Dad, how come all dark-skinned people live in neighborhoods like this one?
My son, Dakota, innocently posed this question to me a few months ago. Cody had a friend over after school. As the time came for his friend to leave, Cody and jumped in the car to take his friend home. His neighborhood was not even a mile or so away, so it would be a short trip. Distance wise, it is a short trip. Just within the few blocks between our homes, the neighborhoods changed dramatically. We left our idyllic, well-manicured confines of Stapleton to enter into the older, more desolate looking and feeling neighborhood of northeast Aurora. Cody clearly noticed this stark difference between his friend’s neighborhood and his own. And yes, Cody’s friend is African American.
As we drove away, Cody posed his question: Dad, how come all dark-skinned people live in neighborhoods like this one?
There was a lot to answer for in that short drive home. I did my best to address the complexity of the question. I tried to speak to the societal inequalities and injustices his question revealed. I hoped to express the sympathy that was in my heart and the willingness I felt in that moment to make change. (I am sure he stopped listening long before I was done speaking!) And then we arrived at home, and soccer practice or homework or dinner called our attention and focus. The reality Cody addressed had not changed and nor – do I believe – did my sincere thoughts and feelings about it. But, I was back in my own community and facing its needs, demands and challenges. There is only so much that I can do, so much that is my responsibility …
Even as I say those words, I do not fully believe them.
There is something happening in our country that is eating away at our societal core. Even though our plates are full … even though it seems that the roots and impact of what is happening feel well beyond our realms of responsibility … Well, we, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt. There are communities of people, who live houses, blocks, neighborhoods away from us, who do not have the same chance to live in the same kind of house, get the same kind of education, receive the same treatment by the law as you or me. All because of the color of their skin.
What Cody saw that afternoon is a reality:
- In the United States, according to Federal Reserve’s 2013 survey of Consumer finances, White families hold 90% of the national wealth, Latino families hold 2.3%, and black families hold 2.6%.
- The median wealth for a single white woman in the US is $41,000, the median wealth for a black woman is $100. And for single Latinas it’s $120.
- According to the Pew Research Center, for the past 60 years, black unemployment has been twice as much a white unemployment.
- In May of 2014 Atlantic magazine detailed a study that showed that blacks with college degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed as all other graduates.
- The US Department of Education reported in 2014 that when all age groups are examined, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students, even when their infractions are similar.
- And once black children are in the criminal justice system, they are 18 times more likely than white children to be sentenced as adults.
- While blacks constitute 13% of the population of the United States, they make up 40% of the prison population.
The opportunities, the possibilities the very realities that are available to us in this room this morning are not open to everyone who is part of our country, our state, our city … our very neighborhoods. All because of the color of their skin.
While our outrage may be genuine and our concern may be sincere, at the end of the day we still go back to our own communities and live our own lives … not seeing, any more, what outraged us or gave us cause for concern.
This morning’s Torah portion mirror this experience of ‘not seeing’ of ours. We read the account of the people entering into a great social contract — offering opportunity and prosperity. “You stand this day, ALL of you … your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer …. it is the whole community, of Israel.” It seemed like everybody was there, accounted for … part of this great covenantal contract. However, it is not EVERYBODY. It is just all of the Jews and a few others mixed in who also left Egypt. However, In the setting of Deuteronomy there are numerous peoples living in that same land … Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites … Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. They were there, but they were not seen by the authors of Torah, by the Israelites, by God.
They were not seen. They did not count. This menagerie of ‘ites’ did not get to be part of the promise of that covenantal contract. Even though the Torah says ‘all of you’, it really did not mean ‘all of you.’ All did not mean all.
Torah mirrors our society today. We feel as if we are part of a great societal covenant, that ‘all of us’ are in … but, there are Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites … Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims … who we do not see, who we do not include. Are we comfortable living with the fact that ‘all’ does not mean ‘all.’ We have to begin to take responsibility for our place in this exclusion. All must mean all.
Responsibility? Yes, responsibility. Well, we, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt. Wait, we have not intentionally voted for any politicians, supported any laws that would promote racism. Most of us work hard to act kindly, fairly and respectfully when we have the chance to engage people of color. However, even though we do not act with intentional malice, it does not mean that we do not do damage.
There is a helpful, if not obscure, Talmudic concept of one’s responsibility for communal damage. The Talmud categorizes this damage through the perspective of an owner of an oxen to the community:
- The keren or horn represents damage done with intent to harm. (Think of an ox that attacks with its horns.)
- The regel or leg represents damage done in the course of how the animal regularly behaves. (Think of an animal that steps on a piece of pottery and broke it.)
- The shain or tooth represents damage done while seeking pleasure. (Think of an animal that ate someone else crops because of hunger or damaged a fence trying to scratch an itch.)
Let’s say that we can agree that in regard to damage done with an intent to harm – keren/horn – by us to the Black community, we can determine that we are not guilty. What about the other categories? Might there be things we do – in the normal course of doing what we do – that beyond our awareness we never know how we impact an already difficult status quo of the Black community?
Rabbi Avi Killip, director of an educational organization called Project Zug, further elaborates on these categories of damage and this question of racial injustice:
… much of the damage caused by racism in America is not motivated by any hatred or anger; it just comes about through the way the system itself is set up. I may cause damage just by nature of how I walk in the world … When I go to the store to buy a shirt, I likely fail to notice that the salesperson immediately caters to my every need while the black woman next to me is ignored or maybe even followed around suspiciously. I am not trying to hurt anyone. I am just living my life, walking my walk … Most of the damage we do as white Americans is not out of malice to minorities, but in pursuit of bettering our own lives … These categories remind us that there are many ways to do damage. The intent doesn’t need to be malicious for the damage to be real … The Talmud categorizes harm in order to address fundamental questions: Who is responsible? Who is liable? And most importantly, how will we make it right? It’s not enough to avoid intentional harm. We have to see ourselves as responsible, as liable, for our involvement in upholding, even benefiting from, a rigged and racist system. How will we make it right?”
What does making it right, look like? I believe that making it right starts with us … trying to see beyond what we already think we see and know. Even when doing so makes us uncomfortable, uncomfortable as thinking of Hittites or Jebusites or Amorites as Israelities.
Black Lives Matter recently made it uncomfortable — by aligning themselves with the Palestinian cause. That alignment and the language they used to describe that alignment provoked many Jews. But, even when that story or those who tell it provokes us we cannot stop listening, we cannot stop trying to see beyond ourselves.
Making it right begins with us beginning to see those whom we do not normally see … the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites … Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims. Making it right starts with realizing that we truly want All to mean All.
It is in the spirit of trying to see beyond ourselves and glimpse at this truth, I have invited our community to read and then take some time to reflect and discuss, Ta He-nasi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. The book is a series of essays written by Mr. Coates as a letter to his son. He confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Mr Coates beautiful writing that pulls no punches feels to me like a compelling way for us to begin. As to the ways he might provoke or challenge us, I think his owns words to his son offer us good counsel:
I drew great joy from the study, from the struggle toward which I now urge you … the struggle and rupture has made me several times over … The changes have awarded me a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to … the changes have taught me how best exploit that singular gift of study, to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers.
I urge you – whether you come to reflect and discuss communally or not – to begin this process of seeing beyond what we already think we see, to study, to question and to keep on questioning.
Dad, how come all dark-skinned people live in neighborhoods like this one?
I want there to come a day when there is no need for sons or daughters to ask mothers or fathers such questions. And why it may not be my grandchildren whose world has no need ask questions, perhaps my great-grandchildren … but only if we begin the work today. The work of frankly confronting the inequalities and injustices in our world. The work of seeing everybody in our community – not just those who look like us. The work of understanding, intending and living that when we All Stand Together that when we say ‘All’, ‘All means All’ … and even when we might say or sing ‘We’, We will mean We’
? We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day. ?