Think Again about Racism

Ancient or modern, prophets make us think again about problems we thought were solved.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one such modern prophet.

A philosopher, theologian, and rabbi, Heschel came to the United States in 1940 after narrowly escaping the Nazis. He taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary and wrote important books about philosophy, Judaism, and religion. But to the general public, he was best known for his activism in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

His civil rights advocacy was not that of a disinterested academic: he roared with the same righteous wrath as the biblical prophets. He denounced injustice and challenged Americans to live by the high moral ideals that they professed.

I’ve been reading Heschel to help me make sense of the recent racial unrest at American universities. Because he was a leader of the struggle to give equal rights to black Americans, he wrote a lot about issues that still plague our society. Sadly, Israel struggles with some of the same issues, but with different groups.

Of course, Heschel wrote about race relations in the 1960s. At that time, black Americans faced discrimination in almost every area of life, from jobs to housing. To vote or enroll in a university, they had to get past a gauntlet of tear gas and club-wielding police. To get on a bus, they had to pay at the front, exit the bus, and re-enter through the back door. To sit at a public lunch counter required an act of Congress — literally. The situation was shameful and it had to be changed. Heschel helped do it.

But those things are history. Today’s black students complain about “micro-aggressions.” The University of Missouri student body president, who is black and was also elected homecoming king [1], says people in a passing pickup truck shouted a racial epithet at him. Other alleged incidents at Missouri, Yale, and elsewhere were similar. In the few cases where police could verify a racist threat, they arrested the perpetrators. Yet the student protesters demanded — and won — the resignations of university officials whom nobody accused of anything but “insensitivity.”

I was baffled. What was all the outrage about? Why the screaming mobs of students? “Insensitivity?” Seriously?

Heschel saw that many people felt the same kind of puzzlement after the civil rights triumphs of the 1960s:

To some Americans the situation of the Negro, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim. So many revolutionary changes have taken place in the field of civil rights, so many deeds of charity are being done; so much decency radiates day and night … Yet those who are hurt, and He who inhabits eternity, neither slumber nor sleep. [2]

Perhaps the problem lies, as Heschel suggests, in the fact that we remain obsessed with race:

To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. [3]

To be effective in bringing change, idealism must be guided by realism. Racism cannot be eradicated permanently because it’s inherent in our biological nature. It’s an unfortunate side effect of “kin selection,” [4] which inclines us to feel suspicious or hostile toward people who seem genetically distant from us. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed:

Race prejudice, a universal human ailment, is the most recalcitrant aspect of the evil in man. [5]

What we can do is to remind ourselves, daily, and anyone else who will listen that all people are created in the image of God, with equal dignity, rights, and value as human beings:

Racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking … You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse. [6]

We can override our primitive impulses and act, instead, in moral and intelligent ways.

What else can we do? Heschel’s advice applied then, it applies now, and it will still apply 1,000 years in the future:

Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? [7]

Works Cited

Heschel, A.J. (2011), The Insecurity of Freedom. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York. Kindle edition.

Mayr, E. (2001), What Evolution Is. Basic Books, New York. Kindle edition.


  1. 1. He was elected by a student population that is 77 percent white and only seven percent black. If there are racist students at the university, there don’t seem to be very many; but it only takes a few to cause great hurt.
  2. Heschel, A.J. (2011), loc. 1541. Heschel uses terms we do not use anymore, but I felt I should not tamper with his text.
  3. Ibid, loc. 1448.
  4. Mayr, E. (2001), loc. 2171.
  5. Quoted in Heschel, op cit, loc. 1462.
  6. Ibid, loc. 1457.
  7. Ibid, loc. 1668.
About the Author
N.S. Palmer is a graduate student in Jewish Studies at Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He has degrees in mathematics, economics, and philosophy. He is currently writing a book about Judaism and the role of religious belief in society.
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