarceration or school funding, we are still fighting many of the same battles we fought 50 years ago.  A lot of things have changed, a lot of things have not!

I believe there is one major thing that has changed for our community in regards to fighting inequality and injustice.  In the 60’s, the Jewish community marched alongside our African-American brothers and sisters because we felt a kindred spirit.  We knew oppression and could empathize.  What has changed in the last 50 years is that we are no longer the minority, we are no longer the oppressed – we are privileged.  I am well aware that not all Jews are white or wealthy, our congregation being an incredible example of diversity, but for the most part, the Jewish community in America has found unprecedented acceptance and privilege in today’s world.  In general, we are afforded the same privilege as other non-Jewish white people.  Unless you wear a kippah or have payes, there is nothing about your outward appearance that immediate singles your Jewishness.

In her powerful essay on White Privilege, Patty McIntosh points to several signs that one has privilege.  McIntosh confronts her own privilege in a sort of secular al chet.  Just as we recite the al chet prayer, our communal sins in a long list – perhaps to jog our memory of the past year, McIntosh lists the many ways she recognized her own privilege over the years:

  • I can go shopping, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can easily buy posters, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, and toys featuring people of my race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.

Our al chet confessional repeats the Hebrew suffix, “nu,” meaning, “we,” over and over – Al chet shechataNU lifanecha… for the sin WE have committed against you.  Just as it is meant to remind us that we all have sinned, let this list remind us that we all have privilege.

Let’s face it, most white people don’t regularly think about themselves as white. We are not made to think about our race, because we are not living in a pervasive systemic atmosphere that injures us because of our skin color. As such, we easily think of ourselves as a “just a person,” as a human being belonging to the human family.

But when a person is regularly injured because of a quality, it is truly impossible to enjoy the luxury of ignoring that quality. As Jews, this is something our ancestors faced, and still today some of our European brothers and sisters can not ignore the fact that they are Jewish. If they “forget,” they are quickly reminded! Women in boardrooms, disabled people getting on a bus, gay teens at a high school dance, and black youth in a school cafeteria are all aware of their social identity; straight white able bodied males, like me, can easily ignore their social identity.  We enjoy the privilege of being free from that concern.  In the words of Jarune Uwujaren, “[I]f you have trouble seeing race or are tired of people making things about race, realize that if they could, most people of color would ignore race too.”

Recognizing privilege doesn’t mean suffering guilt or shame for your lot in life. Nobody’s saying that straight white middle class able-bodied males (myself included) are all a bunch of jerks who don’t work hard for what they have. Recognizing privilege simply means being aware that some people have to work much harder just to experience the things many take for granted (if they ever can experience them at all.)

We name our sins in the al chet prayer, not to make us feel guilt or shame, but rather to encourage us to change ourselves and the world; the same is true of privilege.  Once we recognize that we have privilege, we are compelled to ask, “What will I do about it?”

First, support the work of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism around important legislation that needs to be passed.  You can find out more information on any of these bills I mentioned on their website, RAC.org and find out ways to contact your elected officials to hold them accountable.

I believe the other important work that we can do is be in dialogue with one another.  In the Jewish tradition, we are taught “Yehi ch’vod chaveirach chaviv alecha k’shelach” — “The dignity of your friend should be as dear to you as your own” (Pirkei Avot 2:10). This text does not direct us simply to acknowledge our friend’s dignity, but to ensure it. To protect it. To act as vigilantly as if it were our own.

If we are in relationship with our African-American brothers and sisters, then we become obligated to protect their dignity.  When Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel AME Church held a vigil for the victims of the Charleston shooting, we showed up because that’s what we do.  Our relationship with Mother Bethel is not just a once a year, let’s all get together on MLK day and hold hands singing, we shall overcome.  Through our shared work in POWER, and our many bible studies and poetry discussions we are truly in relationship with one another.  

Similarly, our Common Ground Marketplace, the farmers’ market, we hold every Sunday in conjunction with The Food Trust is so much more than just a market.  It is a chance for neighbors to come together to meet and really get to know one another.  When we truly listen to each other’s stories, we begin to understand the other. People can argue all they want about the politics of race in America, but you can’t argue with someone’s story, with someone’s authentic experiences.

If everything I have said tonight makes you uncomfortable – good.  That is what the High Holy Day season is all about – we should confront our discomfort.  In our new prayer book for Yom Kippur there is an introduction to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer written by Rabbi Edward Feinstein:

I sat in shul for years reading these words before I realized the answer. The answer to all of these questions [Who will live and who will die?] who at their end and who not at their end. Who by fire and who by water…] The answer to each of our questions is “Me.” Who will live and who will die? I will. Who at their end and who not at their end?? Me.

He continues:

Of course, I prefer to deflect this truth. I would much prefer to let the prayer talk about someone else, perhaps the fellow in the next row…[But] this is the central truth of the High Holy Days. This is what makes them Yamim Noraim, days of terror.  We are vulnerable.

Similarly, it is easy to deflect the truth about race in America and focus on how far we’ve come but fail to recognize the we still have so much work to do.  In this world of multiculturalism, we do a disservice to pretend that racism does not exist.

It took 250 years to end slavery in America.  It took another 100 years to pass civil rights legislation.  It’s taken 50 years to get to where we are today.  And it may take another 50 years or more before this country begins to live up to its highest ideals.  In those past 400 years, a lot of things have changed, a lot of things have not!

But we can change – that is what the High Holy Days are all about.  We as individuals and as a greater Jewish community can be a major part of this new civil rights movement.  By recognizing and owning our own privilege, we can change the way we interact in this world.  We become obligated to push for legislation that will seek to undo the wrongs that have been committed in the past.  We become obligated to enter into real dialogue with others.  We become obligated to be a part of this national conversation in this New Year.

A lot of things have changed, a lot of things have not!

We have changed and we can continue to change but what has not changed and never will is our Jewish commitment to equality.

Shanah Tovah