On Improving Race Relations

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Despite all the problems, recent events in Philadelphia give this writer hope about the future of race relations. 

In the months since the tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., and especially since the two grand jury decisions in December, it has been difficult to discern a path leading from the legitimate emotional responses by African Americans and others, including many whites and Jews, to the rational process necessary to fashion solutions.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the weekend preceding it, I had the opportunity to participate in three events that give me hope. The first was a very well-received dialogue at Germantown Jewish Centre between the Rev. Cean James, an African-American pastor, and me, in which we honestly shared fears, expectations of each other and our people, and the importance of understanding the role that past events play in our perceptions of the present — for both Jews and blacks.


The second event was the MLK D.A.R.E. March on Jan. 19, which recaptured the moral themes of Dr. King’s work by highlighting living wages, educational equity and a just law enforcement system — all necessary for a society where all can benefit and realize their potential. I was struck by the amazing diversity of the crowd of thousands, with people of all ages, creeds, races, ethnicities, gender identities and more. The police at the march were friendly and supportive.

Lastly, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, where I am its executive director,  joined with the Cheltenham NAACP and Arcadia University  to explore How the Police and Minority Youth Can Improve Their Interactions,” showcasing a program used at the Police Academy. 

These events suggest that we can change the trajectory of race relations in America. But they are unlikely to improve substantially without some hard work. To end once and for all the persistent effects of centuries of slavery and bias, we will need to take into account at least two factors.

First, we need to acknowledge current realties. As Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson wrote recently in The New York Times, Generations after slavery and Jim Crow laws, "police killings of African-Americans occur as often as twice a week for at times mundane infractions and at three times the rate as for whites, according to conservative estimates from recent studies.” We need to understand why this is so.

Second, we will need to acknowledge the role history plays in determining reactions to current events. As a people that has experienced centuries of untold suffering, we Jews understand that implicitly, though we may not always recognize when others wear lenses similar to our own.

To end racial injustice, we will need to look both back and ahead. It will require a sometimes emotionally draining honesty as all sides examine both personal and group prejudices. Avoiding future Trayvon Martins, Michael Browns, Tamir Rices, Eric Garners and so many more will require a change of minds and hearts by Americans — white, black, brown and everything in-between. Jews of European background will need to examine their reaction to the growing number of non-white Jews in our midst. And, of course, correcting for our mistakes and willful actions will require well-conceived and adequately funded social programs.

In Philadelphia and elsewhere, it is easy — and in some ways appropriate — to focus on the negative. After all, it’s really not helpful to tell people who feel that their lives don’t matter that “things aren’t so bad, and they’re getting better.”

Yet it is also important to acknowledge positive change. Back in the late 1950s and into the ‘70s I watched whites, many of them Jews, flee from parts of Mount Airy because ”Negroes” (as polite whites called them) moved onto their block. By 1957, when I was in the fifth grade, I was the only white kid in my class in what had been a well-integrated public school. At the recommendation of my black teacher, I switched to another school just a mile away where there was one black student in the class, and where class sizes were 25 percent less than in the first school. Racial disparities in education are not new.

Still, I noticed when I moved back to Philadelphia in 2002, after 36 years away, that neighborhoods where blacks dared not set foot in the ‘60s were now successfully integrated. Our police, too, have made great strides, especially under Commissioner Charles Ramsey, in addressing the divide between people of color and law enforcement.

The first slaves to reach what would become the United States arrived in 1526. Slavery did not end until three and a half centuries later, soon to be replaced by Jim Crow in the South and blindness to the effects of slavery and institutional racism everywhere. The election of a black president seems to have brought out the worst in some citizens. We have a long way to go to fix this. But we have made some good starts, and there are millions of people of good will who want to change themselves and the nation. May our strength increase!

Rabbi George M. Stern is the executive director of Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN).

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