April 19, 2024 -

Why Atone for Racism – Rachel Laser, Stern Social Action Lecture at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, Yom Kippur 2016

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the presentation shared by Rachel Laser at the Stern Social Action Lecture on Yom Kippur at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, October 12, 2016. Rachel Laser is former deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., and is a sought-after speaker on white privilege and racism, among other topics in her work as a social justice activist. We encourage you to share comments below, or to share this link by email or post to social media such as Facebook or Twitter to continue the dialogue.

I was excited to read that the musical Hamilton is coming to Cleveland. One of the many great lines from that musical comes from the song One Last Time. In this song, President George Washington, explaining his decision to step down from the presidency, invokes the Bible. In a soft, almost yearning voice, he sings:

“Like the scripture says

Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid”

This biblical verse from the Book of Prophets, often attributed specifically to Micah 4:4, must have really spoken to President Washington. Historians have documented that he cited it nearly fifty times in his correspondences. One of those times was in his letter in 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. Washington wrote:

“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

It is certainly true that President Washington’s statement urged Jews “to continue to merit” good will. His subsequent wish, however, for Jews to live in safety and unafraid likely reflected an awareness of our country’s tendency to treat the Jewish community as the “other.” Yet, at the same time, President Washington presided over hundreds of slaves at Mount Vernon. Instead of promoting an environment where no one is made to feel afraid, Washington ensured that slaves will continue to live in a state of fear when he signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act, guaranteeing the right to recover an escaped slave, even by force.

President Washington’s moral failure in this regard was made all the more poignant in Hamilton because actor Christopher Jackson, who plays him, is African-American.

A Yom Kippur Question

Indulge me for just a moment in this thought experiment. Let’s pretend that President Washington is Jewish and is here with us today on Yom Kippur. I bet most of you would agree that on his list of things to atone for should be his own and perhaps also his country’s treatment of black and brown people. I am guessing that you would not give him a pass even if he was not fully aware of the inconsistency between his core values and slavery.

One thing I am asking myself to think about today is whether I, like President Washington, also need to atone for not living my values when it comes to the issue of race in America, even if I have been unaware of doing this.

Put another way, should I, a white Jew and American, add racism to my already long list of confessions on Yom Kippur? I specify “white Jew” because 11% of American Jews identify as something other than white.

Bona Fides

First a little bit about me and why I am here today speaking on this topic.

My personal journey to understand racism and white privilege started two summers ago. At that time, I was the Deputy Director of the Reform Movement’s social justice office in Washington — the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (“the RAC”). A wonderful man whom I had met in Selma at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Edmund Pettus bridge march had asked me to give the sermon for the George Washington University Hillel Yom Kippur service he co-led. He stipulated only one condition: “Be Yourself.”

I racked my brain for a topic that felt worthy of this honor, and then it came to me — White Privilege. It was the year, as I am sure you recall, when national media had finally begun to expose the frequency of unjustified killings of black people, from Michael Brown in Ferguson, to Freddie Gray in Baltimore, to Tamir Rice, right here in your own backyard in Cleveland. As I worked with my colleagues at the RAC to advance racial justice policies in Congress, I noticed something peculiar.

At the same time as I felt moved by and deeply dedicated to the idea of racial justice, I felt uncomfortable and even repulsed when faced with the increasingly prevalent concept of “white privilege.” The concept made me squirm, but I did not understand why.

“White privilege” struck me as the perfect topic to explore on Yom Kippur, a day that is designed to take us to a place of deep introspection and physical and mental discomfort.

In last year’s sermon, which I called Uncovering My White Privilege on Yom Kippur, I began to reflect on white privilege. I was no expert; rather I was, and still am, a white person trying to look inward with honesty, to study, to connect with people of color and to understand my personal connection to black and brown people’s experience in America.

My decision to tackle white privilege on Yom Kippur suggested that at least some part of me felt that white privilege was something I needed to atone for. But I was not at that time ready to face whether I also needed to atone for racism. In fact, I did not use the word “racism” one time in my sermon. This was in part because I was just starting to understand racism and in part because I did not want to lose my audience when I already felt on shaky ground. Instead, last year’s sermon stuck to defining white privilege and to unpacking my feelings about it.

The Answer

Today, just one year later, I am more ready to take that plunge. Like the rest of you, I have lived through a lot more. I have watched too many videos of black and brown people being unfairly shot and killed by police officers. I have read too many headlines like “Tyre King, 13, Fatally Shot by Police in Columbus, Ohio“ and “Ohio Student Athlete Takes a Knee, Racist Teammates Threaten to Lynch Him” and “White Man Causes Car Crash, Shoots and Kills Black Woman.” Concepts like “racism” and “white privilege” are no longer on the periphery; they have become part of our national vernacular.

I feel ready to consider whether I, a white Jew and American, should atone for racism.

It pains me to say so, but I believe the answer is yes for two reasons. I benefit from racism and I perpetuate it. Jewish tradition also makes clear that even though I do not intentionally or consciously participate in racism in these ways, I still must atone.

I will now explain why this is so. Let me be clear, though. I approach this question with a heavy heart. But also with curiosity and love- both for myself and my well-intentioned white brothers and sisters. It is easy to despair, but this is not the end goal. There is a great deal that each of us, once we face the problem and our role in it, can do in our daily lives to be part of the solution. I will conclude my remarks by sharing some of my own commitments going forward.

Now, back to why I atone.

I benefit from racism.

I have learned across this past year to expand my understanding of racism.

The old me thought of racism only as an individual’s intentional hatred and bigotry towards people of color. Today, I understand racism also to be a deeply-rooted system in our country that disadvantages and devalues people of color as a group and advantages and empowers white people as a group, regardless of whether white individuals wish to be advantaged or empowered in this way.

One key benefit of understanding racism from this perspective is that I can hate racism and own my role in it without necessarily hating myself.

Robin DiAngelo, a woman who grew up white and poor and went on to become one of our country’s foremost educators about what it means to be white, helped me reach this understanding. “Any white person living in the United States will develop opinions about race simply by swimming in the water of our culture,” she explains.

In order to grasp that racism is ingrained in our country’s DNA, I have had to better understand our country’s past and present. Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a succinct historical description: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.”

Even if I tried, I could not read all of the current studies documenting America’s pervasive racism today.

To name just a few:

  • A 2014 ProPublica study found that young black males are dramatically more likely than their white counterparts to be shot dead by police.
  • A 2012 Urban Institute study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, found that a white homebuyer who contacts agents about recently advertised homes for sale learns about and is shown more available homes than an equally qualified black homebuyer.
  • A 2016 Johns Hopkins University study found that white teachers are more likely to doubt the educational prospects of black students and that these lowered expectations may become self-fulfilling prophecies.
  • An older but still respected 2003 National Bureau of Economic Research study found that job applicants with white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks than equally qualified applicants with black-sounding names.

As a white person, I benefit directly from racism based solely on the color of my skin. I consider this unearned advantage to be my white privilege.

Here are some examples related to the studies above:

  • My 15-year-old son, who sweetly came with me here today, is more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt and to be treated well by the police simply because he is white than a 15-year-old male of similar education and socio-economic status who is black.
  • When I am looking for a home, I am more likely to have more options to choose from than my friends of color based on nothing more than that I am white.
  • My teenagers are more likely to be thought of as better students by their white teachers than their peers of color based solely on the color of their skin.
  • When I apply for a job, I am more likely to be seriously considered than a person with a “black-sounding” name.

Although I have not been aware of my white privilege in any of these cases, I still benefit from these injustices.

I am also atoning because I perpetuate racism.

Educator Jane Elliott is most famous for her “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise, which is designed to teach participants about the experience of being a minority. She is also known for asking white audiences the following question:

“If you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society — please stand! … Nobody is standing here. … [Y]ou know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.”

I am that white person not standing and not until recently acting to bring awareness to the problem. My inaction has perpetuated racism.

“White silence is violence” is how the Black Lives Matter Movement puts it.

There is Jewish precedent for this notion as well. Confessions in Judaism are always said in the plural: “We have sinned, we have transgressed” etc. One explanation is that Jews are held responsible for one another. Another broader explanation is that we all have collective ownership over the society that produces the problem.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it well: “…[I]n a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” But even as I have connected myself to racism in all of these ways, I still have wondered:

Do I need to atone if I had no role in creating the problem and contribute to it only unknowingly and unintentionally?

Once again, Jewish tradition clearly answers this question. The Al Chet, the confession of sins that we say ten times in the course of Yom Kippur services, includes “the sin which we have committed before You inadvertently” and “the sin which we have committed before You knowingly or unknowingly.” (emphasis added). And to go back to where we started, if it’s no more than we would expect of our first President George Washington, I certainly can expect the same of myself.

Living my Values Going Forward

Today is about atoning. Tonight, eating. And tomorrow, striving to do better.

“What is the truth of being human?” asks Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“The lack of pretension, the acknowledgment of opaqueness, shortsightedness, inadequacy. But truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal is both within and beyond us.”

I said in my sermon last year:

“There is no one ‘right’ action. By allowing yourself to get uncomfortable, you will become much more aware of how significant a role race still plays both in America and in your day-to-day life. This new awareness will make you more likely to take the actions to create change that YOU are uniquely able and situated to take.”

Here are some of the ways I will strive to live my values this next year:

I will not deny that I have white privilege just because I am Jewish. True, my Judaism can sometimes make me vulnerable. In fact, the more anti-racism work I do, the more white supremacists have harassed me with anti-semitic cartoons and taunts on Twitter. I will not confuse the disadvantages that sometimes attach to my being Jewish, or the fact that Jews have not always been considered white in this country, with the fact that the color of my skin gives me white privilege in this country today.

I will not shut down and walk away if a person of color lets me know that I might have said or done something offensive. Part of white privilege is being able to avoid thinking about race at all — to walk away when it makes me uncomfortable. People of color cannot do the same. The next time a person of color speaks up about some way I might not be taking their perspective into account, I will listen, quiet my defenses, and remember that the situation that made them speak up is no doubt more painful for them than for me. I will stay in conversation and think about how to change my behavior.

I will be curious about what I might not be seeing when it comes to racism. I remember when the first Presidential debate turned to the topic of race in America.The next day on social media, I realized for the first time how uncomfortable and maddening it was for many of my black friends to hear two white Presidential candidates respond. That had not even occurred to me. There is so much I do not see because I am white. I will remain curious. I will also continue to develop and maintain open and honest relationships with people of color.

I will look for opportunities in my daily life to interrupt racism. This could take a million different shapes, small and big. To name but a few… I will give beautiful books like The Colors of Us as baby gifts. When instances of mistreatment of people of color emerge in the media, I will share these on social media and bring them up at my family dinner table. I will continue to raise with my fellow board members of a national organization the question of how racism intersects with our mission. I will knock on doors to get out the vote in the upcoming election, the outcome of which will have dramatic implications for the way our nation moves forward — or backward — on issues of race.

I will continue to speak publicly, lead workshops, write, and reach out to other white people about privilege and racism.

May every American know what it feels like to sit unafraid under their own vine and fig tree.

And may we all be inscribed for another year in the Book of Life.

G’mar chatima tova.