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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

White Privilege, Charlottesville and Our Responsibility

Author's note:
Usually my posts deal with the Torah portion or "spiritual matters."  Today I am writing my own thoughts in the aftermath of this weekend's tragedy in Charlottesville.   To me, these matters are indeed spiritual, because they deal with the human spirit and what God desires of us all, as created in the Divine image.

Though written from my perspective as a rabbi with a Jewish audience in mind, I know that not all those who will read this are indeed Jewish.  However, much of what I wrote applies to white people, and Americans, in general.
I believe the issues I raise are essential if we are going to make any progress in the fight against racism and hatred.

I welcome comments, whether you agree or disagree.  All I ask is that they remain civil and respectful.  If they are not, I will not post them.

L'shalom u'verakha-with Peace and Blessings,

Rabbi Steven Nathan
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This past Saturday we all  watched in horror as events unfolded in Charlottesville. We sat in shock as white supremacists marched through the town carrying Nazi and white supremacist flags, shouting racist and antisemitic vitriol, and eventually engaging in physical violence with those who were counter-protesting.  We watched in disbelief as a man intentionally plowed into the crowd with his car,  killing one and injuring scores more.  


Later I  sat in disgust, but with not an iota of surprise, as the man who calls himself the President of the United States delivered a statement decrying violence and hatred “on all sides” without ever mentioning any of the white supremacist hate groups nor referring to this as an act of domestic terrorism.  It took two days for him to finally use any of those words. And he certainly did not seem comfortable doing so. And now he has the gall to once again equivocate by casting blame on both sides and coining the phrase “alt-Left” in order to decry the counter protesters.  His response was decried by Marco Rubio and other Republicans and praised by Richard Spencer, who coined the phrase "alt-right" and KKK leader David Duke!  He was and is a continual disgrace and embarrassment to our nation.  The word that comes to mind is abomination, plain and simple.


Sad to say,  I have no doubt that, had the driver of the car been Muslim or Arab (whether or not they were American citizens), he would have most certainly called them out as “radical Islamic terrorists.” Nor do I question that,if those protesting were people of color protesting racism and injustice, such as members of the Black Lives Matter movement, the so-called president would have focused on their race directly or via dog whistles. In addition, there most likely would have been many arrests, injuries, and, most likely, deaths, among the protesters if they were people of color.  The president and his minions would have ignored the facts and shouted to the world that “All Lives Matter”.  And that misses the whole point, ignores what is happening to African Americans and other people of color in our country, and frames the entire issue through the lens of white privilege.


As I was glued to the TV becoming angrier, sadder and more frustrated I felt like I needed to write something.  But what could I say that hasn’t already been said by broadcasters and pundits all night long?  Then I had a conversation with a friend in California that put the situation in a different light.


Unfortunately, the conversation was on Snapchat, so the actual text has disappeared into cyberspace, but I will do my best to paraphrase.  I was chatting with my friend, who is an El Salvadorian-American born and raised in Southern California, just after the car had rammed into the counter-protesters. When I told him what was happening in Charlottesville his basic response was (my paraphrase) “I’m not surprised.  That’s how white people are.”  This took me totally by surprise, though, in retrospect, it shouldn't have.   


I immediately took issue with what he said by reminding him that not all white people are racists, and that I certainly was not and I support all causes aimed at fighting racism in our country.(though I realize everyone does have some racist thoughts and ideas). In addition, as a white gay Jewish man, I belong to two groups which have historically been persecuted and that still experience bigotry and persecution.  But, from his perspective I was simply another white man who benefits from white privilege on a daily basis.  Of course, I tried to explain how I try my best not to take advantage of my privilege.  I expressed my belief that it is the responsibility of those who benefit from white privilege not only to fight against racism, but to fight against white privilege and its consequences(I also feel the same way about male privilege, but since this was a conversation between two men, I am not going to focus on that right now).


If I could have seen his face at that moment I don’t know if i would have been looking at a scowl, a look of disbelief or the face of someone about to break into a fit of laughter.  For the simple truth is that I benefit from white privilege every day, whether or not I deserve or desire it. I can never understand how people of color feel when it comes to the effects of white privilege and racial bias in our country.


Not wanting to have the mirror of my own self image smashed to smithereens, I tried to explain that, though I can never know his experience, I have experienced antisemitism and homophobia.  And yet, as soon as the the words left my mouth I knew the comparison was really a red herring.  For I know that I can pass as white, straight and Christian, should I so desire.  This is something that most people of color do not have.  And though I may not want to do it, the fact that I can should not be ignored. But does that mean I can’t understand the issue on some level? Y My friend would say “no”, since, as he pointed out,  I’m still a white man and  I’ll never fully understand.  My white privilege will always come to play in all interactions, regardless of my desires.


I so desperately wanted to convince him otherwise, both to assuage my own sense of white guilt and because he is a friend.  As I was mulling over the conversation I listened to an African American commentator on MSNBC talking about white privilege and racism. In his commentary he remarked that white people need to stop talking to people of color about the issues of white privilege and racism and need to start talking among themselves to figure out where this comes from and how they can somehow dismantle the systemic institutional racism that exists.  After all, it’s not the responsibility of the oppressed to figure out how to get the oppressors to change. And yet, if I looked deep within, is that what I was trying to do?


I remember having discussions with African American friends about these issues some 30 years ago.  Haven’t things changed since then?  And yet, it seems, I was not practicing what I preached (or at least believed).  For the last half hour I had been trying to convince a person of color that I wasn’t one of the “bad guys” rather looking inside and realizing that as a white man, my identity indeed means that I am to some degree.


As a Jew this is hard to swallow.  After all, it wasn’t that long ago that American Jews did not see themselves as white. The truth is that there are Jews from Africa, Spain and elsewhere, as well as Jews by-choice, who are not, and there are issues of racial bias and white privilege within the Jewish community as well, but that's a discussion for another time.


Until the last few decades Jews in America did not see themselves as white, because white implied White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (or at least White Christian), which was who ran the show in the USA.  Restricted hotels, clubs, neighborhoods, etc existed all over America in those days. Anti-Semitic speech and violence was acceptable (just look up Henry Ford and Father Coughlin on Google).  Back then Jews were lumped together by the powers that be with people of color (though no one was ever polite enough to call them that) and other racial and/or immigrant minorities.  In short, we were all treated back then the way the white supremacists treat us now..  But eventually things began to shift.  


As Jews became more successful (due, at least in part to the fact that we were seen as white) we started to claim some of the rights of those who had oppressed us.  Eventually college quotas eventually disappeared, neighborhoods and clubs lifted their restrictions against Jews and we became “white”, even if some of us didn’t exactly look the part. But even when we became “accepted” we continue to fight for the oppressed.  The civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s were filled with Jews. Jews helped to found the NAACP, two of the three students killed in Mississippi were Jewish.  This desire to help African Americans came from a long tradition of social justice and the acknowledgement that we had been in a similar place not so long ago.  But in the end, the alliance between the two groups dissolved, in part because the African Americans desired that they do it for themselves, which was totally understandable.  But it also dissolved because the Jews were now part of the power structure and benefiting from white privilege. Even though we didn’t see ourselves that way, people of color certainly did.  But regardless of how we see ourselves, unless we saw, or see, the reality of how how we are part of the power structure, and fight against our privilege, we can never truly become allies in the fight for equality. In other words, I can’t see myself as part of the solution without first realizing that, as a white man, I am part of the problem.


And yet the conundrum today for Jews is that the white supremacists’ still view us as non-white, as evidenced by the anti-Semitic chants and posters that were part of the protest in Charlottesville.  Simultaneously, we are mostly seen as white by people of color.  Navigating dual identity is not easy.  And yet, it’s not up to Jews to ask people of color to help us deal with this.   Rather, we must accept and wrestle with our dual identity and its implications.  It is imperative to remember that most of us are perceived as white and benefit from privilege, no matter how we self-identify or to what other identity groups we may belong.  After all, there is a reason why the American Jewish community as a whole has progressed to such a degree over one century's time. Were we people of color we would not have been provided with many of the opportunities or the same efforts would not have succeeded as they have.


At one point in my discussion with my friend I tried to make the case that I was not guilty, as were those protesting and causing violence in Charlottesville.  After all, I’m just trying to help.  He acknowledged that I may be doing the the best I can, but again he repeated that I just wasn’t getting it and probably never will, in spite of my best efforts.


In that moment the words of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched next to Dr. King in Selma and who was a staunch Anti-Vietnam War, came to mind.  When explaining why he was fighting against the Vietnam War he said, “…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
I am not guilty of espousing white supremacist doctrine, nor of intentionally supporting or promoting white privilege, that doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility.  As a white man, regardless of my religion or sexual orientation, I am indeed responsible.  In other words, I am not guilty by association, but I am responsible by identification.


The so-called president tried to pervert this idea.  In effect, what he said was that no one is truly guilty, nor are they responsible, because there’s hatred on all sides.  Therefore, we can’t criticize one group for their hatred and violence because maybe we’re leaving out the criticism of another group.


This is perhaps the clearest and most absurd example of an “alternative fact” that I’ve ever seen.  What he is saying to the white supremacists (who praised his response) and to much of his base, was that in order to avoid feeling any guilt for what happened one must deny both guilt and responsibility!  This is in spite of the fact that his rhetoric has made this kind of hatred acceptable.  As KKK leader David Duke said, the protesters were simply fulfilling Trump’s agenda!


So where does that leave me now?  I still feel anger about what happened.  I feel fury and disgust over the president's response and I feel sad that this type of hatred still exists in our country.  But I also feel that it is my responsibility as a white, gay Jewish man to work within all of my communities in order to see what we can do to fight injustice together.  And this starts with the injustice of white privilege, which too many of us try to ignore.


We need to put our own houses in order, and figure out how we can change the way we think and act as whites.  Following Charlottesville, the hashtag #this is not us showed up on social media in order for white people to claim that they are not part of the racism.  However, as Jelani Cobb replied in the New Yorker magazine, it is indeed us!  It has always been a part of white identity.  Without acknowledging this reality we are not going to make any progress. That doesn't mean it can't change, but the work is incredibly difficult. Still, we must do it if we are ever to become allies in the true sense of the word.


At the end of the conversation with my friend (and yes, we’re still friends. I think the disagreement actually made us closer) I acknowledged that I agreed with much of what he said, but that we still have to hope that things will change in the future.  After a pause he responded that I can only continue to talk about hope because of my white privilege, but that he does not have hope for the future.  This is a point with which I will always disagree. It may be true that some view hope as folly, but what reason is there to go on without hope that things can change if we each try our best to change.


Without hope there would still be slavery, or at least Jim Crow.  Without hope, I would not be able to get legally married were I to find the right man.  Without hope I, as a Jew, might not be able to live in the neighborhood where I am now or attend the college of my choice. Without hope we would never have elected an African American President, nor had the first female major party presidential candidate. And yet, reality shows us that so many of our hopes still have not come to fruition.  But that doesn’t mean we give up.  As the ancient rabbis wrote “it isn’t up to us to complete the work, but that doesn’t mean we are free to simply give up.”


It is hope, tempered with realism, which compels us to work together to do bring an end to racial inequality and all types of bigotry and hatred.


We are not guilty, but we are responsible  It is my hope that we will find a way to use that responsibility to make our country and our world better for all of humanity.

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