The United States of America is living through an historic moment. It is not that the most recent execution style, lynching – murder of a black man, George Floyd by a white police officer, is anything new. Oppression, genocide, enslavement, displacement and inequality towards people of color in America has been going on since Jamestown was settled in 1607. It’s just that now we also happen to live in a time when everyone has a cell phone camera and episodes of overt racism are harder to bury behind lies and false narratives.
The murder of George Floyd was one catalyst for the recent protests in cities all over America but a second episode, no less malignant, explains everything you need to know about racism and white privilege in America. A Harvard graduate and avid bird watcher, Chris Cooper who is African American was in Central Park in New York City using his binoculars performing his hobby when he spotted a dog off its leash. He politely asked the young white woman whose dog it was to please obey the law as the visible sign said and to leash her dog. When she refused, Mr. Cooper who was used to this sort of intransigence and was prepared for it, lured the dog over to himself with a treat so that he could pass the dog to its owner to leash. This set off a tirade by the young woman that Mr. Cooper filmed with his phone.
The young woman, Amy Cooper (no relation) a graduate of the University of Chicago (so she’s not some ignorant, backwater bigot) called the police and repeatedly told them that she was being assaulted by an African American man. Besides the fact that she was NOT being assaulted in any way, her repetition of the fact of Mr. Cooper’s race was an overt invocation of her white privilege. She knew full well that in a “he said, she said” between a white woman and a black man, even in progressive New York City, the white woman was going to win especially with the cops. She had to know that in today’s America, it might have ended in violence or even death for Mr. Cooper as well.
I am no expert on race. I do pride myself on being liberal minded. I consider myself progressive on issues of race. But what I am learning more and more and finding completely unacceptable is this; I am the beneficiary of white privilege. My silence and acceptance of it makes me complicit in cultural and institutional racism.
White people came to America, displaced and committed genocide against the indigenous population in order to settle the land. They then built a world power economy on the backs of black slaves kidnapped from Africa. When slavery ended, Jim Crow laws kept blacks as second class citizens in many parts of America. It took the violence of the civil rights years in the 1960’s, violence perpetrated by whites against blacks, to shame congress to pass a Civil Rights Bill. White flight from big city neighborhoods segregated blacks into ghettos. Gentrification (a most racist term if ever there was one) has displaced them once again. And now in the cell phone camera age and only because of it, we have been awakened to systemic racism against people of color, particularly by law enforcement. I can be silent and complicit no more.
“Follow the science and the numbers” we urge our leaders to deal with Covid19. Well, follow the numbers on race. Blacks are more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested, incarcerated and yes KILLED by police than white people even though they make up just 20% of the population. Racism disguised as calls for law and order, broken windows policing, the anti crime bill and other bird whistles have been exposed by mathematics for what they are, causes of systemic racism. The numbers don’t lie.
I have been asking myself for days now what I can do, How can I make a difference? So I have decided to speak out to my community about our complicity in racism. The Jewish community in America by and large stands with people of color against institutional racism and in favor of reform. Unfortunately, vocal segments of the community primarily from within the Orthodox which I was born and raised in, have not only been silent but have focused attention on the outside agitators and violent looters who make up a very small but visible portion of the marchers. Orthodox publications like the Jewish Press rush to point incidents of Antisemitism and the pro Palestinian leanings of some leaders of #blacklivesmatter as if that has anything to do with what’s going on (click HERE). The Orthodox Union has bravely released a statement siding with the protests against racism (see Orthodox Union anti racism statement HERE).
To that vocal misguided minority you should know, we do not get to choose leaders for African Americans and they don’t choose any for us Jews. I’m pretty sure the African Americans who stood side by side with Jews fighting for freedom for Soviet Jewry in the 1970’s and 1980’s were not big fans of everyone of the movement’s leadership. But stand with us they did nonetheless. African Americans did not rage against Jews because the JDL or the vile racist Meir Kahane were prominent at Soviet Jewry rallies. And now, I’m not about to avoid serious issues of race because there are black people who may hate me or don’t agree with my politics, no Jew should.
Color blindness does not excuse racism. So just to say and believe you are not perpetuating racism does not make it so. Focusing on looting and not the root cause of the protests is racist. And not passive racism that I and most other white people are guilty of. Focusing at this moment and time ONLY on the wreckage to Jewish owned businesses and not the murder of George Floyd is blatant racism. There I said it! Jacusse! Ashamnu, bagadnu!
“A man buys his portion in the world to come with one act,” says the Talmud. We have been given an opportunity to have our moment, to remember how Jews were not let into America during the Holocaust, to remember when Jews could not buy property in certain areas and had admission quotas to universities. We can invoke those memories to demand justice and peace for our black brothers and sisters. We did not tolerate when it happened to us, we must not tolerate it when it happens to others. This is not about Antisemitism nor the Israel Palestinian conflict nor about support for Trump, it is about inequality for people of color, period, full stop! The Torah commands us not to sit idly by when the blood of our brothers is being spilled. Are you guilty of standing by? I want my grandchildren to see me speaking up. If #alllivesmatter then #blacklivesmatter. Yidden, Jews, children of Abraham, speak up and be counted. No one who has ever been silent to the oppression of others have EVER been on the right side of history.