Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
On Thanksgiving morning when I entered a large grocery store in Wicker Park, Chicago, I was transported back to a long ago uncomfortable memory. At that time, while living across Lake Michigan from Chicago, I shopped at a branch of this supermarket chain. I told a friend I was abandoning the large supermarket in Benton Harbor, having found a new, smaller market that was more easily navigable. The large store was crowded, aisles jammed with displays and bumper-car-like navigation, ending in long checkout lines.
Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, twin cities split by the St. Joseph river, had become a sad example of racial divide. St. Joseph — White, middle and upper class— contrasted with Benton Harbor, predominantly Black and poor. Knowing these realities, my friend, a sage older man, read more into my comment than grocery shopping. He knew that the prices were higher at the smaller upscale market, which equipped him to question my choice. He asked, “Well, is that because you don’t like shopping with African Americans? Are you racist?” “NO!” I emphatically replied. I merely appreciated more relaxed grocery shopping. I was stung by his question and its unwelcome assumption.
That jarring moment remained in my consciousness as a reminder to be vigilant in fighting racism. This weekend, when I walked into a supermarket from that same chain in an integrated Chicago neighborhood, it was on my mind. Our Thanksgiving visit to Chicago began just after the video of the murder of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago policeman was released. In just seconds of video, the 16 shots fired at the fleeing youth were stunningly recorded. It took 13 months and a court order under the Freedom of Information Act for the video to be released, discrediting the false narrative of the police report. Once again, a Black youth had been slain by one who was sworn to protect. A city official responding to an enraged crowd outside the Chicago State Attorney’s office stated that the police were charged to protect “property.” What about the people? Black people often do not feel protected — rather, they feel discarded or even pursued by police.
I joined two of my children and hundreds of others in a Chicago protest march on “Black Friday.” As we arrived, we witnessed a protester being pushed to the ground, forcefully handcuffed and arrested by a group of police officers who had surrounded him. I felt fear. I didn’t want to be arrested that day, that way. Then, as I walked with the mixed, but mostly African-American crowd chanting, “16 shots, 13 months!” up the Magnificent Mile on tony Michigan Avenue, I felt like weeping — for worrying about myself, and for the fear and hurt and anger that my fellow marchers endure as part of their daily lives.
The protest march was emotionally gripping in a way that all the reading and talking about racism never could be. Many well-meaning whites who value equality and the Divine image in all human beings are sure that they are not racists. But until we come to terms with the undercurrents of racism in this country and the lasting effects of slavery, violence and discrimination, racism remains. It is up to us to repair this brokeness.