Against the backdrop of a nation on the verge of its first black major-party presidential candidate, a panel of three commentators and an elected official last week pondered the state of prejudice in America, largely coming up with a rosy picture.
“This is the soil on the globe most fertile for elevation and humanization,” said Corey Booker, the mayor of Newark.
The dissenter was Peter Noel, an author, radio host and former Village Voice columnist, who argued that glaring inequities in law enforcement and other realms obfuscated any progress.
He said little had changed since 1960 when John F. Kennedy evoked the words of Abraham Lincoln a century earlier: “This nation cannot exist half slave and half free.” Kennedy said: “I don’t think in the 1960s that this world can exist half slave and half free.”
Citing concerns about racial profiling by police, Noel recalled the 1996 spectacle of then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey being photographed frisking a black suspect during a ride-along with state troopers.
“If Al Sharpton pat-searched Christine Todd Whitman’s daughter, she would be outraged,” said Noel. “America still has not overcome its history of prejudice. While blacks continue to be treated like permanent suspects, riddled with 40 or 50 bullets, handcuffed, tortured in medieval-like dungeons, we will continue to exist in a nation that is half free and half slave.”
None of the panelists at the Steinhardt Series debate, cosponsored by the Jewish Values Network at Manhattan’s Safra Synagogue, argued that prejudice in America was insubstantial. But Lisa Oz and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who both host shows on Oprah Winfrey’s radio network, and Booker argued that America had done more to combat racism, sexism and other prejudices than any other nation.
“Legally, socially and economically [women] are a lot closer to parity with our male counterparts than when I was born,” said Oz, who is 44. She cited female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and powerful women in politics such as Sen. Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “But we still have a long way to go. It doesn’t mean sexism is no longer a problem in America. There are 270,000 sexual assaults per year and a rape every eight minutes.
“That said, I’d rather be a woman in America than anywhere else in the world.”
Oz called on advocates of equality to shift their priorities.
“It’s a mistake to focus on reproductive rights and salaries while women around the world suffer worse than we do,” said Oz. “We believe suffering is OK so long as it doesn’t directly occur on our soil. Free trade is infinitely more important to us than human rights. In Saudi Arabia there is gender-based apartheid, which we would not tolerate if it was against a different race rather than sex. And in over 20 countries two million girls, 6,000 per day suffer genital mutilation; a flagrant attempt to control women, even when it is perpetrated by other women.”
Booker noted that the Declaration of Independence referred to American Indians as “savages” and that the framers of the Constitution considered blacks to be worth only three-fifths of a man.
As an example of racial inequity in public perception, Booker noted that while nearly everyone in America had heard of white crime victims such as JonBenet Ramsey or Natalie Holloway, he asked the audience to “name one black child killed in America. There has not been one national story, because no one seems to care.”
But he added: “Our history should not be seen only by its viciousness, by the destruction of human flesh, but also by the indefatigable triumph of human ideals over prejudice.”
Booker, who is African American, noted that “Jews and others joined together to demand that the country do better. This is the America I love.”
Rabbi Boteach, who several years ago briefly co-hosted a radio show with Noel on WWRL AM, a station targeting black listeners, said he had learned much about the frustrations in that community from callers to the show. He likened contemporary anger over prior civil rights violations to continuing Jewish indignation over the Holocaust.
“Forty years ago a black kid kicking a soccer ball around in a field couldn’t drink out of a white fountain,” he said, referring to segregation policies that were deemed unconstitutional in the 1960s as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. “The black experience in America was probably different from what most of us experienced. But that doesn’t excuse [Sen. Barack Obama’s former pastor Rev.] Jeremiah Wright.”
He said members of his own chasidic Jewish community were not immune to prejudice and lamented that an otherwise promising marriage prospect for his daughter had earned Rabbi Boteach’s ire by using the slur “shvartzers.”
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “This is an abomination of our religious belief that we are all created in the image of God.”