Black and blue (and white)


This has been a bruising time to be an American. One video after another records white police officers killing African-Americans. One man while restrained flat on the ground, a second in his car with his girlfriend and her young daughter in the surrounding seats. In neither of these two incidents were the Black men threatening the officers. Within days, we also witnessed an assault on the police officers of Dallas —five officers killed in the very moment they were protecting the rights of angry Americans protesting police brutality. 

We are swimming in blood. Ancient American fault lines — of race, wealth, privilege and violence — are ripping open before our weeping eyes. Whatever progress toward healing the rifts we thought we might have achieved seems vulnerable to the new assaults and the rage they reflect. Whatever coalitions we have built seem fragile in the face of new realizations of inequality, race hatred and access to too accessible weapons of mass destruction.

In this storm, we seek haven. Perhaps Jewish tradition contains some wisdom to help us find the path toward healing, to guide us toward policies of true tzedek u-mishpat (justice and equity)? Perhaps if we train ourselves to see through heaven’s perspective, we might discern the way out of this ancient ruin? During these dry summer months, it is a Jewish tradition read the Mishnah’s compilation of rabbinic wisdom, Pirke Avot, “The Teachings of the Sages.” Let their perspective elevate our own.

We Didn’t Cause It; But We Have to Fix It

It is not for you to complete the task,

but neither are your free to stand aside 

from it (M. Avot 2:21).

Each of us was born into a world we did not fashion. We did not invent the social structure that privileges some and marginalizes others, nor did we launch the democratic structures that make progress possible. The problems, the creativity and the institutions all were created by the generations before us. We are their heirs, to both the good and the bad. Regarding the problems, we are not guilty. But we are responsible. How we respond to the reality we find ourselves facing, how we take the democratic institutions our forebears created and advance a vision of greater justice, greater inclusion, greater peace is very much ours to determine. Those choices will also constrain and empower our children’s generation. What we do matters. We honor those who came before us, and enhance those who will come after us, by making good choices now.

Truth, Justice and Peace

The world stands on three virtues:

on justice, on truth, and on peace

(M. Avot 1:18).

We cannot heal our social divisions if we don’t begin with justice as our goal, with truth as our standard and with peace as our way. 

Our goal must be a society in which someone’s race doesn’t matter and yet matters very much. That is, vis-à-vis one’s rights as citizen, one’s race should be irrelevant. But as a matter of identity, culture and pride, one’s race and community matters equally for each citizen and deserves honor and attention from society at large. Those twin poles, legal irrelevance and cultural prominence, direct us toward the end of our journey, toward which our efforts must point. 

Truth means recognizing a second bipolar reality. On the one hand, we have made great progress as a society. African-Americans now serve as leaders in scholarship, industry, government, education and a host of other arenas. Our nations has benefited from African-Americans as Supreme Court justices, secretaries of state, president of the United States, just to name three prominent possibilities that have opened within the last half century. Legal battles won for voting rights, access to fair housing and equal education have made a real difference, to be noted and affirmed. But these changes are not nearly enough. The rate by which African-Americans get pulled over by police for often-minor offenses, get arrested for those offenses and the length of their sentences and their rate of incarceration is markedly different than for white Americans. But on the ground, the rates of violence against Blacks is significantly higher than it is for other races. Access to healthy and affordable food, to affordable housing, to quality education is still largely correlated to race and income. 

A commitment to the standard of truth also requires recognition that while most Americans oppose racism, the culture marinated in racist belief and practice for so long that we are all infected by its residue. In 1775, when Patrick Henry sought to defend the new democracy, he chastised his fellow (white) Virginians, that they should be men and not slaves. As with his fellow Founding Fathers, African slavery was not marginal to his identity, it was at the core of his sense of what a worthy American is not: not a slave, not a Black person. For centuries, that fault line, slave/free, defined the nation’s sense of democracy. Even the Constitution defined a Black person as only 3/5th human, and a later Supreme Court decision made clear that no slave or descendant of slaves could ever be a citizen. The pervasive sense of Blacks as inferior, suspect, alien, runs through the very core of American democracy. Even Jesse Jackson acknowledged that he responds differently to the sound of footsteps on the street if he turns and sees a young Black man than if he sees someone who is white. We all are infected by a racism that seeps out of our subconscious, our assumptions, our split-second reactions. Even though pretty much all of us are opposed to racism, the residue remains just under the surface.

To acknowledge these truths is not to foment a race war, it is simply to root ourselves in truth. America is not yet a level playing field, and truth requires us to acknowledge that there is much work yet to do. 

Justice requires that we keep the goal of equality, diversity and shared values firmly in place. Truth requires acknowledging the chasm between what ought to be and what is. And peace reflects the American conviction that the locus of value lies in each individual person. If liberty is built one person at a time, then we must respect the rights of every person, starting with their right to life, to security, to well-being. Demonizing groups, whether racial groups, police officers or religious groups, or attacking people for belonging to those groups, is an assault on democracy itself, a rejection of what is holy and good in our heritage as Americans. Our republic depends on the rule of law, but law that reflects equity and justice for all.

Seeing With Another’s Eyes

Do not withdraw from the community;

Do not be sure of yourself until the day
your death;

Do not judge your fellow human beings

until you have stood in their place
(M. Avot 2: 5).

For us to begin the work of our time, to take America forward as a land of liberty for all and of true justice, we must recognize that our own take on the world is informed by our personal perspective, our distinctive history, our particular communities. To reach beyond the endless loop of our own perspective requires us to listen to others, to imagine ourselves as them, and to ask them to inform us about what their lives, communities and struggles mean to them. We have to learn to question our own fundamental assertions, looking for our own blind spots while seeking out others who can help us stand in their place, if only in sympathy, if only momentarily. 

If we can nudge ourselves to build communities beyond the boundaries of our own group, our own faith, our own professional circle, so that our circles of belonging include those who are not like us, who look different than we do, whose faith or traditions are not our own, so we can open our hearts to their point of view even as we insist they extend that same circle of grace to us. It is surely no coincidence that the metastases of racist, anti-Semitic or mysogynistic words and deeds have erupted simultaneously. We cannot remove this malignancy of hatred if we are each isolated and self-focused. We have a possibility of expanding the American promise into something more expansive and grand than the one we inherited, but only if we join together.

We Jews can hone our ability to see through the eyes of another, to stand in their place, by finding members of the African-American community to join in conversation, in shared gathering, in renewed commitment to democracy, the rule of law and equality, to engaged dialogue in which we do more listening than speaking. 

And in that regard, we all need to listen to the voices of law enforcement officers, too. These brave men and women risk their lives out of an idealistic commitment to making our streets safe for all of us. They are constrained by the same social nexus that impacts us all, but they stand on the front lines, and they manifest higher values and greater courage than most of us. The vast majority of our police forces seek the greater good, and we need to listen to them, as well: What can we do to help them do their jobs better, to achieve their goals of service and safety on behalf of us all? We need to hear their voices and work with them for the common good.

The Future Depends on Each of Us

If I am not for me, who will be?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when? (M. Avot 1:14)

In the end, there is no clear boundary around what counts as American values. We will determine which values make the cut by our own actions, our own participation, our own shared struggle for justice. Similarly, the American story doesn’t have a conclusion; each generation writes the subsequent chapter, which constrains and empowers the following generation while allowing for new options to emerge from the heritage of the past. Our generation can take its inheritance: — a legacy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, of all men being created equal. But we have also been dealt a legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow, of segregation and privilege, and we can determine what that past will mean because of the future we choose to make real.  

If we want our children  — and others’ — to live in a world of peace and harmony, of creativity and decency, then we must fashion that world now. Our parents were able to wrest greater justice and opportunity in their time. Together with our brothers and sisters in the African-American community, with the men and women of the police forces, with other faith communities, we face that same possibility today.

It is our time. If not now, when?

RABBI BRADLEY SHAVIT ARTSON holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University. He hosts “Higher Ground,” the university’s video series offering spiritual perspectives on contemporary social issues.

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