Race, Racism, & The Spirit

Our Lives in American Society

[This exploration of the nature of race and racism in American society, as seen in the context of personal experience, social science, and  spiritual tradition, was given as a talk to students and some faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling. Rabbi Liebling is director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and a member of the Board of The Shalom Center. I especially recommend his essay as an extraordinary fusion of the approaches of historian, rabbi, and activist, drawing deeply as well on his own life-experience. --  AW, editor]

Shalom, thank you

It is an honor and privilege to address you Jewish leaders and Jewish leaders in formation.  I appreciate the opportunity and feel humbled by the responsibility.

 Responsibility because racism has been called variously the core wound of American society, the cancer at our core, our original sin, deepest shadow, fundamental contradiction --  choose your language -- they all convey the same message that the United States can not and will not be a spiritually healthy just society unless and until we put an end to all forms of racism.

 I will address today some of the different aspects of racism, the process of racialization, how racism and its corollary white privilege constrict the spiritual growth of each one of us and some suggestions of what we can do, in between you will have opportunity to speak with each other and at the end there will be time for some questions.

 Racism’s clearest manifestations are on the physical bodies of black people. African people were brought to these shores and treated as “bodies” -- not as human beings, and racism was burned into

the soul of the United States.  Slavery was a system that could only be maintained by extreme violence and that has left a legacy that leads directly to the way the law enforcement and penal systems treat Black people in America today.

 Violence and murder are the most glaring but consider this: Black people die younger, are hungrier, sicker, have a lower birth rate, a much higher rate of infant mortality, and have a much higher chance of breathing toxic fumes and living near a superfund site.

That is why it is so important to declare that Black Lives Matter.

Racism constrains the soul of America as a whole, of each group within this country, including us Jews, and of each person.  The full spiritual development of each of us is hampered by racism. Our spiritual growth is in part gauged by our ability to feel compassion for an ever-growing number of people, and racism constricts that.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

 "Racism is worse than idolatry. Racism is Satanism, unmitigated evil. Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is humanity’s gravest threat to humanity, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking."

 I believe it is useful to tell you a little about why it is important to me.  My parents were both Holocaust survivors, each the only surviving member of their respective families. I grew up knowing the effects of extreme racism.

They were refugees. We lived for the first ten years of my life in the 1950’s in Brownsville in Brooklyn –- classified at the time as the most rapidly deteriorating neighborhood in New York- I still remember the fires. We moved out when the landlord sold the building. We were the last white family to leave the block.  I saw first hand the effect of what I later learned was redlining.

Then, living in East Flatbush, I went to Erasmus Hall High school and our perennial rival for the basketball championship of Brooklyn was Boys High, an all-black, boys-only school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a dense, very poor all-black neighborhood  -- what used to be called the ghetto.

During my senior year on an afternoon in February of 1965 – a month before the march and bloody Sunday in Selma -- about dozen or so of my friends and me decided to go to the game at Boys High.

Our starting five were all black as well (with a couple of future All Americans). It was a close, tense game in a densely packed gym of hundreds of students, chanting and clapping, it felt like the floor and walls were undulating. We were the only white spectators, and sitting at the furthest point from the exit.  Our team won in the final minute.  The crowd was angry.  By the time we got to the exit we were walking single file with our hands on each other’s shoulders.

 I had the misfortune of being last in line.  When we got out into the street all I could hear was people chanting, “Kill Whitey!” I was terrified.  I was pushed down into the street, lying in fetal position, being kicked and punched, tasting my own blood, while people continued to chant, "Kill Whitey!"

Suddenly,  two black young men reached down, each one grabbing an arm.  They began lifting me up and shouting, “Don’t kill him!”  As they were carrying me, others reached in to punch me. But those two fought them off and got me out of their safely.  They saved my life. They risked their own safety, possibly their lives, to save me.

Later I thought that it is easier to understand getting caught up in the violence of a crowd, than to understand two black young men risking their lives to save an unknown white guy.

Though it certainly took me a while to sort it all out, I experienced the rage the black community feels because of oppression and the grace of being saved by two people able to step outside of the black-white dynamic and act in a fully human way.  I think this background helps explain my commitment to the issue.

And here we are fifty years later, still struggling as a nation with racism.

 Let’s take an overview of the problem. I think seven definitions will be helpful. Forgive me if some of this may be obvious but I think clarity of terms is useful. We have been taught to think of racism simplistically as the overt racist language or actions of an individual. But it is far deeper and more subtle.

 First, race is a social construct. There is no biological category of race; it was created by society. I know for some people this is hard to understand. Biologists are very clear and emphatic that race is not a biological category; there are not enough similar genetic markers.  Yet we visually see skin color and race is a social reality because humans made it so; perhaps the primacy of visual information has played a role  -- two thirds of the electrical activity of the brain is related to vision, and more of our neurons are related to vision than the other four senses combined.

 Second: Interpersonal Racism: It is prejudiced and discriminatory behavior where one group makes assumptions about other groups based on race, and this is often the result of explicit conscious bias. And this is what ordinarily comes to mind when we think of racism.

Third: Internalized Racism occurs when a group is consistently bombarded with negative messages about their own appearance, abilities and intrinsic worth, and then internalizes those negative messages. It holds people back from achieving their fullest potential and reinforces the negative messages which, in turn, reinforces the oppressive systems.  An example in the Jewish world: Many Jewish women don’t think they are attractive in a culture where northern Europeans are the standard of beauty.

 Fourth: Institutional Racism occurs when assumptions about race are structured into the social and economic institutions in our society; when organizations, businesses, or institutions like schools and police departments discriminate, either deliberately or indirectly against certain groups of people to limit their rights or opportunities.  Think how stop and frisk tactics disproportionately affects people of color or about how few black women there are in the sciences. This type of racism reflects the cultural assumptions of the dominant group and is often not recognized.

[Dyad: Please as silently and quickly as possible turn to someone near you to be your partner. One person please tap the other.  The tapper is now Aleph and the other Bet, each will have 4 minutes and I will time. Do not switch until I ask you to. When Aleph speaks, Bet just listens attentively, with no dialogue. Aleph: Please say what is hard for you in talking about race. Please begin. Bet: just listen attentively until I call time.]

Fifth: Structural Racism  is the accumulation over centuries of the effects of a racialized society. After World War II the GI bill enabled millions to buy homes and to go to college. It fueled the creation of the broad middle class in America. The black community was largely excluded from these benefits through a variety of racist practices and this prevented most from joining the middle class.

Think about what it means today to have been left out of that process of wealth-creation, home ownership, college education,  etc.

The median wealth of white families in the US today is 11 times the median wealth of black families. $110,000 verses $10,000.

The critical aspect of racism that we must address today is the accumulation and incorporation of long-standing racialized practices into all of our social and economic structures, or structural racism.

Sixth: Implicit Bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. They have been  implanted by all that we have ever taken in, and remember we live in the context of society that is continually producing and reproducing racist images. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.  Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.

They are pervasive.  Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality such as judges.

The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.

We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own in-group, though research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our in-group-  the deepest form of internalized oppression.

If you like, there is a simple set of on-line tests you can take that reveals implicit bias on a wide range of issues. Just google “Harvard implicit bias,” and I can almost guarantee you that you will be surprised.

Implicit bias is the cause of a significant amount of the discrimination that people of color experience. For example, this has been proved over and over again by investigating bias in hiring.

The good news is that implicit biases are malleable.  Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of debiasing techniques.

The seventh, Racialization, is a term you may not be familiar with. It was developed by John A. Powell, a professor at Berkeley  and social justice advocate, in his very insightful  book Racing to Justice. And I thank my friend and colleague Rabbi Toba Spitzer for turning me on to this.

He wrote, “Racialization or ethni-ci-zation is the process of ascribing ethnic or racial identities to a group that did not identify itself as such.[1] Racialization and ethni-ci-zation are often born out of the desire for domination or division. Often the racialized and ethnicized group gradually identifies with and even embraces the ascribed identity.”

These processes have been common across the history of colonialism, nationalism, and racial and ethnic hierarchies. Please note that it is a verb  -- it is the process of setting up a group as other and less-than in order to dominate or weaken them.

The process of racialization is baked into the origins of America, our cultural DNA. Let’s briefly examine the early history of our country.

When the European colonists arrived on this land, their basic premise was that the Native people were less than human and this justified dominating them, taking their lands, and eventually destroying their culture. The indigenous people had no idea that they were being considered as less than human.

Christopher Columbus was acting as a Spanish agent in accord with a Papal Bull of 1452 that declared  the Christian Doctrine of Discovery  whereby Christian nations could "capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ," to "put them into perpetual slavery," and "to take all their possessions and property."

Please note how strong these words are: capture, vanquish, subdue, perpetual slavery, take their property.

In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery became part of U.S. law by the Supreme Court case, Johnson v. McIntosh. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that -- upon "discovery" --the Indians had lost "their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations," and only retained a right of "occupancy" in their lands.

Remarkably the doctrine of discovery is again cited by no other than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a 2004 Supreme Court decision in ruling against native claims.  The Vatican still refuses to rescind the doctrine of discovery.

At the very beginning the original occupants were declared as less human than white Europeans. This has never been healed and it set the stage for the treatment of Africans.

In the early 17th century many of the English who came were indentured servants or poor workers, while an elite group ran the society. At that time many of the Africans who came to America came by way of the Caribbean where they had learned to speak English.

The concept of race had not yet been developed.  Workers, indentured servants and blacks began cooperating. In 1676 this group  joined forces in a rebellion against the elites in order to gain some rights. It was called Bacon’s rebellion and caused fear among the ruling forces.

Bacon’s rebellion was recounted to the English public as an armed rebellion of African slaves against English Christians and not as a worker revolt.  Edmund S. Morgan, one of our nation’s greatest historians, noted that in Bacon's Rebellion the danger of lower-class revolt was seen by the ruling elite. He wrote, “…But for those with eyes to see, there was an obvious lesson in the rebellion. Resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class.”  [2It resulted in the Virginia slave codes of 1705 and racialization became codified into law

Prior to this there had been no mention of whiteness or race. Whiteness as a category developed as a deliberate strategy to keep English workers and African slaves from uniting.  With whiteness came the right to never be a slave.

The governing councils strengthened the racialization process by forming the poor whites into patrols with the power to police the slave system.  Poor whites now had a stake in the system to think of themselves as white and that there was a need to regulate and police dangerous blacks  --  a belief that has lived for over 300 years.

What made blacks dangerous in the colonial period was their desire for freedom and full membership in a newly forming democratic society.

Powell shows that Racialization is a dynamic process: As each large wave of European immigrants came to America, they were seen as Other. The Irish, Italians, Slavs, Jews, - were all racialized, made separate and less-than, and all aspired to whiteness -- another word for assimilation into mainstream culture.

As a new group arrived, the previous group came closer to being seen as white. By the post war era, all European ethnic groups had become “white.”

Those are the seven concepts, and now a word about Jews.

There has been much written and said about Jews not identifying as white people because of our history of oppression. Today Jews of European origin are white people in this country. We have all of the privileges of whiteness; we benefit from being white; whiteness is not equivalent to being Christian.  A little more on this later.

Black people were unable to assimilate. After the Civil War, Jim Crow laws legalized segregation. The dominant narrative was that Blacks were inferior; explicit bias and racism were socially acceptable, economically profitable and politically rewarding.

After the Supreme Court overthrew ‘separate but equal’  in the 1950s and the civil rights movement forced America to come to terms with overt racism, legally explicit racism has been outlawed, and explicit interpersonal racism has become socially unacceptable and viewed as morally wrong by the mainstream.

Powell wrote, “Virtually all sectors of society now renounce racism. To call someone racist impugns not only the legality of the person’s actions but also his or her morality. Indeed, to call someone racist today is seen as incendiary and a form of character assassination.”

The overt racism of Jim Crow has been outlawed, the direct expression of racism is considered immoral, the white dominated society is eager to say racism is behind us, we are beyond it.  That is in part why it is difficult to talk about.

White people easily get defensive in conversations about racism. We hear it as a moral critique of ourselves, rather than just people of color reporting on their experience.  My colleague Rabbi Fred Dobb told me about Jay Smooth – hip hop DJ, vid-blogger, and trenchant social commentator.

Smooth says:

Think “of being a good person” as “you think of being a clean person…. something you maintain and work on every day… When someone suggests that we’ve got something stuck in our teeth we don’t say, “what do you mean, I have something stuck in my teeth?  I’m a clean person!”

“You will never bat a thousand when dealing with race issues,” says Smooth.

“The problem with that all-or-nothing binary, is that it causes us to look at racism and prejudice…akin to having tonsils – you either have tonsils or you don’t – ...and if someone says “I think you may have a little unconscious prejudice” – you say, ‘no, my prejudice was removed in 2005’!”  Yet “many things in our day-to-day lives…cause us to build up little pockets of prejudice every day, just like plaque develops on our teeth.  So we need to move away from the tonsils paradigm of race discourse, toward the dental hygiene paradigm of race discourse.”

Connecting the dots, Smooth exhorts:

“Shift away from taking it as an indictment of our goodness, and move towards taking it as a gesture of respect and an act of kindness, when someone tells us that we’ve got something racist stuck in our teeth.”

My experience is that it is an ongoing process, the need to step past  shame or discomfort . Ultimately. this is not about me -- to learn what the experience of another person is. This is not one and done.

[Dyad -- Easiest to have the same partner. Now Bet will begin: Why do you think it is important to talk about race? “I think it is important to talk about race because… “ Same rules as before, I will call time. Please begin.]

This brings me to the sometimes sensitive subject of white privilege. Some definitions of privilege from the dictionary:  Privilege is a right or advantage that you have others may not have.

Another one: Privilege  a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

Note that both of these say right or advantage. White people have an advantage in this society. Any examination of health, , education, the legal system, employment, housing, indeed any marker of well being reveals how the African American community is disproportionately suffering.

The activist and commentator Van Jones said,

“A socially just world is a world in which, if you had to draw a lot, and it would put you anywhere in that society, you would feel perfectly confident, you wouldn’t be worried, because you knew whatever lot you drew would be a good lot. It doesn’t mean everything’s equal -- it just means that every single person in that society has a decent shot at living the fullest life that they can. But if you close your eyes and you think to yourself, would you want to be black? Would you trade places? Well if you wouldn’t trade places, then there’s work to be done.”

 One great  advantage white people have is Psychic Freedom: Because race is constructed as residing in people of color, whites don't bear the social burden of race. We move easily through our society without a sense of ourselves as racialized, as being white. Race is for people of color to think about -- it is what happens to "them" -- they can bring it up if it is an issue for them (although if they do, we can dismiss it as a personal problem, the race card, or the reason for their problems). This allows whites much more psychological energy to devote to other issues

Racism in this country produces stress.  In a recent study of birth weights when every factor was controlled -- wealth, health of mother, medical care available, etc, black babies had a lower average birth weight. The researchers concluded it was the result of stress.  There is also a significantly higher rate of hypertension in the black community. It’s something that white folks don’t worry about- we can choose not to think about – black Americans don’t have that choice. That is an advantage, a privilege, whites have.

My experience is that for many if not most Jews the thought arises, I am not white, I am Jewish.  That is deep within us. Just this past week in my study action group -- we are all Jewish and many of have been doing anti-racist work for years -- we did an exercise about whiteness and it was surprising for how many of us still the thought arose I am not white I am Jewish.  Jews of European ancestry in the US enjoy all of the benefits of whiteness, regardless of our history of being oppressed.  We are the beneficiaries of a system of white domination whether or not we helped create it. As Heschel wrote, “In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.”

Hear the title of anthropologist Karen Brodkin Sacks’ book:  How Jews Became White Folks, And What That Says About Race In America.  For example, Jewish men benefitted from the GI bill while African American men did not.  How many of your fathers or grandfathers, went to college on the GI bill or bought a first home with a VA loan?

I think some of us have the fear that our “white card” will be pulled and we will once again be discriminated against; all the more reason to understand racialization as the process that divides our society and has thwarted every large-scale movement for full democracy and justice in this country.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that according to the best estimates, approximately 10% of the Jews in the U.S. are people of color -- and this does not include Sephardim. And they experience racism within our community on a daily basis. This was reaffirmed for me  just a couple of weeks ago as I heard two black Jewish professionals talk about their everyday experiences.  For example, Jews of color are routinely asked, “How did you become Jewish?” -- when many have been Jewish for generations, they are usually assumed to be outsiders.

If Jews of color experience racism within, then they will leave our communities. Our liberal denominations have done a lot of good work to make our communities safer for gay and lesbian people, and are now working on transgender issues. We know how, yet how many of our synagogues have worked to become a safer space for Jews of color?  We are creating painful situations.

Moreover, If we will lose Jews of color, we lose our natural bridge builders to communities of color and lose our credibility as allies in those communities.

Black Jews are as vulnerable as any other black person to racial injustice, police brutality and vigilante murders. The silence of most Jewish institutions on these pressing issues leaves black Jews and other Jews of color — already marginalized in the mainstream Jewish community — rendered invisible and without communal support.  That is why our institutions need to say Black Lives Matter.

Even as I feel honored to be here today to speak about this, I suggest that if you decide to go more deeply into this you will need to involve Jews of color as teachers.

This brings me to the final section, our spiritual health.

One way I understand God is as the connective tissue of the universe, the life force. We are most fortunate in our time that science and spiritual wisdom come together to teach that everything is connected and mutually interdependent. Nothing in the universe can exist on its own. Absolutely everything exists only in relationship- every sub atomic particle, every molecule, every cell, every blade of grass, every person, the planet itself, can only live, be, exist in relationship. I understand God as the energy in-between, that makes everything  a whole, a One, both immanent and transcendent.

Racism tears at the connective tissue of the universe, it violates the Divine, it creates separation.

We believe that human beings are created b’tzelem elohim, in the divine image; we are taught the importance of seeing the divine in each person, that it is through our relationships we bring God into the world.  Perhaps most famously Martin Buber taught us that it is in creating I-Thou relationship that we manifest holiness.

Quoting Powell,

“Racism is a systematic denial of a mutual human relationship with the other except for purposes of exploitation or ego gratification. In giving in to its demands we not only deny the other person’s humanity and interconnectedness but also cut ourselves off from our own humanity. “

Each of us is shaped and situated by social and institutional structures, shaping that leads to implicit bias and situating that creates privilege. We need to dismantle the system of racism that limits and frustrates our multiple evolving ways of embracing love, hope and caring in our routine human relations.  Our spiritual journeys require that we open ourselves up to engagement with all of humanity.

Buddhism is explicitly about relieving suffering in the world through both spiritual practice and action.  Judaism focuses more on justice, and isn’t the purpose of our social justice work to alleviate and prevent suffering? That is the purpose of  “Don’t oppress the stranger, feed the poor, pay your workers fairly and promptly so they can eat, etc.” There ought to be no separation between working for justice and spirituality.

One example: Tzedakah has been understood by many of our rabbis as a spiritual practice. The Rambam taught it is better to give away one coin a thousand times, than to give away 1,000 coins at once, because the giving trains you to open your heart. Tzedakah is not only about justice, it is, also about developing compassion and opening our hearts.

 A central aim of Judaism, like most other spiritual paths, is to help us cultivate compassion and love. Our central commandment according to Hillel is V’ahavta l’reyechau kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Part of our work is to allow ourselves to feel the pain of separation. We live in a culture that normalizes separation and discourages us from feeling any pain -- one that promotes every form of addiction imaginable so that we will not feel pain.

To do the work necessary to dismantle racism, white people need to, also, feel the pain of the system -- the pain of separation from a large part of humanity; the pain of knowing that some of the wealth, the opportunities I have came at the expense of others-- even though I didn’t cause it or want it. 

Feeling the pain does not mean feeling guilty or ashamed: Just take the time to  feel the pain. 

In America in general, the ideology of individualism, the lack of awareness of our connection to others, to the Earth is one of the major causes of suffering in both the spiritual and secular realms.

It is love that heals the pain of separation.  It is love that requires us to engage with the other.  It is love that gets us past our own small self and connects us with the Divine.

To seek a world with justice is to seek a world that provides for our spiritual expression.



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