On this eve of Thanksgiving, I have two thoughts to share, the shorter one first. Thanksgiving is a holiday that so resonates with Jews because gratitude is a value we stress – think the motsi, think Sukkot. Sitting with family and friends and turkey and stuffing, just like other families on our block, makes it a day on which we feel as much in step with our neighbors as any day in the year. But, so we don’t get too comfortable, the next day it’s Black Friday and the lead up to Christmas, the time of year when we feel most out of step with our neighbors.
Which brings me to the events in Ferguson, MO. While we may debate the grand jury decision, African Americans see it as another example of the unequal treatment that follows them through their lives. Shooting an unarmed teenager six times would seem to merit an indictment. When the Congressional Black Caucus called the verdict a “slap in the face” and a “miscarriage of justice,” we should not have been surprised.
One of my wife’s closest colleagues and friends is an African American educator. She is very light skinned. One day some years back, when her kids were young, she was stopped by a policeman for a minor traffic violation. He was most cordial, but then he looked in the back seat and there were her children. Her husband is more dark skinned, and the kids are clearly black. And the officer’s attitude did a 360.
Peggy McIntosh coined the expression “White Privilege.” Google it. She has an inventory. Think how you and a black person would respond to these statements. “I can be pretty sure that my neighbors will be neutral or pleasant to me.” “I can swear, or dress as I wish, or not answer letters, without having people attribute those choices to bad morals, to poverty or the illiteracy of my race.” “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.” “ I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.” And I might add, “If I am a man calling for a cab on the street, I don’t have to be wearing a suit.” McIntosh calls the burden that African Americans bear their “invisible knapsack.” Being weighed down by that is something most white people can only begin to imagine even if we try. Verdicts like that in Ferguson, or in the Trayvon Martin case, add to the sense of severe disparity of privilege and unequal justice and are very difficult to swallow.
We Jews can identify with this in part. Over the ages we were often singled out for unequal treatment. Hitler took it to an unfathomable extreme, but discrimination and persecution happened on a smaller scale for thousands of years. And then we got to America, which is a blessed land. We are fortunate to have ended up here and Thanksgiving really resonates for us on so many levels. Our skin color, and time, has overcome most barriers to our success. African Americans have a much tougher time, even if the White House is now accessible to them. I think we need to be doubly sensitive to their plight and do what is in our power to change it, which can range from grand actions to just how we handle simple everyday encounters.
Ponder this, have a good Wednesday and a wonderful holiday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. It is difficult to get a minyan on a long holiday weekend, especially tonight and tomorrow night (8PM). You get bonus points for attending. Families with elementary school age kids should be on the alert for PR for our new Ramah Day Camp, which is building on our pilot last summer and will run two to four week sessions this summer on a beautiful 200 acre site with bussing from Bethesda and great programming. If you can’t wait, click on http://www.campramahne.org/day-camp-washington-dc/