Ninety years ago this month, the Ku Klux Klan paraded through Princeton, N.J., in a cavalcade of early automobiles. Back then the area was known as hotbed of Klan activity. But the students of the time would have no truck with the Klan. And 800 undergraduates descended on the menacing convoy to tear off their white hoods.
Bigots and bigotry are not so easily exposed today. Flagrant bias, perhaps. But in many respects racism is so engrained in our social structures, we who do not experience it do not recognize it until a highly publicized tragedy throws it into sharp relief, as happened in Ferguson, Mo.
But let us see clearly. The poverty rates among African Americans, the unemployment rates, the numbers without health insurance are all much higher than for the population as a whole and generally twice those of whites.
The de facto segregation of our neighborhoods, sometimes by choice but more often economically motivated, prevents communities from ever truly knowing each other. And in the absence of such relationships a shooting death like Michael Brown’s more easily gives rise to confrontation, and racial tensions escalate.
Cornel West, professor at Princeton and at Union Theological Seminary, has emerged as a face of the response to Ferguson. Recently he headlined what was billed a “weekend of resistance” in St. Louis. At one gathering, frustrated younger attendees upbraided the meeting’s more established organizers for being too tolerant of the status quo — in West’s words, for being too “adjusted to injustice.” And they resented being talked at by well-intentioned clergy who though passionate behind the podium in October had been absent on the street in August.
One older speaker was appreciated, however: Shoah survivor Hedy Epstein, who spoke of how on arriving in the United States in 1948 she was stunned by southern racism. Her Holocaust experiences still alive and at work within her, she was among those arrested in August protesting the handling of the Brown shooting. She knew what we know. Anti-Semitism and racism emanate from the same pathology: the failure to discern in those who are different a common humanity. Exacerbated by ignorance, often nursed by blame and fear, the disease eats away at the fabric of society.
The rabbis on hand understood. Asking why the Torah does not open with our beginnings as a nation and the covenant at Sinai, or with our origins as a people and the covenant with Abraham, they answer that the Torah reaches back to creation to teach us about ourselves. God fashioned us from the same first person, Adam, to remind us that we are all brothers and sisters. Therefore no one should ever say to another, “my lineage is greater than yours.” They even taught that the angels in heaven directed God to make Adam with bits of clay from all over the earth so that none should ever say, “my ethnicity is greater than yours.” And that the clay should be of varying shade so that none could say, “my color is superior to yours.”
But the rabbis never denied our differences, or the challenges those differences pose. When human beings mint coins, the rabbis taught, we cast them from a single mold but all the coins look alike. When God creates people, God does so in the mold of the first person yet each of us is unique. Our individuality underlies our humanity. It makes us who we are. But it does also separate us from others. None of us can understand truly what it means to be someone else or part of someone else’s community. After Ferguson, Lawrence Otis Graham wrote: “Try as I may to see things from the perspective of a white person, I can see them only from the experience that I have as a black man. … As we observe each other and think that we have a close understanding of what it means to be black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, rich, or poor, we really don’t — and very often we find ourselves gazing at each other through the wrong end of the telescope. … And the relevant subtleties linger just outside our view, eluding us.”
Until we break down the walls dividing the communities constituting American society, the relevant subtleties will continue to elude us. We will never fully grasp the struggles, fears, and frustrations of our neighbors, nor will they understand ours.
Fifty years ago this month, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His acceptance speech then admonishes us now. “Sooner or later,” he asserted, “all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.”
Bridging social divides requires ongoing dialogue, study, conversation and partnership. And this is not happening among New York’s religious communities. Not the way it should. King believed houses of worship to be uniquely positioned to penetrate at least some of society’s racial and ethnic barriers, so that diverse groups might speak candidly with one another about what it is like to be black in America, or Jewish in America, or Muslim in America.
People of faith share a belief: the same divine spark that animated the first human being burns in us all. So may we reach out to our neighbors with whom we share this city, and who share our hope for a society at peace with itself. And may we begin to “transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.”
Rabbi Joshua Davidson is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.