When I was a college student, I remember an image from a class that has stuck with me. It was a photo of a uniformed police officer in the UK chasing after a black man. What information did the image convey? What conclusions did we draw from this picture?
Then we were shown another photograph of the same scene, but the camera lens had pulled back to reveal a broader perspective. Now we saw a third man running in front of the black man. What, it became evident, we were looking at was a black man, who was a plain-clothed detective, and a white man who was a uniformed police officer, both chasing after a criminal.
These images, and our readings of them, revealed many things to us. It brought our awareness to how the camera lens, whether fixed image or moving image, has the power to interpret the unfolding of events to us in ways that may or may not align with a fuller, more complex and nuanced picture of those events. And it also highlighted the ways in which we read situations and images through the lens of our own stereotypes and assumptions that we are always superimposing on what we think we are seeing unfolding.
Today, I know that there are thousands of people who are angry and upset about the police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, who are peacefully protesting and marching and conveying their pain not only at a particular verdict but at the larger set of societal patterns that it highlights. I know this because I’ve heard about the extensive community organizing and planning and the opportunities to march peacefully that one of our colleagues, Rabbi Susan Talve, has been directly engaged and involved with.
But if you based your knowledge of how the community in Ferguson is responding to the news solely on where the lenses of media cameras are focused, you would think that violent and angry protest is all that this community is capable of. And that would be untrue. As Rabbi Talve shared earlier today in a webinar organized by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: “That’s not the story here. We can’t let the media take over the narrative.” What is troubling is not only that the camera lens is hiding from those of us who are not physically present on the scene the larger picture of how the community is working toward change and calling for justice. In choosing to focus in on the violence of the minority, the media reinforces the images of black men being angry and violent. They contribute to the very stereotypes that lead to more black men being stopped on the street and the likelihood that they will be shot because a police officer sees them through a lens that leads them to believe that they are interacting with someone prone to violence and anger. The narrative reinforces and reproduces the very situation that the community is seeking to address.
Rabbi Talve explained that the demand for justice goes beyond the specifics of what happened when a police officer shot Michael Brown and whether or not this officer acted appropriately. Rather, this is one in a string of incidents that highlights how systemic racism leads to these kinds of outcomes. When we focus in closely to what Missouri police protocols permit an officer to do and under what circumstances they may draw and fire their gun at someone, it may be concluded that this particular officer acted within these protocols. But if we pull back the lens and look at the bigger picture we may ask different questions.
If we see clear signs, as I believe we do, that racism continues to play a significant role in how black men are seen and treated in public space, then these are some of the questions that we might ask:
- If we value the preservation of human life as the highest goal, and we truly mean that to apply to all lives, are there protocols and methods or tools that police officers could be retrained to use that, while enabling them to enforce law and remain safe, would minimize the need to resort to deadly force?
- Have we, in fact, put in place procedures to ensure that the use of deadly force is truly the last resort?
- Have we spent time and effort to ensure that our police officers, whether in small towns or large cities, have the training and education and the cultural competency that can help counter inbuilt systemic racism?
- Is this something that needs to be tackled at a national scale to ensure that all police forces have access to the same resources, training, and expectations?
I think that a great deal of the anger and frustration that we see goes beyond the rather unusual decision of a grand jury to prevent this case from going to trial. What is missing right now is any willingness, at least publicly, for those in positions of political, legal, and police authority to step forward and say, “let’s sit down together with members of the larger community and try to better understand what these larger concerns are. Let’s look at how we do our work and see if there are new rules, programs, or other steps that we could put in place to minimize the loss of life in these situations in the future.”
I could cite Jewish sources on the value of preserving life. But those sources won’t help us find a path forward in Ferguson until we are able to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others. And before we all jump to conclusions and debate and analyze based on the very incomplete pictures that most of us have, let’s start by pulling back the lens and asking whether we truly know what is happening to the left and right of where the cameras are currently pointing. And if we don’t, let’s begin by listening more closely to the communities who are crying out to be heard.
“So it’s finished?” I heard one commentator on local NPR ask sarcastically in a discussion about the NBA decision to issue a life-time ban on Donald Sterling. Of course, we know that the conversation about racism in our society, how it manifests and how it effects the lives of millions of citizens each and every day, is clearly not over. But while most media outlets are moving on to the next story, it is also quite clear that, if Sterling’s private conversation with his girlfriend was being held up as an example of the kind of racism that our society won’t tolerate, the conversation never really even began.
Because it is way too easy to hold up people like Donald Sterling as examples of racists so that the rest of us can congratulate ourselves on not being racists “like them.” Most people don’t want to look in the mirror when these stories highlight only a caricature of racism to delve a little deeper into their own, real life experiences.
It just so happened that, while this story was breaking this week, I attended an extraordinary multi-media one-woman performance called “Crossing the Boulevard” by Judith Sloan. Sloan engaged youth and adults over several years in what is probably the most ethnically diverse borough in the USA: Queens. Through an exhibit which became a book, which became a stage show, Sloan brings to light the hidden stories and experiences of people of so many different faith and ethnic backgrounds who she met through her project. By telling pieces of their diverse and fascinating stories she brings forth the most important facet within each and every one of them—their humanity.
Her presentation was brought to my town by the Friends of “Facing History and Facing Ourselves” program that is taught in our local High School. The performance highlights how each and every one of us knows so little about our neighbors because of the silence that exists, separating people of different backgrounds. Part of this is due to our uncertainties and anxieties about ‘the other’ and part of it is the way in which we seek to understand ourselves partly through defining with whom we belong. Hence we seek others “like us” as part of that search for meaning. This is not inherently wrong. It is human nature. But it means that it takes an active choice of will to simultaneously exert effort to build genuine relationships with others. Inaction too quickly leads to a separatism within which power exerts itself and racism is easily inserted into the equation.
I yearn for intelligent conversations about difference and diversity. I hold a professional position that makes a great deal of my work about helping Jews hold up, engage with and love things that are specifically Jewish, and require Jewish community coming together to share some of the best of those things. And I also recognize the need to do this in ways that are outward looking, that seeks opportunities to share our specificity with others who will have equal opportunity to share theirs with us. His kind of sharing doesn’t usually “just happen.” It takes an act of will. Just last month we hosted a Shabbat service to highlight the learning that took place among a group of 8th-12th graders learning and leading in a program that provides Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus with a meaningful encounter over six weeks of being together. We need programs like this in our schools, in our communities, and for adults as well as children.
If the story of Donald Sterling is to teach us anything, let it not be what racism looks like—that’s too easy and simplistic. Let it remind each of us to take that active step, personally and individually, to have a conversation with someone we see as “other.” Let it remind us not to hide our own sense of “otherness” in a desperate attempt to fit in to something that we perceive might not accept the fullness of who we are, but gently, and with tolerance and patience, we can help teach others when we share that “otherness” with them. We may not complete the work, but neither can we desist from it.
I have had many reactions so far to the recently leaked audio of comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. For those who have missed the media coverage, Sterling had a lengthy conversation with his girlfriend about why she should remove all photos of herself with African-Americans on the social media platform Instagram and why she should not bring African-Americans to Clippers basketball games.
First and foremost, I am disgusted by his comments. I am disgusted by the dehumanizing hate inherent in his words. I am disgusted that Donald Sterling is a Jew, the son of immigrants who knew what it meant to be hated for what you were rather than judged for who you were as a person. I am disgusted that Sterling can date his girlfriend/mistress (he is not divorced from his wife), who is both African-American and Mexican, while finding her public associations with other African-Americans to be abhorrent. I am disgusted that Sterling can find it fitting to profit from the physical exploits of his predominantly African-American basketball players yet prefer for African-Americans not to attend his games. I am disgusted that a Jew would be associated with these racist comments at the time of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we affirm our commitment never to forget what hate and discrimination can lead to. So I join the basketball players, sports columnists, and pundits who have condemned these comments. I hope, once due process runs its course, that if it is confirmed that Sterling spoke these words (thus far he has not denied that it is his voice speaking), that he is forced to sell his team and banned from basketball.
(Update: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced today that Sterling admitted to being the speaker on the audio recording and Silver banned Sterling for life from the NBA and was fined $2.5 million)
I further hope that the Jewish community of Los Angeles will exercise tochecha (rebuke) and reject his presence and involvement unless and until he shows true contrition and a willingness to engage in teshuva (restorative repentance).
Yet some might view Sterling’s comments as less abhorrent than the overtly racist screeds we heard earlier this week from Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who illegally grazed his cattle on federal lands and refused to pay for it. Bundy, of course, became infamous last week for telling New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney that African-Americans were better off when they were slaves:
“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Seen in this light, Sterling’s comments seem far less jarring. Disregarding the fact that Sterling has a history of explicitly racist comments, in the audio recording, Sterling argues that he is not racist but a realist. At about the one minute mark, he claims that his girlfriend should not publicly associate with African-Americans not because they are inherently bad but because of public perception of minorities as bad. “I’m living in a culture, and I have to live within the culture. So that’s the way it is.”
Yet there is an insidious underpinning to Sterling’s comments that bothers me, as a Jew, far more than Bundy’s noxious harangue. Sterling argues that we stuck with the detritus of our culture, that there is nothing we can do individually to change racism in America. But this idea of acquiescence is anathema to Judaism! It is the opposite of the redemption we have experienced throughout our national history and which we pray for daily in our liturgy. The story of Abraham is the story of a man being willing to leave his homeland, his status quo, for an uncertain future. And, in Genesis 18 (when Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), it is the story of a man who was willing to stand up to no less than God for what he thought was right. The story of Passover, which we just celebrated, is the story of God, through Moses, freeing the Israelite slaves in Egypt from the mightiest empire then on earth. The story of the founding of Israel in 1948 is the story of a people who had been exiled from their homeland for nearly 2000 years yet never giving up hope of an ultimate restoration to that land. As Rabbi Tarfon insists in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 2:16, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from trying.” Standing up to the status quo, fighting for what is just, effecting change in a world of intransigence and stasis—this is what makes Jews Jews.
During the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot, we Jews count the Omer to symbolize and to embody the ongoing pursuit of personal and collective redemption. As we do so this year, let us continue to fight for what is right and reject those who claim “that’s just the way it is.” Let us reject the Sterlings who accept the world with all its flaws and re-commit ourselves to creating the world as we aspire it to become.
This week, we have heard endless blatheration on what Trayvon Martin should have done, whether Zimmerman was legally culpable, whether he was morally culpable. I’ve been told by people who know the law that the case couldn’t have turned out any other way.
I can’t stop thinking about this case – as is true of so many of us. Not because I’m shocked by the outcome. Quite the contrary. But because I’m shocked by the reactions of people I know to the outcome. Not everyone, of course. but the litany of excuses from people whom I otherwise like or respect, I just find it amazing to hear them.
I’ve read up on the law, on the case. I’ve seen a recent study about Stand Your Ground laws and how they increase racism in the courtroom. I’ve read the responses from black men, who fear for themselves, or their children, or who merely speak with resignation. I’ve heard from friends whose children are black boys, who are worried about the risks they take whenever they walk out the door.
Over the last year, I’ve tried to be more open in my opinions; to listen more carefully and more openly to those who disagree with me about things I consider fundamentally important. It is difficult, sometimes, but I find myself able to do it. But this is different. I simply cannot hear one more person saying that Martin was a thug, or that he should have done something different: what could he have done?
I have written my pieces on Judaism and gun control. I’ve nothing to add. I realize this blog is supposed to be a repository of Jewish text or wisdom, but I’ve nothing to add here either. Today, I am only thinking of the children of color whom I have worked with in Barry Farms who, with their families, did the best they could with the almost nothing that they had, and whose chances of getting out are low, and further stymied by the recent upending of affirmative action programs in colleges, and the uprooting of voter rights protections, and who if they do get out, may simply face a violent death because someone is afraid of their skin, knowing nothing about them, and then, if they are gunned down, will be put on trial for their own murder.
We have just passed through Tisha B’Av, in which we mourn the destruction of the Temples, twice. First for idolatry, and again for sinat chinam, baseless hatred. This smacks of both. Our societal idolatry of the individual, the individual’s right to do whatever makes them feel good, even if in the aggregate, the lives of many others are damaged or destroyed; the hatred of those – sometimes even without our noticing- who frighten us, because of their skin color, or origin, or religion.
I excuse myself from none of this, because I live in this society, and I benefit from its institutionalized racisms and privileges and because I haven’t done enough to change it.
In my exile from the just and the true and the good, I sit and I weep. Perhaps at least I know I am in exile. Perhaps that is at least a start. That’s it; I have no other words for you.
I began making frequent trips to Israel during the second intifada, in August 2001. I became accustomed to the security guard at public places, having my bag checked at entrances to restaurants, markets, malls, etc., which made me feel secure.
Yet, it can still be a little bit jarring to transition in when I arrive in Israel and have my bag checked or go through metal detectors at shops and other public venues. I am now in Jerusalem for a two week stay, and my first stop was the supermarket. At the SuperSol, the now familiar guard, a young Ethiopian man who could be the age of my son, sits at the entrance and asks, in Hebrew, “Madame, do you have a weapon?” I can’t help it, I laugh, and answer, “No.” He looks in my bag in a cursory way and lets me enter.
I laugh for several reasons, I suppose, as I think about it later. One reason is that it is still so surprising, even after all these visits, to be asked this question. I wonder what would happen if I said “yes”. I wonder who carries a weapon in their bag. I also laugh at the thought that if I did carry a weapon, why would I want to tell him? But that’s a scary thought, not funny at all, and so totally absurd for me — I could never imagine even touching a weapon, no less carrying one around. I laugh because of the momentary nervousness generated by the horrible reason that the guard is asking me this question in the first place. And then I grab my shopping cart, consume myself with the delight of being in this place, feeling secure because of the presence of this guard at the entrance.
I was thinking about weapons that night of my return to Jerusalem. Coincidentally, just a block away from the SuperSol is Jerusalem’s Independence Park (Gan Ha’atzmaut). That night there was a huge demonstration of the Israeli Ethiopian community, protesting racism in Israeli society. The streets were all blocked, traffic was at a stand-still as I arrived at my short-term apartment just a few blocks away. Shortly after the demonstration, I could see some signs still left there as I walked past the park. I watched the news that night and heard one protester sum it up: “You brought us here. Now what?”
There are a lot of seam-lines in Israeli society. Racism is one of them. Tolerance, respect and inclusive democracy are all hot button issues. Yet, while Israel’s social problems are in sharp focus for the occasional visitor like me, it also strikes me that we are not so perfect in the USA either. I wish there were more protests addressing the social problems in our country, actually, when I see the Israeli activism.
It occurred to me that these are the weapons we have — words. That had been the first thought that had made me laugh at the guard’s question. What went through my mind was, “Of course I have a weapon! It is my voice. It is my words.”
A couple nights later I walked past the park and noticed an elaborately decorated car parked nearby. The car was covered with banners, signs, bumper stickers and painted words, all promoting the Bretslover Chasidic sect. The words proclaim G-d’s love. Echoes of the protest still linger, perhaps this is one of them. Here is one kind of weapon against hate, captured in words. I wonder how we get from slogans to actions — how we can do a better job of loving each other with acceptance, respect and compassion.
As I walk down the street I am consumed with thoughts of protests, activism, tolerance and mutuality. I notice a slightly familiar person walking past me, now in front of me. It’s the young Ethiopian guard from the SuperSol. His pace is quick — but I want to catch up and tell him that I DO have a weapon. It’s my words. It’s my actions. It’s OUR activism.
Of course, I don’t bother him. But I think about how we need to do a better job of revealing our best weapon against hatred, inequality and violence. And I am grateful to him for his unknowing inspiration.
Photo by Itta Werdiger Roth