Over the past week, Rabbi Ron Stern from Stephen Wise Temple shared his personal journey into a deeper understanding of the complexities of race in America. I found it so inspiring, I asked for permission to share all 5 days again here.
My grandmother had a maid’s bathroom.
I was born in the Jim Crow South. I didn’t know it at the time, of course. We belonged to the country club where we’d go to swim, waited on by Black attendants dressed in immaculate white uniforms. There wasn’t a Black face in the water, nor seated on a lounge chair. It was just the way it was. In my grandmother’s house there was a special bathroom where white uniforms were hung on gray cinderblock walls. It was undecorated, just off the rather large laundry room, and from time to time I’d venture in because it was closest to the kitchen. What I didn’t know then, and only found out after reading The Help was that this was the maid’s bathroom, built by the original owners in keeping with southern custom so that the Black maids wouldn’t use the bathrooms anywhere else in the house. I also didn’t know that those uniforms were a vestige of a time when they were required attire for a Black nanny when she took her white charge out for a walk. Failure to wear the uniform could result in accusations of abduction or at the very least harassment by the all-white police force.
What astounds me is that I realized none of this until I was well into my 40’s. It was then that I began my journey into understanding the enduring and systemic racism that is still tragically pervasive in this country. As a white Jew in the south, and even growing up in the more “enlightened” north (or so I thought), the circumstances of Black America just weren’t on my radar.
While the uniforms are gone and there is more integration at the country clubs, plenty of older houses still have that bathroom, of course. Charlotte, North Carolina is a far more integrated and enlightened city than it was when I lived there but old habits die hard. Despite the disappearance of the most obvious signs of discrimination and the meaningful progress, profound and discriminatory racial biases continue all these years later.
Educate yourself. Take the time to listen to the Code Switch Podcast.
Looking to have the conversation with your kids? Please do! Look here.
I was thrown against the wall…
Ten years ago I attended a gathering of clergy associated with the PICO National Network (info here). We went to New Orleans five years after hurricane Katrina revealed some of the deepest racial disparities in the local and national response to the devastating event. There, with clergy from across the country, a significant percentage of them Black, I was first exposed to the idea of systemic racism. As the legal scholar and civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander spoke about the premise of her book, The New Jim Crow, I was thrown against the wall by the power of her message and its deeply disturbing content.
“Jim Crow” is a term that describes the cultural, economic, and geographic unintended policies and systemic behaviors that result in racial inequality. Alexander uses the term to characterize our current justice system (prisons, courts, police) that ultimately results in huge inequities in the way Blacks and whites are treated—disparities that cannot be accounted for by crime rates in communities of color. For the most part it is the result of a “war on drugs” that puts minor offenders behind bars. By criminalizing drug use rather than considering it a medical condition, we’ve reached a time where Black men make up one third of the prison population though they are only 12% of the general population. Contrary to popular belief they do not commit offenses in greater proportion to whites.
As one of only a handful of rabbis in the room, we felt the burden of our whiteness and our Jewishness. After all, we were the ones who marched with Martin Luther King. We are proud of our past in the civil rights movement! To learn that our system continues to discriminate in ways that were outlined by Alexander in her speech and further clarified in her book was devastating. How could this great country and its storied justice system be so unjust for people of color?
“An articulate Black woman.”
LA Voice is the affiliate of the PICO National Network. Founded by Catholic theologian John Baumann as the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (now called People In Communities Organizing) in Oakland in 1972, the organization has a heavy Black and Catholic presence. My involvement with PICO has put me in touch with some incredible activists and thought leaders around areas of poverty and race. To say that my eyes have been opened is an understatement—I feel like I was once truly blind. I am grateful for the gentle (and sometimes necessarily disturbing) lessons taught to me by its leadership.
At a gathering in Los Angeles, we were challenged to explore our own racial biases. “Me, racially biased!?” I thought. No way! I’m totally aware! Just then a Black woman rose to speak about her experiences with racial bias. I thought, “she’s so articulate.” And then she asked the provocative question: “When a white woman rises to speak, how often do you say she’s an articulate white woman?” Uh-oh…how did she know what I was thinking?
Here’s the lesson. I thought that I’d devoted a great deal of time to making myself aware of my internal biases. From my encounters with Black churches after the LA riots in 1992, to my work with PICO, to the books I’ve read—I believed I had it figured out. Until this insightful woman asked me to plumb deeper into my own proclivities. And it was then that I discovered, it is always a work in progress.
Here’s a good place to start learning about implicit bias. Or just Google it!
What I tell my son.
Shortly after my son learned to drive, he was pulled over by a cop after completing what was described as a “reckless turn” on his ticket. I was glad! It put him in his place and provided a learning opportunity. We took public transportation to the juvenile traffic court office in South LA. It took hours! I wanted him to experience the obvious result of losing one’s license. Mom and dad would not be his taxi service (this was long before Uber).
I’ve never had “the talk” with my son, I never felt I had to. But millions of Black parents believe they must have “the talk.” It’s not about sex, it’s about what they must do when pulled over by the police. Put your hands on the wheel, do nothing suspicious, ask before you do anything, never reach quickly for your wallet, phone, or into the glove compartment. Never, ever resist anything the officer tells you to do and so on…
Black parents know that all too often non-aggressive actions are interpreted as life threatening actions by arresting officers. Philando Castile’s death as he reached for his gun permit (after telling the officer what he was doing) is the most infamous example.
The truth is that most Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews don’t know what it is to go through life as Black (unless, of course we are both Black and Jewish). So it’s easy to forget that once all Jews were Black by association. Country clubs, neighborhoods, and schools all prohibited Jews and Blacks. But after the Shoah, white America reclassified some Jews – upon seeing so many people who looked just like them in newsreels of the camps, World War II turned some of us white.
As I walked amidst the protestors in Pan Pacific Park last weekend and saw the predominantly white faces in the crowd of thousands (and the many Jewish stars on the signs), I was heartened to know that so many of our young people are doing their best to understand what it is to be Black in America.
Here’s an important podcast with episodes exploring race and poverty.
A new reading list.
My daughter is on the front lines of racial equality. She works at Vista del Mar—once a Jewish orphanage, it now serves at-risk children of all ethnicities. (You can support their work here.) As a clinical social worker she provides counseling to mostly children of color who are some of the most traumatized by their birth circumstances and usually victims of drug abuse, sex-trafficking, and violence. These kids have fallen through the cracks. Her level of awareness far exceeds mine. So, when she says to read something, I do it.
Some time ago, she recommended Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. Each turn of the page brought me face to face with what it means to be Black in America today. It’s a poignant letter to his son, that is, quite frankly, required reading for all of us trying to understand our present circumstances. He asserts that to grow up as a Black man today is to fear “friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations” from those who “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.” He lays bare the myth of the American dream that for most Black people is not only unattainable but is held out of reach by a society that places overwhelming obstacles before them.
This is not an easy read. It is painful and it is disheartening—but it is the story that Black Americans read and understand. It is their life.
The most important thing we can do is to educate ourselves. To reach an awareness we didn’t have before George Floyd’s brutal murder opened our eyes. We could shelter ourselves behind a fortress of denials and refutations by those who can’t countenance the disruption of our comfortable world view. I just hope we don’t.
Today is Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the ending of slavery in the United States. Learn more here.