Rosh Hashanah Day 2 – 2016
Where He Is: Racial Profiling
From 1966-1969 I lived in Cinnaminson, NJ. My father was the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in that southern NJ town outside of Cherry Hill, which was essentially a suburb of Philadelphia. We lived in a house in, which from what I recall, was in a new development (I was age 4-7 at the time). I remember that I often would play with the other kids in the neighborhood – especially a girl and boy who lived in the homes closest to us.
One birthday party stands out in my memory from that time. I remember either for my 5th or 6th birthday that my Mother organized a party for my classmates and friends in the social hall of the synagogue – one of the perks I guess of being the rabbi’s kid! I recall that we were all dressed in jackets and clip on ties and we played the usual games of pin the tail on the donkey and musical chairs. Though I didn’t give this a thought at the time what I remembered about that party recently was the fact that my friend and neighbor Jevy was there. He was African American – the only friend of color in attendance at the party. At the time I thought nothing of it. Since I played with him all the time in the neighborhood, it was clear to me that he should be invited to the party. But what did my parents think? Did they feel uncomfortable that he’d be the only black child at the party? I wonder what the other parents thought when they dropped off or picked up their children from the party and saw a black child there? Fortunately as a child I was oblivious to any adult conversations that day.
What is most unfortunate about this memory is that it is configured around the presence of Jevy – my friend. Instead of focusing on the amusing fact that I wore a clip-on tie to my birthday party, I instead am reminded of the more profound issue surrounding the possible racial controversy that my party caused.
It may be odd to remember a party from nearly 50 years ago but often memories are triggered by current events. An event that we might not have thought about in decades suddenly reemerges in connection with something happening right now and we relive that experience as if it were yesterday. Perhaps it’s the smell of chicken soup cooking on the stove, or the smell of a certain flower. Maybe it’s a word in a conversation or a fleeting image on TV. Our brains mysteriously store all our memories and cause some to come to the surface when triggered appropriately.
For the past two years – ever since Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014 – our country has been experiencing heightened racial tension. Not since the riots prompted by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 48 years ago or the riots caused by the police brutality against Rodney King in Los Angeles 25 years ago has our country been so racially divided. In fact what these seemingly weekly incidents highlight is the deep-seated level of prejudice and bigotry that still exists in our country. Rev King’s dream of a day when his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (August 1963) seems very far off.
Remembering my birthday party in light of the terrible racial tensions in America now prompt me to ask a few questions. Is racism learned or innate? Did I actually treat Jevy as a friend or was I at all influenced by attitudes I learned at home and in the community? Or put another way, is my memory of the party affected by how I was taught about racism and bigotry? What does Judaism teach us about how we view “the other”? Is our religion at fault for instilling an attitude of racism into our culture or does our religion actually teach the virtues of diversity and equality? Finally, how can we move forward and begin to resolve the racial issues that face our country?
There are 2 fascinating articles I recently read that shed some light on whether racism is a learned attitude or whether it’s innate. The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, reported in June 2013 about a study conducted by a researcher at Bar Ilan University. Prof Gil Diesendruck is quoted as follows: “We told 4- and 5-year-olds a story about people who live someplace in the world and who think that dogs and cats are the same kind of thing,” he reports. “We asked the kids if these people should be corrected and they said yes. Then we said that the same people also think that Jews and Arabs are of the same kind, and here too the children thought it was a mistake and that it was even more important to correct it. Because these are two groups that are even more different.” They found, the article continues, that “children start out with this essentialist tendency, (that is that people belong to specific ethnic groups) and only a particular kind of education can lead them to develop a different, more open attitude.” Prof Diesendruck suggests that the grouping tendency is an ancient genetic remnant that harks back to our survival tendency to understand the people around us as either a friend or a foe.
Though the article concludes that people essentially see others around them as belonging to particular groups, and that can lead to a racist view of those people, people can be taught to unlearn this trait. Israeli Arab and Jewish children who attended bilingual integrated schools together tended to be much less racist and more open to seeing all people as the same.
Another fascinating article is one found in California Magazine – the magazine of the alumni association of UC Berkeley. Chelsea Leu in this article describes the research of a sociologist and law professor in the UC system – Dr. Osagie Obasogie – who interviewed over 100 people who have been blind since birth. The professor wanted to know whether their blindness impacted their understanding of race. This paragraph says it all: “Blind people live in a culture of sighted people. Many respondents [to the research study] traced their perspectives on race to childhood experiences with sighted caretakers who passed along their own attitudes. But what Obasogie found surprising was just how starkly the family and friends of the blind drew racial boundaries in an effort to teach them about the world. Obasogie recalls the story of one white blind respondent who grew up in a quiet suburb, and detailed how “his parents would drive him and his siblings to the inner city, where he would hear the sounds and smell the smells of urban America. Their parents would say, ‘This is where black people live.’” This sort of anecdote came up repeatedly, leading Obasogie to conclude that the perception of race is learned. Racial attitudes, he says, can be seen as “the process by which we attach meanings to bodies.”
Though these are just two articles among so many research studies that have been conducted over the years, it seems clear that racism is both learned and innate. It is quite sad and dispiriting to know that already from birth there is this great obstacle to overcome.
Overcoming that obstacle is even more challenging because our religious tradition often reinforces ethnic differences. An event recounted in yesterday’s Torah reading serves as a perfect example. Yesterday you may recall that we learned about the forced exile of Hagar and Ishmael from Sarah and Abraham’s home. We learned that just as God heard her cries and acted compassionately and mercifully toward her, so too we should act compassionately toward others. In the very next sentence we read, “ki shama Elohim el kol ha-na’ar ba-asher hoo sham – [the angel told Hagar not to be afraid] for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” The strange Hebrew phrasing translated as “where he is” prompts the rabbis to discuss the reason for God saving Ishmael. Ishmael, the rabbis argued, became the father of the Arabs and also before that the father of nations that became the enemy of Israel. Why would God save Ishmael knowing that in the future there would rise from his descendants people who fight Israel, who would persecute Israel and who would build their own shrine and house of worship on the ruins of the Temple? Shouldn’t God have acted favorably toward Israel and in this moment shouldn’t God have shown deference toward one group over the other?
This question is not unusual for the rabbis to raise. There are many instances throughout rabbinic literature in which the positive qualities of the people of Israel are contrasted with the negative qualities of other nations. Before the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai the rabbis say that God offered it to other people. The Ishmaelites didn’t want it because it contained the commandment not to murder. Another nation didn’t want it because the Torah commanded not to steal. And so on down the line thus reinforcing negative stereotypes about other nations.
Rashi – the commentator on the Torah – says that our verse – God heard Ishmael’s cries where he is - means to teach us that God is not subject to the human tendency of choosing one group over the other. God doesn’t harbor hatred or revenge. God rises above those human emotions and sees people where they are. God sees Ishmael and hears his cries and responds favorably. Just as God sees us for who we are – as God’s creatures – so too should we see all people as God’s creatures.
However, that’s not the initial impression that we get when reading the text. We read of many examples in which it seems clear that God hates those who don’t obey Him. God hates the idol worshipper, God commands us not to marry the Moabites or the Ammonites. This initial reading can instill a sense of anger and hatred of those who are different from us.
Yet if we read deeper into the text – as with the story of God heeding Ishmael’s cries – then we know that the Bible truly teaches us to love all human beings. History, past or future behavior, skin color all don’t matter. What matters is acknowledging all people where they are. We are created in God’s image and just as God has no color and is all colors so too should we see all people the same way.
Even though it’s clear from our tradition that we are to see each other as equals we still have to fight against the cultural and genetic issue of racism. Though we have what to teach, there is the constant struggle to overcome the innate and learned racism that is pervasive in America. Though I don’t have the solution as to how this can be done I am certain that we must struggle incessantly to ensure victory.
One possible harbinger of change is the brand new Museum of African American History on the National Mall. Though I haven’t been able to visit yet, we’ve all read about what’s inside. So many articles have been written about the exhibits from the mundane – famous Black entertainers’ automobiles – to the profound – a replica of a slave cabin. Slavery and the treatment of Blacks as second-class citizens has been part of American history since before America was born. It’s been part of our societal heritage for close to 400 years. The fact that it took that long to establish this national museum speaks volumes about the depth of racism in our society.
Yet the museum exists and with it the possibility that it will become the focal point for intense discussions about racism – both the affects of racism on our society and what we can do to overcome it. Our nation depends on the success of this museum. In order to survive we need to know that we can trust one another. We need to truly know that all Americans are to be treated equal. We need to learn that we don’t need to separate ourselves into different groups because we are all fellow Americans.
Obviously the new museum isn’t enough to effect true and lasting change. Change needs to be reflected in the public school system too. Melinda Anderson, in the Feb 16, 2016 edition of The Atlantic wrote about the success of integration in the schools. “The first of two companion reports”, she wrote, “issued by The Century Foundation, a progressive policy and research think tank, tracks the growth of socioeconomic integration in education over the last 20 years. In 1996, the group identified just two school districts nationwide that used socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment policies. By 2007, the number of districts with socioeconomic-integration polices had increased twentyfold, with roughly 40 using this strategy. Today, 91 school jurisdictions deliberately blend affluent and less-advantaged children, totaling over 4 million students, about 8 percent of K-12 public-school enrollment. For contrast, there are more than 15,000 school districts in the U.S., some 50 million students in K-12 schools, and 92 percent of students remain in racially and socioeconomically homogenous schools. Still, researchers say the raw numbers—comprising traditional public schools and charter schools—indicate a dramatic shift.”
Increasing the shift, Anderson reports, is the challenge. How do jurisdictions successfully integrate schools – by redrawing the boundaries or busing students? Anderson continues, “More recent polling…finds [that] most Americans prefer local schools over school diversity. A January HuffPost/YouGov poll found that many Americans agree that racially diverse schools are better for students but “a solid majority said it is more important ‘to have students go to local community schools even if it means most students are of the same race.’” Less than one in five (18 percent) opted to send their kids to racially diverse schools knowing it would mean ‘many of the students don’t live nearby.’”
The public school system is only one aspect of our society that reflects the tremendous challenge of racial diversity. Houses of worship (just look around this room), sports, and the criminal justice system are some of the other areas that need evaluation and change. The roots of racism go deep and the process of uprooting the problem and making change will be long and hard.
Therefore, it’s not by chance that we read the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael on Rosh Hashanah. As we gather together as a large community to pray and look inward, we must recognize that prayer is meaningless unless it transforms our lives. Looking inward is fruitless unless we look outward too. We have to be strengthened and emboldened by our community. We must affirm together that we will do everything in our power to make our prayers for a just and free world come to fruition.
As a child celebrating my birthday I naively thought that all my friends could eat ice cream and play games together. I thought if I could have fun with my neighbor friends why couldn’t my classmates too? But is the naiveté of my childhood unrealistic? Is racism too imbedded in our society to ever go away? Let’s hope not. Let’s pray instead that we always see everyone around us as God saw Ishmael “where they are”. If we can then we will be that much closer to bringing about the Messianic age. Amen.