Good Evening, Shabbat Shalom. Members of the Congregation, Members of our larger local community, Binei Mitzvah Betty Gibbs and Family, and Rabbi Berkowitz. Thank you for sharing your Friday evening with me. It is truly a pleasure to be standing before you in a place where so many of my childhood memories were forged.
Before I begin discussing my involvement with Black Lives Matter – a movement which has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to march with – I would like to make it known now and totally of my own fruition that this sermon is NOT one of political urging. NO endorsements of any candidates will be made. I am here to discuss a moral crisis, one which America and its white communities have consistently deflected away from but can no longer outrun; one which involves the continued prejudice and pain of an American race whose history in this country I would wager predates everybody in this room tonight.
There is nothing political about this issue that any single candidate could cure. There are solutions on how to move forward as a people which we will discuss, some of which necessarily will be implemented through political means, but this not a ‘blue state’ or ‘red state’ issue. Basic humanity, oppression, and institutionalized racism cannot, and should not, be quantified on a political spectrum. This is America’s issue. On a micro-level – in a community blessed with such proud diversity and multi-culturalism – this is Poughkeepsie’s issue. This is Vassar Temple’s issue. So I hope this alleviates any initial concerns.
To begin, I’d like to read a few statistics that highlight racial biases in our criminal justice system and in the larger context of America’s institutions. Know that these data points are a window into a larger systemic issue, but I am pressed for time. In each larger statistical category, hundreds of additional examples can be found. Please see me afterwards if you’d like the citations/sources.
• When charged with the same crime, a black male is six times more likely to go to jail than a white male. In spite of being only 12% of the population, black people make up 38% of arrests for violent crimes. They are twice as likely to be victims of the threat of, or actual use of force by the police (Sentencingproject.org).
• In specific localities, the unequal enforcement of our laws is even starker. Black people make up 15% of drivers, 42% of stops, and 73% of arrests on the NJ turnpike, although they violate traffic laws at almost identical rates. In spite of white people being more likely to be caught carrying guns, drugs, and other contraband, 52% of those stopped by NYC’s Stop and Frisk policy were black (sentencingproject.org).
• Studies show that only 13 % of drug users in this country are black – in line with their share of the overall population – yet they account for nearly 36% of those arrested and 46% of those convicted for drug-related offenses (sentencingproject.org)
• Institutional racism does not stop at the arrest. There is also racial bias in jury selection, which leads to illegally turning away qualified black jurors at rates as often as 80% of the time (equaljusticeinitiative.org)
• Black people are sentenced to 20% longer prison terms than white people for similar crimes (WSJ.com).
• A black man convicted of a drug offense spends as much time in prison as a white man convicted of a violent offense (NAACP)
• Even black children are treated as second-class citizens. Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white children and make up 58% of children admitted in prisons (apa.org)
• In the workplace, black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed as college graduates overall. People with ‘black sounding names’ need to send 50% more job applications than people with ‘white sounding names’ to get a call back (nber.org)
• A white applicant with a criminal record is (epi.org) is more likely to get an interview than a black man with a clean record
I’ve chosen to highlight three different sectors – policing, the court room, and the work place – to hopefully offer a small window into the blatant discrimination that black communities survive and endure on a daily basis. Given these unequal opportunities, and combined with the disastrously shameful effects of larger policy initiatives like redlining, gerrymandering, and predatory practices from the private sector, it should come as no surprise that black communities continue to feel marginalized, oppressed, and as though their lives do not matter.
We are not removing personal accountability from black communities or black citizens by acknowledging that this systemic condition is the primary reason white supremacy continues to persist in this country. Yes, white supremacy, the centuries old elephant in the room. Often this term sociologically is prescribed to the Bull Connors, the George Wallace’s, and more recently the Dylan Roof’s of the world, but I’d like you to challenge yourselves here and now to see this term as being applicable to anybody who finds themselves content in the face of such undeniable inequality, where white communities enjoy a higher quality of life than their black counterparts.
By extension, friends, that implies that this term is applicable to many of us in this room tonight at one point or another in our lives. White supremacy isn’t merely a deranged man with a Rhodesian badge shooting up a black church in Charleston; it’s also the guy who calls Black Lives Matter a ‘Hate Group’ because he feels threatened at the idea of a movement seeking true equality for black communities or worse, pretends that our black brothers and sisters already know true equality under the law and its institutions – that racism is a thing of the past.
By reading the news yet doing nothing, by throwing our hands up in the air as if to say “What more can we do”, by constantly telling black communities in the words of Martin Luther King Jr “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action,” by arguing on social media and Thanksgiving talks alike with our families ‘It’s time for them get over it,’ when we know very well that ‘It’ is still going on, we too are white supremacists, because we too are content to see the system remain intact.
We have witnessed some truly shocking displays of police brutality over the past year, and sadly they are displays that are not a new phenomenon to black communities. They are not a revelation to which naturally begs sudden admonishment or newfound sadness, or even collective outrage. They are an everyday part of black history in this country. We just simply now have the technology to fully capture its breadth and horror.
And yet, after every single fatality, we immediately see the media, local government, law enforcement, and concerned white citizens everywhere defame, dehumanize, and demonize that fallen citizen’s character. As though marijuana in your blood stream is a tangible reason to take a life. As though a series of minor, non-violent arrests is a tangible reason to take a life. As though a legal switchblade is a tangible reason to take a life. As though holding a toy gun in Wal Mart is tangible reason to take a life. Not too long ago, the media and government once used these tactics to justify Emmett Till’s murder – ‘he shouldn’t have whistled at that white woman that way, what was he doing in that shop unaccompanied, he was asking for trouble’ – and sadly we already know it worked there too.
So this is why we say Black Lives Matter. This is why we march. This is why we are blocking traffic with our hands up. This is why we are filming police and yes, this is why we’re getting arrested. White Supremacy – this idea of being comfortable with the work we’ve done while completely disregarding that which we didn’t, that which we elected not to, that which we looked the other way from, or that which our silence allowed to persist – is alive and well in this country and we have a moral obligation as Jews to play an active role in its total eradication.
All Lives Matter – this we know and need little reminder of from the naysayers worried their own life somehow now matters less – but over 200 years after the American Dream was constitutionally created, as our founding fathers so boldly set out to create a better world, the oldest demographic of Americans are still fundamentally denied its most basic opportunities. It’s most basic principles.
We’ve seen distinctly defined waves of immigration come to America and define Americanism in search of opportunity, in search of a better life. We’ve seen Irish peasants escape famine, Italian merchants in search of economic freedom, Eastern Europeans seeking political escape, Central Americans escaping crime and cartels, South Americans running from corrupt governments, East and Southeast Asians fleeing from classism and caste systems, all driven by the rightful and just idea that in America, your merit and your worth are measured by your drive. By your character.
And yet, we continue to restrict the opportunities to which black merit, black worth, and black character are measured amongst its everyday citizens, all while extolling and appropriating the virtues its exceptional citizens – the LeBron James’, the James Brown’s, the Maya Angelou’s of the world – produce for this country. We cannot proudly support black celebrities while in the same breath ignoring the oppression and injustices the communities from which they were raised continue to endure in 2015.
Black Lives Matter is simply a movement attempting to change this. Attempting to change a country which still treats individual circumstances of implicit racial biases against its own citizens – from the casual, to the grotesque, to the sometimes fatal – with callous indifference.
It is NOT about black lives mattering more. It is NOT about hurting police officers. It is NOT about starting a ‘race war,’ whatever that means. It is about urging America and by extension all of us in this room tonight to come to terms with our country’s original sin, to understand that we have not done nearly enough and mostly, to understand that TOGETHER WE CAN CHANGE THIS. If you truly value human life – the life of your neighbor no less – you will have no problem outwardly supporting our cause.
As heirs of a people biblically enslaved for 400 years, as an ethnic race of Jews who escaped political and religious persecution worldwide, as descendants and survivors of the most diabolical genocide mankind has ever known, and most importantly as community members of a progressive synagogue right here long dedicated to civil rights and social justice, I call on you now to act. I call on you now to challenge yourselves. I call on you now to make yourself uncomfortable. I call on you now to think about racial inequality every single day, as our black brothers and sisters are forced to, to understand that racism in this country is still systemic, and that our silence is the loudest form of consent we give towards its perpetuity.
As American Jews, we have been fortunate enough to never know in this great country the level of oppression that black communities have endured – the antisemitism that has plagued us globally thankfully never made its way fully onto American shores – but historically as a people we know all too well what it is like to be treated as second-class citizens, to cry out our plight while our neighbors remained silent. From Egypt, to the Inquisition, to the Pogroms, to the Nuremberg Codes, we understand the pain it feels to be judged by your race and your physical appearance.
In Midrash Devarim Rabbah, it is explained that God loves justice even more importantly than sacrifice. It is explained, “To do what is right and just is MORE desired by the Lord than sacrifice.” Not as much as sacrifice, MORE than sacrifice. How we treat those who are less fortunate is forever a core foundation of what it means to be Jewish, but it is not enough to treat those less fortunate with tsedakah, as though to imply this condition will never change. We must work to change the condition itself. As the Torah in Deuteronomy Shoftim insists “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” I call on you tonight to carry out this virtue for our black friends, for our black families, and for our black citizens right here in this community. I call on you now to pursue justice.
So, in a practical sense, what does this mean? We can agree that human suffering is inherently wrong, that racism is inherently bad, but what does Black Lives Matter want, and what can we do to help? First and foremost this means supporting communities of color, giving them the space to speak for themselves, and truly listening to their concerns, even if they seem to contradict yours. When you’re walking home and you see a black man walking in your direction, in more cases than you might be willing to realize, he is a lot more afraid of you than you are of his presence.
He’s afraid of walking home in a society where he is 15X more likely to be targeted by the police. He’s afraid because his father sat him down when he was ten and said “The world will come to fear you when you’re older son, you will be scary to most who aren’t black, and law enforcement will assume you’re up to no good.” He’s afraid because his mother is terrified every second when he’s not home. Because of the color of his skin. Because of the demonization of his character which leads to the denial of his basic humanity. I cite this day-to-day example to illustrate a basic component that contributes to our collective racial ignorance.
I implore you to meaningfully interact. Reach out to communities of color and ask them the question “What does being black in America mean to you?” And then, listen. Really listen. Listen to what they are saying. Too often, conversations about race are directed and dictated by white people with little consideration for the black community. Again, so we can feel better about ourselves. Often, even the perspectives on what it is like to be black in this country will be spoken for by white people.
From Woodrow Wilson, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to Bill Clinton, to most recently Jeb Bush claiming black communities vote democratic for the ‘free stuff,’ – ironically coming from a man who’s experienced traditional wealth and free stuff his whole life – white politicians and social leaders have continued to speak for, and on behalf of, black communities instead of giving their leaders the support and separation to speak for themselves and call discriminatory policies for what they really are without fear of being labeled a Black Panther, or otherwise radical.
You can be an ally in this regard by reaching out to your local black leaders in Poughkeepsie. Listen to what they are saying. Do not dismiss it as conforming to an “angry black male” or “crazy black lady” stereotype if you don’t automatically agree. Challenge yourself to understand fully. Do not confuse this with blind agreement or support, either. Dialogue and love are our greatest weapons against ignorance and fear.
Second, recognize that white people have the luxury of being white and appreciate that this privilege is real. Recognizing that allows us to engage on a platform where social hierarchy might start to change. I proudly wear a BLM shirt today to prove this point. Riding the subways to marches, I am often ostracized by all groups of people. White people think I’m crazy, Black people think I bought it for fun, and police officers think I want to kill them.
None of those are remotely true, and it can feel deeply hurtful at times to see a movement founded on love be treated with such hate and vitriol. But when I’m feeling overwhelmed from the pain and sadness of these wildly untrue stereotypes, friends, do you know I do? I put a sweatshirt on to cover it up, and instantly I’m simply another white male in America living the American dream and appreciating the privilege that being white affords me when I choose – that being the ability to not think about race. Our black friends and family have no such luxury of escaping the toxic stereotypes placed on them solely by the color of their skin. They cannot escape the color of their skin. They cannot escape the implications it brings each day in this country.
Thirdly, support the political processes – not the candidates – engendering change. Make this one of your ‘issues’ when going to the polls and evaluating candidates. Pay attention to who’s talking about racial justice and more importantly, pay attention to who’s avoiding talking about it at all costs. Pay attention to who’s risking alienating their political base to make people uncomfortable.
A radical social intervention is needed nationwide when it comes to talking about race. Urge your local leaders to allocate funding for body cams to help us understand fully what happened when violence is used, to provide additional training for de-escalation practices, to adopt methods of advanced psychoanalytical screening for incoming officers using techniques like word association to ensure that all law enforcement officers – black or white – have a better understanding of the implicit racial biases they may be bringing with them into the field. It can save lives. It can build bridges of trust in communities that need them most. Police forces should look like, and be actively involved in the communities they are sworn to protect. Blatantly discriminatory policing policies like Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows must end, or be more transparently monitored.
Finally, once we move beyond this, we are not finished. Two years ago, 5 conservative Supreme Court justices eviscerated critical parts of the Voting Rights Act, and now in local, state and federal elections we are seeing basic denials of America’s most cherished liberty. Alabama recently passed a law requiring a license for voter registration, and then promptly closed DMV’s in ‘black belt’ communities, to very little uproar. See these atrocities for what they really are and urge your local, state and federal leaders to understand that this is not a ‘red state’ or ‘blue state’ issue. This is America’s issue. This Poughkeepsie’s issue. This is Judaism’s issue. This our issue.
As I close tonight, ultimately, friends, I want all of you to do more. None of us in this room tonight have done enough. I want you to see yourself in the faces of black communities, to see your children in the faces of their children, to see their plight and continued oppression as your plight and continued oppression. We’ve all built this country together, woven a fabric that tells a mighty tale of triumph and exceptionalism. We are the greatest country in the world, and despite our imperfections the world is a better place with America leading. And yet, despite our patriotism, despite our global standing, despite our financial security, none of us will ever know freedom until all of us know equality.
We will never be truly free until all of us are truly equal. So tonight I will leave you with this: Let us join together as Jews and Local Citizens of the Hudson Valley to do what we can right now to push ourselves slightly closer to that goal, to creating a country which fully establishes in the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren “That Black Lives Matter, That Black Citizens Matter, That Black Families Matter.” For if we ever get to that place – that sacred heaven of radical love, universal humanity, and colorblind equality – All Lives might actually start to matter. Thank you, Shabbat Shalom.