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The Call of Ferguson: A Time to Examine and Address Race

By October 9, 2014January 15th, 2016No Comments

by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Kol Nidre, 5775

Shana Tova. G’mar Hatima Tova.

The weeks leading up to and through the High Holidays are a time of heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls. They are a time to take stock of our lives and examine our ways.

This year, the weeks leading up to the High Holidays have been a time of heshbon hanefesh, accounting and examination, for our country and for the soul our nation as we grapple with yet another tragedy that took the life of a person of color.

Just shy of two months ago, 18 year old Michael Brown was pulled over by police for jaywalking on a small side street in Ferguson, Missouri. An argument with the police officer, Darren Wilson, escalated and Michael Brown, who was unarmed- and many say had his arms in the air to surrender- was shot six times and left for dead in the street. After the shooting, Officer Wilson was not indicted or reprimanded for his use of force. The community of Ferguson was of course outraged and took to the streets.

Protests, mostly peaceful, were organized to lament this loss of life and all the other Michael Browns in their own community and beyond and to call for justice. The protests were met with an escalation of the police force and an increasingly military police presence, who pointed guns at citizens and teargased citizens- adults, teenagers, children alike.

What happened to Michael Brown, sadly, was not an isolated incident. Mother Jones magazine reported that there were at least four other unarmed black men shot by the police in the month following Brown’s death alone. Even though this tragedy isn’t unique, Ferguson captured the media’s attention and has become a defining moment for our country. Ferguson shed light on many harsh realities we don’t often like to talk or think about, including the relationship between police and community, the lack of representative government, especially in more disenfranchised communities, and the increasing militarization of the police.

These are all important topics deserving of time and thoughtfulness; tonight, I want to focus on how Ferguson has shed light on the wounds and the pain of racism and invited us into a conversation about race in America.

After Ferguson, there were many who spoke about the ways in which racism permeates the systems and structures of society. Racism, as we know all too well in Philadelphia, is inherent in our educational system, which in many ways is still segregated and where schools with the most children of color are given the least resources. Racism is manifest through housing discrimination, employment discrimination and its institutionalized through the criminal justice system.

These are realities that many in our community are deeply involved with trying to address, through our own livelihoods or volunteer efforts and through our congregational involvement with POWER, Philadelphians to Organize Witness Empower and Rebuild.

I was really thankful and happy that so many journalists and writers were putting forward these facts and challenging the dominant American myth that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.

But what I have been reminded of since Ferguson and what has really hit home for me in a deeper way is the understanding that racism is both entrenched in and transcends these particular structures.

Over the last few months, I have been moved by the stories I heard from people of color — friends, acquaintances, and people I don’t know personally– about the way race affects their daily lives and taints their experience of life.

This summer, I was speaking to an African-American friend and she shared her experience of going to the suburbs, which was something she had to do from time to time for work. Virtually every time she does, even when she drives her relatively new Toyota Camry, she is pulled over by the police, often leaving to the inevitable question, “And why are you here?” She is now in charge of hiring an organizer within her non-profit to work primarily in the suburbs. She knows she cannot discriminate in her hiring process. But could she really consider hiring an organizer of color and subject them to the kinds of harassments she has undergone, on a daily basis?

Another African-American friend shared his experience looking for jobs and engaging in job interviews. He discussed being consistently turned down for work even when his qualifications were clear and while he couldn’t prove it, believing strongly that the reason was because of his race.

One account really brings home the point that racism affects all people of color, regardless of their socio-economic standing and station in life. Kimberly Norwood , a law professor at Washington University who lives in a middle class suburb close to Ferguson, articulates this idea.

She says: “The median household income in my suburb is $85,000 per year. In Ferguson, it is $36,000. In my suburb, 3.5% of the people are black. In Ferguson, almost 70% are black. These are stark contrasts. Yet I share things in common with black people in Ferguson and, indeed, throughout the United States.”

She goes on to describe some of the daily insults of racism. When shopping in stores, she says she is either being ignored and treated as a waste of time or is followed around because she is feared to be suspicious. She recalls when her teenage daughter was shopping with four white friends together, none doing anything different than the other, and her daughter was pulled over by security guards, accused of shoplifting.

The story that hit home the most for me was about getting ready to go on a cruise with her husband. Her sons were teenagers at the time and they would be staying home. The boys were taking summer enrichment classes at a school one mile from her suburban home and would be walking back and forth to their school.

In addition to the regular things one might need to prepare before leaving on a vacation and leaving teenagers to fend for themselves — including shopping, packing, cooking meals in preparation — she put one other thing at the top of her to do list: email the chief of police.

She worried that if her two sons walked one mile to their afterschool enrichment program, they would be the subject of harassment, by local members of the community or by the police themselves; that someone might call into the police “suspicious persons” or they would be picked up or berated in some way, simply because they are black.

She contacted the local police, explained to the local chief of police that she and her husband were going on a cruise, that they were members of the community, and that her two sons would be walking to school. She attached two pictures of the boys. Norwood met up with the chief and a day later went on her trip.

Norwood writes, “‘I’ve asked myself: How many parents of white sons have thought to add to their to-do-before-leaving town list, “Write letter to local police department, so police do not become suspicious and harass them?”

As a white person, who has white privilege, who doesn’t have to take such precautions or worry abut my children being discriminated against in work or harassed by the police–who can go almost anywhere at almost anytime and feel safe– I can never truly know what it is like to be a person of color in the United States. But I can and need to hear these kinds of stories, to help me grow in understanding and cultivate my ability to be an ally to people of color in my own community and beyond.

Heshbon HaNefesh, taking a soul’s accounting, is not just an accounting of self for its own sake. We do this kind of accounting for the sake of teshuvah, for the sake of change/turning/transformation. If these past two months have been a time for reckoning and coming to terms with the ways that racism manifests in our society, then now, is time to consider how we can be part of the healing.

Tradition teaches that there are two kinds of teshuvah: ben adam l’havero– between a person and other fellow human beings and ben adam l’makom– between a person and their Source.

Teshuvah ben adam l’havero calls us to assess how we are doing, individually and as a society, in regards to our fellow. This kind of teshuvah propels us to do the important work of fighting for racial equality and economic opportunity for all people. This year, through POWER, we focus on access in our schools, fighting for a fair, full funding formula. Next week, we kick off our fall campaign for voter engagement, contacting people through phone and canvasses who are disenfranchised from the voting process, predominantly people of color, and talking to them about our city and children’s future.

As well, teshuvah ben adam l’chavero reminds us keep our focus on Ferguson, where the struggle for justice is very much alive. Out of a situation of despair, community leaders are creating hope, registering people to vote, building community networks. Ferguson community leaders have asked clergy and lay leaders from around the country to join them in their efforts and support them, I am proud to say that two KT members will be and will bring the spirit of Kol Tzedek with them.

The second type of Teshuvah is ben adam l’makom– the transgressions between a person and God. I understand this concept as a soul-searching process, a looking inward and acknowledging what is unseen and broken in our own hearts and making it right. If are really going to learn from Ferguson, then we need this kind of internal soul-searching too.

A few weeks ago, I reached out to an African-American pastor of a West Philadelphia congregation, a fellow POWER clergy leader, to talk about Ferguson and race. I asked him, “What do you think we can do to make a difference on race?” “What would you want to tell my community about what they, white Jews and Jews and allies of color, to do to bring about racial justice?”

I was expecting him to respond with something like “Take it to the streets. Start protesting, writing your government officials…” I think it is my activist brain’s default mode — that working for injustice has to have concrete actions steps!

Instead the pastor simply said, “I want people to have honest, hard conversations. To talk about race, to talk about race within their own community and with communities of color.”

The pastor continued: If we were to solve all the issues of education and let’s say we solved all the issues of economic injustice, there would still be race. Even if we were to solve the problems of the criminal justice system, which the writer Michelle Alexander and others considers “The New Jim Crow,” even then we would still have to deal with race. There would still be people who believe that some lives matter more and some matter less.

We continued to talk about how reflecting on race and privilege and having hard conversations is itself a healing act. When we talk about race, whether we are black or white or something else, we take what is hidden and invisible and bring it to the surface. By making the invisible visible, we gain power and control over the conversation.

This may sound easy — after all, Jews and people who spend time in Jewish communities, are good at talking! Yet, this work can be challenging as talking about race invites us to look at things inside us we don’t want to acknowledge are there, to see our hidden or implicit biases. Research has shown that due to advertising, media, and our social history, all people in our society harbor some negative feelings about people of color, including people of color.

It is almost impossible to be inundated with images of black men as criminals and not internalize some of these thoughts and feelings, even if those ideas are against our most cherished values. But in the process of recognizing and naming our biases, we are also able to work with them, soften them, change ourselves and our perceptions over time.

And for those of us in our community who are white, we may have to look inside and see the way privilege works in our lives. And see the hard truth, as was taught to me by one of our members, that the privileges a person has masks the oppressions of others.

This an important conversation to have with ourselves. And it is important to look within our community to do this teshuvah work. Jared Jackson, the director of Jews in All Hues, an organization that advocates for the full inclusion of multi-heritage Jews in Jewish life, who is himself an African-American Jew told me the story of going to a nearby synagogue in New Jersey. Upon entering a congregation to pray, he was immediately mistaken for a valet driver and given the keys to someone’s car.

Can you in a million years, imagine that happening to a white person entering a shul to pray?

While we like to think that something like this could never happen at Kol Tzedek –and I have to hope and pray it wouldn’t– are we 100% sure? What about more subtle forms of racism? What assumptions are made about people of color who come to visit or be part of our community? How do we ensure that our community is a safe space for Jews of color or multi-racial families?

And as the pastor challenged me, it is important to have these conversations with ourselves and with communities predominantly of color. We have the opportunity to do so, through our work with POWER, which is moving towards an understanding of itself as a racial justice movement in the city of Philadelphia. I look forward to these opportunities to grow our souls and our understanding in relationship with others.

Michael Brown’s death was a tragedy. But his legacy does not have to be a tragic one. Through heshbon hanfesh, taking an accounting of our souls, as a society, we have an opportunity to take stock of race in this country, and come to admit and see clearly that racism is an enduring, painful part of our legacy and our reality. Through Teshuvah, turning, we can commit ourselves to doing the work needed to heal ourselves and others, to shift the conversation and through that, to work toward a day when all lives will matter.

Ken Yehi Ratzon! May this be the will of God and may this be the work of our hands, Amen!