One year after the death of Michael Brown, our country continues to struggle with the plague of racial injustice. The first step to making a difference is being able truly to see the problem.
Seeing the Affliction of Our People
On July 30, we saw a riot. And the police only made the situation worse.
It was on that day that thousands gathered for the public funeral procession of a beloved communal leader. The New York Times reported that, as the funeral procession passed a particular building, a group of men from inside [quote] “jeered and yelled” at the mourners, and then buckets of water rained down on them from the upper stories. Chemical rags, “bits of iron, [and] small blocks of wood,” came next. The crowd below boiled with anger and surged toward the building, and the police, who had been stationed to keep the peace, intervened.
Now they intervened not by going into the building, not by commanding the assailants to stop attacking the mourners below. But rather by clubbing and beating men and women in the crows and arresting 93 of the funeral attendees. Members of the assembly were later fined for disorderly conduct, creating a disturbance, and throwing rocks. But not a single person who had assaulted them was arrested or even questioned.
This incident joins a long list of racially-motivated injustices committed in our country. And though the story sounds familiar, it didn’t happen in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or Los Angeles. It happened on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1902. The crowd was made up of Jews, and they were mourning the death of the beloved Rabbi Jacob Joseph.
Racial injustice is not new to America; we have seen it firsthand.
Our Torah portion this week is Re’eh. Its opening word is a command to see, a command repeated 140 times in the Hebrew Bible. Why do we have to be told so often? Because it’s so very easy to overlook what is right in front of our faces.
God models for us the need for seeing. Just before sending Moses to free the Hebrews from slavery, God says to him:
רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת עֳנִי עַמִּי – I have surely seen the affliction of my people (Ex. 3:7).
Before God can act, God must first see. How much the more so for each of us.
One year ago this week, the death of Michael Brown brought into our sight a national spectacle focusing on police violence and its disproportionate targeting of African American men. Other incidents, such as the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, have drawn our attention to systems of violence that police use in African American communities. But as tragic and horrific as each of these deaths was, there is a more pernicious and powerful force at work behind the scenes.
In America today, unprecedented numbers of African Americans sit behind bars, and their incarceration permanently disables them from participating in our society. Our so-called criminal justice system disempowers and degrades African Americans. And as Jews, we have a responsibility to witness this injustice and to work to correct it.
In America today, 1 out of every 106 white men sits in jail. For black men, the number is 1 in every 15. More than half of these men are parents of young children, and the Pew Foundation reports that “more than 1 in 9 black children has a parent in prison or jail, a rate that has more than quadrupled in the past 25 years.”
The numbers are painfully clear. Our country is systematically locking up African American men. Why? Why are so many black men going to jail?
Some conclude that there’s simply something wrong with black culture in America. Something about African American home life drives young black men to commit more crimes than white men. After this spring’s riots in Baltimore, the police chief there urged black parents to [quote] “take control of your kids,” suggesting that degenerate family structures were to blame for black crimes. Bill O’Reilly stated even more forcefully: “Cultural violence … is a local problem. And the combative African-Americans themselves have to rise up and demand protection.” In other words, black Americans have a problem, and black Americans need to fix it.
We’ve heard this rhetoric before. The New York City police commissioner once defended his policy of race-based policing because [quote] “boys under sixteen [are] being brought up to lives of crime.” That’s why “half of [New York’s] criminals [are] of [one] race.” But that police commissioner was speaking in 1908, and the race in question was Jews.
“Culture makes criminals.” It’s just as false today about African Americans as it was a hundred years ago about Jews. There is nothing intrinsic to African American culture that makes black men more likely to commit a crime.
Research has proven that black men are not more likely to commit a crime than anyone else. They are, however, more likely to be suspected, arrested, and incarcerated. The American Bar Association reports that 14% of all drug users in America are black. Which makes sense because 14% of all Americans are black. But African Americans make up 40% of all people who are arrested for a drug offense, and they make up 53% of all people who are sent to jail for drug crimes. So, only 14% of illegal drug users and dealers are black, but African Americans make up over half of all people serving time for drug crimes.
Black men are sent to jail in staggeringly disproportionate numbers, and it’s not because they’re more likely to be criminals. Rather, a spiraling system of bias and disenfranchisement has robbed the African American community of full access to the American dream.
For decades, ever since Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, law enforcement officials have intentionally been granted “extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free reign.” This racial bias, virtually impossible to prove, has resulted in ballooning convictions of black men. These men, now felons, are barred from voting and serving on juries, steadily reducing African American influence in society. Black men are systematically and permanently abandoned to remain in America’s underclass. As Michelle Alexander puts it in her groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow: “As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת עֳנִי עַמִּי – I have surely seen the affliction of my people.
We Jews have seen this kind of discrimination. In Egypt, in Persia, in Rome, we were stripped of our right to practice our faith. In Christian Europe, we were unable to own land, and in Muslim Africa, we were forbidden to build synagogues. I need not even mention the plight of Jews in Nazi Europe. And even in America, Jews were treated with suspicion, considered anarchists, Communists, and terrorists. We were kept out of neighborhoods, universities, and businesses for no reason but because we were Jewish.
So we know in our hearts the pain felt by our African American neighbors. Today the majority of Jews have the privilege of being considered “white,” and this gives our community both the power and the responsibility to make a difference.
My friend Rori Picker Neiss was arrested on Monday for doing just that. She was detained by U.S. marshals outside the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis during a demonstration designed to “protest the treatment of blacks and to demand reforms to the criminal justice systems in St. Louis and in America.”
So there she is in jail with twenty other women. For her required search, Rori had requested a private room in which to take off her head scarf. As an Orthodox Jew, it would be shameful for her to bare her head in public. And as she was led out of her cell, she raised her eyes and saw: an African American Muslim stands with her hair down to her shoulders though she, too, had asked to keep her head scarf. A white woman is the only one still to have shoelaces. Black women massage bare fingers while white women still wear rings. Rori reflects, “Though we linked arms together, sang the same words together, stood together, and were arrested together, those in our group with darker skin tone were deemed a greater risk.”
The truth is in plain view. But unless we lift up our eyes and truly see, we’ll miss it. And we’ll lose our chance to act.
Seeing is not an option; it’s an obligation. We Jews have seen more than our fair share of abuse, and our history compels us to see the suffering of our neighbors.
רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת עֳנִי עַמִּי – I have surely seen the affliction of my people.
And once we have seen, let us raise our hands and act.
 This sermon was inspired by Rabbi Michael Rothblum’s Rosh Hashannah 5775 sermon, “Ferguson/Fargesen,” available: http://rabbicreditor.blogspot.com/2014/10/rabbi-michael-rothbaum-fergusonfargesn.html.
 http://rabbicreditor.blogspot.com/2014/10/rabbi-michael-rothbaum-fergusonfargesn.html (See above.)
 http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2010/CollateralCosts1pdf.pdf (18)
 American Jewish History: A Primary Source Reader (ed. Gary Zola and Marc Dollinger) (173)
 Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (103).
 Ibid. 2.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”