Like many of you, I have spent the past week grieving the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Reflecting on this tragic injustice, the Rabbinical Assembly released a statement that reads, in part:
“We join in the collective call for peace and reflection during civil unrest, but understand that to achieve this end we must act. For these reasons, the Rabbinical Assembly calls on legislators at the national, state, and local levels to fundamentally change their approach to law enforcement and the justice system so that they serve and protect all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. We encourage our own members to reach out to other communities, to Jews of Color, as well as to local law enforcement to help lead and shape these endeavors within the community.”
As an American Jew, I feel it is critical to listen to the Black community in forging my response to racism. I reached out to my friend Reverend Amantha Barbee, who serves as the Senior Pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, to hear her thoughts about what our community could do to support our Black neighbors; what follows below is based on her suggestions. In some ways, it is easier to be a good ally during times of crisis. Systemic change, though, requires long term commitment. I was struck that Reverend Barbee’s ideas are not flashy or excessively political. Rather, they are the kind of small changes that, over time, make a lasting impact.
Support Black-Owned Businesses
Entrepreneurs in the African American community have been especially hard hit during COVID-19; supporting black-owned business helps to bring economic stability and increased employment to the African American community. The Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce provides a list of its member organizations; these businesses are either Black-owned or support economic development in the African American community: https://members.oaacc.org/list/
Support Access to Higher Education for Minority Students
This morning, I contributed to the Kennedy-King Scholarship Fund. The Kennedy-King Scholarship Fund supports minority graduates of community colleges in Contra Costa County as they go on to pursue fouryear degrees. They also help to fund post-graduate study for previous recipients. You can learn more about the program here: https://www.kennedyking.org/
Study Contemporary Issues Impacting Civil Rights
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes:
“We…avoid talking about race. We even avoid talking about class. Conversations about class are resisted in part because there is a tendency to imagine that one’s class reflects upon one’s character. What is key to America’s understanding of class is the persistent belief-despite all evidence to the contrary-that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self-image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole.
What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so. And the major institutions with which they come into contact are designed to prevent their mobility. To put the matter starkly: The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control.”
By studying and talking about these issues, we can learn about the causes that underly violence and injustice our community. We can sharpen our ears to hear racist dog whistles, and respond when saccharine words masquerade as benevolence.
If you are interested in reading more about this moment, here are some articles that might be worth reading:
“I’m a Black Reverend Whose Grandfather Marched With King and Heschel. Here is How White Jews Can Support Black People Right Now.”
“Op-Ed: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Don’t Understand the Protests? What You’re Seeing is People Pushed to the Edge.”
Believe Us: Black Jews Respond to the George Floyd Protests, In thier Own Words
“““““““““““““““`In the words of Maya Angelou, “It is time for the preachers, the rabbis, the priests and pundits, and the professors to believe in the awesome wonder of diversity so that they can teach those who follow them. It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter their color; equal in importance no matter their texture.”
I look forward to working with all of you as together we forge a more just world.