Are Ferguson and Eric Garner's Death Symptoms of a Deeper Problem?
I sat down last week to write about what happened in Ferguson. As I began to write, there was no doubt in my mind that there would be a “next time” as soon as we hit the next news cycle, if not sooner.
Then I heard the news that the New York City police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner would not be charged. I was struck by the fact that I could write this article every day and just leave a blank spot to fill in a new name.
This is not just about Michael Brown or Eric Garner. These cases are not anomalies but symptoms of something much deeper.
We have a system in this country that lets some get ahead while keeping others in the cycle of poverty. We see this play out in the disparities in educational opportunities available to low-income African-American students compared with middle-class white students. We see it in who can buy a home and what kind of mortgage options are available to them. And we see it in the unequal application of drug laws that send huge numbers of black men to jail for drug crimes committed in nearly equal numbers by white individuals. These are just a few examples from a much longer list.
As Jews, we have in recent history benefited greatly from a system that has actively held down our black brothers and sisters. The G.I. Bill and the various programs enacted under the New Deal helped many white Jews move into the middle class while either explicitly or in application excluding many African-Americans.
I say this not to impart guilt upon those of us who benefited, but as a reminder. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “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.”
Jewish-Americans are responsible for understanding how the systems that helped us advance also prevented so many others from doing the same. We must understand how these systems played a role in perpetuating racial and economic inequality, to bear witness, and then to act for change.
Many people have told me that they are outraged but simply don’t know what to do. We cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the sheer size of the problem, to simply express our sadness and outrage until it passes through the media cycle. Inevitably there will be another “next time” until we as a society fix the larger system that allows the injustices to occur.
At AVODAH, where I work, we have been discussing an idea and recently put a name to it: tikkun ma’arechet, repairing the system. This framework is vital because the injustice we are seeing is the result of intersecting systems in our society that are badly in need of repair. A broken system has provided many Jewish-Americans with privilege and power. We have an opportunity to use that same power to fix it.
What is our role in that repair? Here’s a start:
- Have hard conversations with the people we care about. Race and economic inequality are emotionally charged issues to discuss. It's easy to disengage when someone disagrees with your perspective or says something offensive, but those are the moments when we must dig deep and continue the dialogue. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge your feelings of frustration, anger and impatience. Think about how to make these issues connect on a personal level. But above all, keep talking. If we only talk to those who agree with us, we won’t be able to move things forward. And remember that having these conversations is not a natural ability; it’s a vital skill that is honed over time.
- Support work to address the systemic issues. There are many in the Jewish community and beyond who are already engaged in tikkun ma’arechet, but it isn't glamorous work. They need to know that others support them and believe in their vision. These organizations need volunteers, they need people to show up and speak up, and they need support to grow their work to be even more impactful.
- Learn about being an ally. While we have a role to play, it isn’t always about standing in front, especially as people with privilege. It’s less important to lead on everything than to show up and be supportive. Listen to the stories of people most affected by racial injustice and understand those stories as lived experience, even if what you hear challenges your own perspective.
- Pace yourself, but start marching. Ethics of the Fathers teaches us that we are not expected to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it. The work of tikkun ma’arechet is not something we will complete in our lifetimes. But we must begin, and begin now. Lives are at stake today, tomorrow and the day after. We cannot stand idly by.
Our work must continue until there are no more “next times."
Suzanne Feinspan is the acting executive director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.