I won’t be able to articulate this illustrative metaphor with the poetry and flair of its author, Leonard Pitts, but it certainly bears repeating, especially today, as we honor Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Last night at an MLK Commemoration, columnist Leonard Pitts spoke on the divide that exists between white people and black people in terms of their often vastly divergent views of the state of racial equality in our country. He explained that this divergence of views could be likened to the following:
If a white man and a black man set out together for a road trip from Miami to Seattle and they stop in Kansas City, the white man would step out of the car, stretch and say, “Man, we have covered some serious ground!” However, the black man would respond with, “Maybe, but we’re heading for Seattle.”
It would seem that like all things, its a matter of perspective. However, in a society in which there is a true need to affirm that black lives matter, perspective is only useful when the goal seems too far off to believe in. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that in a free society, not everyone is guilty, but all are responsible. So my question for me tonight is this: “What is my response to a world that still places too much weight on the color of someone’s skin, the darker it gets, the larger the bias looms?”
I hate filling out demographic data that asks me to check a box for my “race.” Inevitably, as a Jewish man with family hailing from Hungary and Russia, whose roots in America are not much more than a century old, checking “Caucasian” never seems to make sense. And checking “White” seems rather anomalous because last I checked, it’s a color that looks nothing like me. It rarely even resembles the Christian folks in this country who are often wrongly presumed to be the descendants of the Pilgrims. Yet, check it we must, for fear of having an incomplete application! Oh dear! And this is why Kansas City seems like a meaningful distance on that road trip. White people (meaning all those who have the “privilege”) checking that box, are so enmeshed in the privilege of being White, its like fish in water. They don’t even realize the entire world around them is their home turf.
Now, I do not want to give the impression that being Jewish and fair skinned hasn’t bestowed upon me undeserved privilege as well. Just the invitation to walk into a store in Bellaire or River Oaks and catch no notice but for my role there as a customer, is an unwittingly bestowed privilege my fair skin provides. I listened to Mr Pitts last evening as he spoke on the reality that 1/3 of all black men in this country are under the supervision of the justice system in one way or another. 1/3! And anybody who still has the chutzpah to declare or even just harbor the notion that this is because of something unique to black men, has got to wake up. If there is one thing that I have learned during my years as a Rabbi, it is this: the only fundamental differences between people of different races, between people period, is a matter of short term and long-term circumstance. We human beings aren’t that complicated – our skin color has nothing to do with our inherent response to life. And anyone who truly believes it does, hasn’t spent any meaningful time with people who are different than they. “Others,” “different folks,” “foreigners,” – guess what? Every single one of them and we are created b’Tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. That is the whole Torah – all the rest is commentary, go and learn it!
Mr Pitts shared a social media comment he received that went something like this: “Slavery’s been over for 150 years. Shouldn’t black people have gotten over it by now?” And all I could think about was that we Jews have a mostly fictional story of our having been enslaved over 3000 years ago, and we tell and retell that story, the story of our affliction, in every prayer service, at every Shabbat, in most every holiday. And for 7 straight days every Spring, we remind ourselves:
“In every generation, each person must see him/herself as if he/she came forth out of the land of Egypt.”
Why? Well, one could say, “come on Jews, its been 3000 years and there isn’t any extant evidence that it took place the way the Torah describes anyway. Aren’t y’all over it by now?” But the answer for us is, “No.” Because the story of the Exodus from Egypt is not the story of freedom. Rather, it is THE story that teaches the ease with which our own pre-conceived notions, biases, self-centeredness, and fear can enslave us and then adjure us so readily to take it out on people whom we have determined are different. As Haman told King Ahashverosh in the Book of Esther, “there is a certain people who live in your kingdom. They look and act and dress different and it’s not in your Highness’ interest to tolerate them.” We Jews act to our detriment when we tell and retell our stories as if they are only about us. Our stories matter if they are the stories of all who struggle for equal treatment under the law and equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and when we double down on our efforts to ensure that these rights do indeed remain unalienable from all people regardless of the boxes they so happen to need to check!
Thank you Mr Leonard Pitts for your wisdom and for your challenge. This Rabbi heard you loud and clear.