Recently, the Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, signed the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act. On Governor Bryant’s website, the student religious liberties bill is described as one that “protects students from being discriminated against in a public school for expressing their religious viewpoints or engaging in religious activities.”
The expressed desire is to ensure that students can express their religious viewpoints. However, when we look at this bill more closely, it seems to be protecting the privileges associated with being part of the dominant Christian faith. As someone who does not subscribe to the dominant religion in Mississippi, Christianity, I found myself wondering whether the state was acting as an entity with privilege and whether my personal response (along with many others) was consistent with the behavioral patters the attached document ascribes to people who are—in the broadest sense—being oppressed. Because essentially, what this bill does is protect SOME students from being discriminated against in public school for expressing their religion.
Last week, I wrote about privilege and oppression. While we might feel privileged in certain areas of our life, we may feel oppressed in other areas of our life. This dynamic is often found when there is a dominant group with power greater than that of a minority group without as much power.
It’s difficult to make the case that in a Mississippi public school, where a significant majority of the students and faculty members are Christian, that a student that is Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, or any other minority faith (or no faith at all) will feel as though their expression of religion is being protected by this bill. If anything, the message is that to fit in with the other students, their religious expression ought to be diminished and more consistent with the dominant religion.
The tendency to pay most attention to the dominant culture is a phenomenon we see not only in public schools, but also in private institutions – including American synagogues. Ashkenazi, white, straight, able-bodied congregants are part of a dominant culture. They are dominant in numbers and in the power structures of many American synagogues. Is it a stretch to wonder whether people who don’t fit that very precise description are feeling oppressed in any way? In looking at the tendencies associated with people in oppressed positions, I’d like to suggest that there are similarities.
Again, this chart provides some insight into the behavioral tendencies of people in positions of privilege and how it feels to be in a position of oppression—in the broadest sense. My hope is that this insight can lead us to proactively aim to foster a community where everyone is part of the “we” and there isn’t an “us” and “them” that separates the dominant group from one that is less dominant. With this in mind, we can do the difficult work of creating more genuinely inclusive schools, houses of worship, and communities, where everyone is valued.
In lieu of our regularly scheduled blog post today, the staff of the ISJL all send our love, thoughts, and prayers up North to Boston, where many of us have friends and family members. We are shaken by today’s tragic events, and praying for the best outcomes possible.
To all in the Boston area, all those terrified or injured, reeling and recovering, to all first responders, to everyone: our hearts are with you. Blessings for Boston, and for us all. Shalom, y’all.
Last week, the Alabama House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill setting up a procedure to pardon the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women on a train over eighty years ago. The bill, which had unanimously passed the Senate, now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who has said he will sign it.
For seven years, The Scottsboro Boys endured a series of trials they could not win. All but the youngest member of the group, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, were sent to death row after false accusations from the women and convictions by all-white juries.The case became synonymous with racial injustice and set important legal precedents, including a Supreme Court decision that outlawed the practice of systematically excluding African Americans from juries.
According to the LA Times, “Advocates believe the bill is a chance to correct some of the injustices of a bleak period in the nation’s racial history as well as a chance to show that things are different in the modern South.”
This gesture by a community of legislators in 2013 is an important step for reconciliation, but I’d like to also bring attention to a community leader who showed bravery at the time of the trial: Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of Beth Or in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood apart from the crowd and stood up for his beliefs about the mistreatment of the boys.
He was the only white clergyman to visit the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” in prison and was instrumental in connecting them to a team of lawyers from International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the American Communist Party, for the appeal trial. Upon seeing the northern Jewish lawyers, the prosecuting attorney exclaimed: “Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” On Yom Kippur in 1932, Goldstein defied intimidation and defended the Scottsboro boys in his sermon.
Words like those spoken by the prosecuting attorney and Goldstein’s persistence deeply troubled Beth Or’s board of trustees. Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gunter informed board members that if Goldstein did any more to assist in the Scottsboro trials, the Ku Klux Klan would organize a boycott of Jewish businesses in the city. Without permission, Rabbi Goldstein spoke publicly at a rally for the Scottsboro Boys. In April of 1933, Beth Or’s president Ernest Mayer informed Goldstein that he either had to quit his political activities or leave. Though two board members defended Goldstein, he presented his letter of resignation to the board the following day. Some confessed anonymously to the Montgomery Advertiser that they secretly sided with Goldstein. Nevertheless, Beth Or’s board published a press release declaring the congregation’s commitment to segregation.
The Scottsboro Boys’ legal team fought hard for many years to free the innocent men, but in the end could not overcome the systemic racism of the courts or the pervasive bigotry of the culture.
Rabbi Goldstein’s leadership, even his inevitable defeat, should remind us not to accept the status quo in our communities. These pardons, eighty years in the making, come too late for the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, and injustices persist in our judicial and penal systems to this day. May the actions of Rabbi Goldstein and all of those who fight for justice inspire us to struggle for equality and freedom, both for others and for ourselves.
Had you heard of the Scottsboro Boys? Did you know about Rabbi Goldstein’s outspoken defense of them?