“Mommy, what’s racism?”
A few days ago, my 8-year-old grandson James heard the term on TV and asked his parents to explain. He had trouble wrapping his head around the fact that someone might not like someone else because of the color of their skin.
Recent events show that we have not solved our race problems in America.
“I can’t breathe.”
George Floyd’s final words were the same as the final words of Eric Garner. Black men are far more likely to die from police violence than white men. Black men are likelier to be pulled over by the police and to have their cars searched, especially if they’re driving in the wrong neighborhood. It’s called being guilty of “driving while black.”
This isn’t just anecdotal. There’s solid statistical data. The raw data is appalling. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered by the police, the police use force against blacks at seven times the rate they use force against whites. But, you can argue if the blacks live in lower income areas, there may be higher crime rates and that could explain more encounters between blacks and police. Yet sophisticated statistical analysis shows that even comparing for all variables, there is discrimination. Black drivers are much more likely to be pulled over during the day – when it can be seen that they are black – than at night when it’s harder for police to see someone’s race from a distance.
Cops killing blacks disproportionately is not a problem in every city, and it’s not tied to the rate of violent crime. Compare Buffalo, New York and Orlando, Florida. Both have populations that are roughly 50% people of color. The rate of violent crime in Buffalo is higher than the rate of violent crime in Orlando, 12 per 1000 versus 9 per 1000 – meaning the violent crime rate in Buffalo is 25% HIGHER than in Orlando. Yet from 2013 to 2016 there were no people killed by the police in Buffalo, and 13 in Orlando. It’s hard to avoid concluding the police in Orlando are comparatively trigger happy.
And it’s not just police. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in Georgia in February for the crime of “jogging while black.” The police seemed ready to give the murderers a pass until there was a public outcry.
And there are white people, sad to say, who know this, and use it against black men. Christian Cooper, an avid birdwatcher, former editor at Marvel comics and Harvard grad, who happens to be black, was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park a few weeks ago. Amy Cooper, no relation, a white woman had her dog off-leash in a part of the park reserved for birdwatching where dogs are required to be on-leash. Christian asked Amy to put a leash on the dog, and she refused, and then threatened to call the cops – she told Christian, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” And she did call the cops. She knew exactly what she was doing. She was trying to intimidate Christian, because everyone knows that if a white woman calls the cops and says a black man is threatening her life it sounds more urgent and threatening, and the cops might respond with excessive force. Fortunately, by the time the cops came, they had both left the scene. Christian videotaped the encounter, and as a result Amy was fired from her job as an investment manager. She tried claiming she’s not racist – but isn’t it racist to play the race card and lie on a call to the police? It’s reprehensible whatever she feels about black people in her heart.
Our Jewish values clearly tell us that police violence and racism are wrong.
First of all, police violence: regardless of race, the rabbis derive from the Torah the rule that even if your life is threatened, you can’t use more force than necessary to neutralize the threat. If you can stop someone coming to kill you by shooting them in the leg, you’re not allowed to shoot them in the head. All the more so if the person is not a danger to your life, and George Floyd in handcuffs was obviously not a threat to any police officer, and with four police officers present the man in handcuffs wasn’t going to get away. His murderer kept the pressure on Floyd’s neck even after he was unconscious. It’s appropriate that not only was the cop who did the killing charged with murder, the cops who stood around watching were charged as accessories.
Jewish values clearly condemn racism. The Torah teaches us that every single one of us, black, white, and any other color, is both created in the image of God, and descended from Adam and Eve. And while the story of Adam and Eve can be understood as apocryphal, science tells us that we do all have both a common male ancestor and common female ancestor. We are, in truth, all related.
The peaceful protests are clearly justified. There are genuine race problems in America. But what about the violence? Why the rioting and looting?
Some of the rioting and looting – especially in Seattle – comes from “anarchists,” people who are anti-government who are ready to loot and destroy anytime they get an excuse. May Day has historically been a time for hoodlums to come out.
But there’s another perspective on the rioting. Trevor Noah posted a video where he asked, “why isn’t there more violence and looting?” He explained it’s because we have a social contract. The contract is the government has a monopoly on the use of force, and it’s supposed to provide protection to all of its citizens. He says the rioters feel the contract has been torn up – like it doesn’t apply to them, they don’t get protected by the police, they get harmed by the police, so if there’s no contract they feel justified to not be bound by the usual rules.
What can we do to help restore that contract? What can we do to help black men feel that they too are part of the society, part of the contract?
I’ve thought about this a lot over the past week, and I’ve asked a lot of people. I’ve come up with three things:
- Hold our political leaders accountable. Demand that they be on the side of justice.
- Insist on police best practices.
- Support peaceful demonstrations
This is a time when there is great pain acoss the country. We have a right to expect our government’s leaders – at all levels – to call for calm and unity, to be a soothing presence.
Instead, we have a president who either is unaware or doesn’t care that he’s pouring gas on a fire. Using National Guard troops under federal command to clear peaceful protestors in order to use a church as a background to a photo with the Bible as a prop is so completely contrary to the values found in that Bible that’s it’s almost beyond words.
Quoting an infamous Miami police chief who in the late 60s said relative to race riots, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” clearly seems to encourage excessive police violence. Telling most governors that they are “weak,” and that they need to “dominate” is only likely to exacerbate the situation and lead to more violence.
Former President George Bush recently said, “we have resisted the urge to speak out, because this is not the time for us to lecture. It is time for us to listen. It is time for America to examine our tragic failures — and as we do, we will also see some of our redeeming strengths.”
It is time for us to listen – yet when our President made a condolence call to George Floyd’s brother Philonise, he didn’t have the courtesy to listen to him. THE most important thing in a condolence call is to listen to the bereaved. To let them talk. Even if you can’t offer to do something (like call for an investigation), you can listen. And then express your sorrow.
President Trump’s first Secretary of Defense – James Mattis has written a passionate editorial. He points out, “The words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding.” He goes on to say:
Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.
The people who really need to speak are the people who support President Trump’s policies overall, but who are or should be disturbed by the President’s attempts to divide us. They are the ones who need to call on the President to lead in a different way. The President might listen to his supporters.
The second thing we can do is to insist that our local communities follow policing best practices. Police reform does work. In Los Angeles, for example, 12 people were killed by police last year, compared with 21 in 2015. The San Francisco police department had 11 police shootings in 2010, and after reforms were put in place went a year with no shootings at all.
Successful police reform typically includes three things: teaching police officers to de-escalate, setting and enforcing clear and strict rules on the use of potentially lethal force including choke holds, and weeding out violent cops.
Seattle clearly has a way to go in learning the lesson of de-escalate. The pink umbrella has become the symbol of Seattle protests because on Monday protestors brought umbrellas to the demonstration to protect themselves from pepper spray. A video clearly shows a protestor peacefully resting a pink umbrella on a barricade – and then a cop comes and grabs the umbrella, the protestor tries to hang on to their umbrella, and next thing you the pepper spray is flying and the calm moment becomes violent. Police need to be trained – and need to be held accountable – in de-escalating potentially violent situations.
Some demonstrators lately are calling for defunding the police. Research shows that would be a mistake. When there aren’t enough cops on the beat cops are overworked and stressed – and likelier to blow a fuse and fail to de-escalate. We need the opposite. We need more funding for police, funding to support police reform, funding to avoid overworked and stressed out cops.
And the third thing we can do is to show up. To be present. To listen. A black colleague, Pastor James Reese, shared with our Black-Jewish clergy group that his uncle was killed by an off-duty admittedly drunk white police officer 55 years ago. A fight broke out when the cops, in civilian clothes, started throwing around the n-word. One of the cops, fueled by five drinks, pulled out a gun and shot and killed James’ uncle Lonnie. James said, “Personally, the murder and social ills, of the past several days, is abrasive to the 55-year-old scab I’ve attempted to heal. At times, more times than I care to remember, it is and has been difficult, for me, to breathe.” It’s not right that so many black men in our country have times when they feel they cannot breathe.
We need to hear this. We need to lend our support. We need to go to the demonstrations (safely, with masks, COVID-19 is still with us) and show this isn’t an issue that only black people care about.
Now some people remember the uproar of three years ago, when some anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian statements were part of the Black Lives Matter platform. Supporters of anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan had infiltrated the leadership of the organization. The statements were so anti-Israel that even leftie me felt I couldn’t support the organization. But that has changed. The offensive material has been pulled from the Black Lives Matter platform. You find no mention of Israel or Palestine in any of the platform documents now on their website. There was a lot of noise when they put the anti-Israel stuff in, but they took it out very quietly.
But whether or not you support the organization, the truth is “black lives matter.”
And responding with “all lives matter” – as some in the Jewish community have done – waters the message down. It’s like when people try and take a congressional resolution about antisemitism and make it a resolution against all hate. There are things that are unique about antisemitism, and there are things that are unique about racism, and they need to be called out and acknowledged, not watered down by lumping them in with other problems.
In the final speech of his life, Robert Kennedy said,
I think we can end the divisions within the United States….We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country.
Kennedy was right. We must not allow anyone to sow division in our country, to pit white against black, police against civilians, Christians against Jews or Muslims. We can end the divisions within the United States.
I close with the prayer I shared with you earlier this week by email:
Replace hearts of stone with hearts of flesh
Help all of us see that we are all created in Your Divine Image
Black, brown, white, or any other color of the rainbow
Straight, gay, lesbian, or any other sexual identity
Christian, Jew, Muslim, or any other religion
May our society stop acting is if being a black male is a crime
May our police keep us safe while showing compassion, and without excessive force
Turn the hearts of those who would loot and destroy
Show them that this is not the way to build a better, fairer, more just society
El Na, please God
Keep us all safe
Safe from violence
and safe from virus
May we speedily see the day when we live together