At our Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, we sing all three stanzas of America the Beautiful, which appear in the Prayer Book that we use here, edited by the late Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, z”l, who led this synagogue for fifty years.
In one of those not-often-sung stanzas, the following words appear: “America, America, God mend Thine every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.”
The tragic events of this week in Ferguson, MO, remind us all too painfully of the fact that America is, indeed, flawed. Actually, they almost eerily echo the sentiments of the verse. It is not just that America is flawed. The ideas of self-control, liberty and law, and the relationship between and among them, are all a part of that painful narrative.
The total lack of transparency in the way the Ferguson grand jury reached its decision not to indict, considering what we are told were mountains of evidence, much of it conflicting, makes it impossible to know with any certainty whether or not the decision they reached was a correct one.
All that we have access to are the competing versions of the truth, with a police officer, Darren Wilson, claiming that he pulled the trigger because he felt his life was threatened, and the family of the unarmed victim, Michael Brown, saying that the use of lethal violence was entirely unwarranted, and a result of preconceived racial attitudes.
Did the legal system fail Michael Brown? Did the secretive nature of the proceedings, coupled with the overwhelming, often conflicting evidence, create, either wittingly or unwittingly, a scenario in which returning an indictment was virtually impossible?
From a distance, knowing only what I have read and heard in the news, I can’t possibly know the answer to those questions, and neither can anyone else.
Of this, however, I am sure. If we want to talk about “liberty in law,” I have no doubt that being young and African American in this country denies you an equal share of that liberty. Whether it is the state police pulling over disproportionate numbers of African American drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike for what some have called “the sin of driving while Black;” or a security officer in gun-happy Florida killing a young, unarmed black teen instead of apprehending him; or Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, a much older and universally respected academician, being arrested in Cambridge for trying to get into his own house when he had lost his keys; there is no avoiding the painful reality that a deeply ingrained litany of preconceived, racially based assumptions as regards people of color, almost all negative, remains one of America’s greatest “flaws.”
As one who wears a kippah all the time, I know what it feels like to have someone look at me and make all kinds of assumptions, and occasionally offensive comments, or even threaten violence. But at the end of the day, if I so choose, I can take that kippah off, and blend in to the masses of people around me.
African Americans cannot do that, and too many of them suffer for it each and every day. We have made a great deal of progress in this country since the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement, and it is, of course, true that the presence of Barack Obama in the White House is the clearest evidence of that. But we are achingly far away from being a race-blind country. And where we arguably need to be making progress the most, the relationship between law enforcement personnel and minority communities, we seem, tragically, never to have been farther away.
I have no sympathy for those who would willingly set their own communities ablaze as an act of protest, nor for those who resort to violence to protest a system where violence itself, in the name of law, is the problem. But I also have no sympathy for those who would deny that the system is desperately in need of repair.
America, America, God shed His grace on Thee … As we gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving, we must not forget how blessed we are to live in this country which has made so many of us feel at home and welcomed. America, despite its flaws, is a great country, in every sense of the word. We are lucky to live here, and to benefit from its freedoms.
But America is also best understood as a work in progress, and that work will not be complete until everyone feels an equal sense of liberty in the law. We are not there yet. But we still have so much to be thankful for …
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.