Monday, September 21, 2020

Racial Justice - Proven Truths in the 2020 Protests

 Rosh Hashanah, second day

Racial Justice - Proven Truths in the 2020 Protests

September 19, 2020

Rabbi Robert L Tobin


Bnai Shalom, West Orange NJ



Shanah Tovah and Good morning.  And after yesterday’s embrace of Law and Order, I am sure you are all waiting for the other shoe to drop.  And you are right.

This year, there has been a loud shofar call in our country, blowing for justice.  Can you hear the voice of the shofar?  Prophecy works this way.  It interrupts the powerful, condemns the complacent and demands attention.  Prophecy is rude, uncomfortable and often unwelcome.  People usually don’t like prophets. And that is why we need them.  If you are already uncomfortable with the topic I have chosen, and I haven’t said anything other than that, then I encourage you hear the voice of the shofar knowing that being challenged is part of being loved.

Today I will talk about the core belief that the protests this year espoused: that there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system.  Yes, I understand that the issue of racial justice and race inequality is bigger than that. But how long to you really want the sermon to be?  Again, like yesterday, there is a basic moral and religious content here which Judaism speaks to.  How can we not? Judaism, both our religion and our history, condemns racism.  The only legitimate Jewish argument is whether or not the racism is real.  And since we know that racism has been a constant component of our country’s history since its founding, the question isn’t “is there racism?” but “how bad is it?” And it is that basic belief about the nature of racism in this country that has become the dividing point for so many in this year, and even in this synagogue. 

My hope is to unite us in both Jewish beliefs and a context of social science research and fact.  It is not my goal to set a political agenda for you, or to tell you how to vote or what, exactly, you should change about America.  People with strong progressive believes will probably feel that I have not gone far enough.  People with strong conservative beliefs will probably wish I had picked a different topic.  But if I can bring us together on some basic Jewish beliefs, and point you at scientifically proven problems, I will have done my job for today.

Yesterday I talked about Law and Order.  But what happens when that all goes wrong? After all, over the course of Jewish history we have certainly learned that not every government is worthy of our prayers and not every police force is noble in character. God knows that our people knows that better than any other.  100 years ago, Law and Order meant violently breaking up union strikes.  200 years ago it meant enforcing the largest institution of slavery in human history.  When George Floyd was murdered, every police officer I know said they were disgusted and they condemned the officer who did it. But saying it was just a few bad cops avoids the difficult topic.  Each example might be explained away, but the big picture must be understood.  Something has changed.  When upper middle class moms and dads lie down in on the main street of South Orange and chant about racism, something has definitely changed.

Every pulpit in America this year will be talking about Racial Justice, in one way or another.  We have been talking about it, you and I, for years. Let’s remember the other sermons I have given in recent years, so we all understand that my teachings this morning are part of a sustained effort of teaching Torah on this topic from this pulpit over time.  I am not blowing with the wind, and this message is not about the election.  I am again talking about the single most important social evil in our society: racism.

To review: On the first day of Rosh Hashanah five years ago I gave a sermon entitled, “Black Lives Matter.”  On the first day of Rosh Hashanah three years ago I gave a sermon entitled, “White Supremacism.”  On the second day three years ago, my sermon was “Law and Criminals.” 

In 2015, I spoke about the deaths of Treyvon Martin, in Florida, of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and of Eric Gardner here in NY. I spoke of Freddie Gray from Baltimore.  I said their names.  At the time I raised the question, in these exact words: is there institutional bias in policing against black people in America?  And I pointed out that saying “Black Lives Matter” is a sentence that should all can agree with.  Now, the leadership of that group did, and often still does, espouse anti-Zionist and antisemitic beliefs. Granted.  That is a serious issue for us to combat, and I do not endorse the movement or those leaders when I affirm a simple truth: Black Lives DO Matter. It is astounding that people can’t say that sentence without immediately saying some kind of “but, but but” to undermine it.  So we have been struggling with this, you and I, as a theme of Rosh Hashanah for years.  And yet, somehow, this year is different.  This year is worse. This year is more active. And this year real change may actually begin.  

What I want to do this morning is to understand the Torah view, and especially the facts that the social science research has documented on the issue.  I have certainly been educated this year and am on a path to greater understanding and greater empathy. I hope that you will be as well because those values, the image of God, equality, mutual understanding and empathy, are essential to the religion that says over and over again “because you were slaves in the Land of Egypt.”

In addition to my previous messages on race in America, I also gave a sermon two years ago about listening to the other side of the argument.  You may recall I told you to switch cable t.v. news programs.  Many of you did, and boy did I hear about it.  Many of you did not, and I challenge you again to do so.  It is annoying, even infuriating, but it is essential if you want to bridge the gaps between us in this deeply divided country.  It is the stone statue of idolatry in Judaism that has ears that cannot hear, eyes that cannot see and mouths that cannot talk. So too the prophet condemns the people who are like them. Today we need ears that hear, and eyes that see.

When we talk about systemic racism in America, we are talking about listening to another person’s story.  I don’t need to like it, and I may not draw the same conclusions politically about society as a they do.  But I do need to hear it, and to listen to it, and to value it.  And when I do, I am not destroying the lessons of America. Like all good exercises in writing history over time, it is about getting a more 3 dimensional picture of what has actually happened in the past, so I better understand what is happening in the present.  If we value learning, we need to accept that our myths may not be literally true. Like dinosaur bones force us to reconsider Creation’s path, so too the historian may force us to reconsider America’s path.

First, we absolutely must admit that the average black person’s experience of race in America is profoundly different from the average white person’s experience of race in America. Profoundly.  In community gatherings, on campus at Drew University, in conversion with clergy and just in the narratives that we have heard this year through the voice of the protests is abundantly clear: black America has no reason for nostalgia for American History and the average black person’s experience of – and attitude towards - policing and the criminal justice system is very different from the average white person’s experience.  And until we all understand why, we will never fulfill the highest ideals of our country - equality and freedom.  This is where it begins.

A few years ago, I went to the Governor’s Ball music festival.  While there, a particular musician had several thousand people packed together jumping up and down enthralled by the performance.  Being an old guy with academic tendencies, I couldn’t really hear or understand the lyrics that flew out of his mouth but the kids loved it. It was very cool, even if I wasn’t. Then came the refrain, with every mouth shouting in unison over and over, F the Police, F the Police, F the Police.  Naïve and out of touch with his voice, his views, and his experience, my jaw dropped in horror. After all, Judaism – as we saw yesterday – believes in Law and Order, and sees law enforcement as an essential part of the just society.  I saw anger, indoctrination and incitement.  I was very disturbed. 

I recalled that moment this year during the protests and I looked up the rest of the lyrics for the first time. They were all about traffic stops, racial profiling, stop and frisk, false arrests, biased courts and prison. They were about the anger of the innocent.  And yes, they also included fantasies and threats of violence against the police. They were a voice of prophecy, so similar to Isaiah Jeremiah and Ezekiel in our own texts, threatening the face of unjust power with destruction. All I could hear was the refrain that shocked me. It took effort to hear the message it was based on.

Perhaps your experience was similar to mine. Even though I was raised is a very liberal political home, where advocacy for migrant workers was a Sunday outing, I was taught a white view of this country’s history, to the exclusion of blacks in particular and the group experiences of most minorities in general. I was taught to draw the Mayflower bringing Pilgrims to a land of freedom. I knew that there were 200 years of slave gallows who brought over 300,000 people in chains under the whip with no hope for freedom, grew there numbers and owned their children and their children’s children. But I never considered it part of my story of America. 

I was told of the brave pioneers of the old west and President James Polk’s manifest destiny. And while I was taught of the despoiling and destruction of native peoples, it was safely distant and sad but irrelevant ultimately as a lesson about what America is or has been.  I was taught that Christopher Columbus was the great explorer who might even have Jewish background we could all be proud of. Only in the past year, when a statue was removed from the valley section of West Orange, did I really dive below the surface as history uncovered the violations, enslavement and murder that was done at his command.  And I played cowboys and Indians as a kid, which always meant cap guns and play at killing at some point.

When I was young, I learned of the equality that defined the human rights in the US Constitution, and was not troubled that women and blacks were not included from the beginning or that blacks were 3/5’s of a person for the math. We are over that now, I was taught. That is part of what makes American great. So why dwell on it, right?  I was educated that we fought the Civil War fought to end slavery, and Lincoln achieved that with the Emancipation Proclamation. But I never really understood how Reconstruction after the war had failed, how equality was never granted, how in some places chain gangs replaced slavery and why Jim Crow held on for another 100 years after the Civil War was over. 

It’s not that I didn’t know those things, and more, but they also weren’t the story. They weren’t the point. They were some marginal side story that didn’t reflect the real lessons that I was being taught about the greatness, the exceptionalism that is America.  Now, voices of protest are demanding that I reconsider those blind spots not only in my knowledge of the past, but in my conclusions about the past.  America is exceptional, and worthy of every patriotic pride that I hold.  But that doesn’t mean it was perfect, or even always good. We have national sins in our history, and racism is one of them.

Earlier this summer, someone asked me how many black teachers I have had in my life.  Again, this was an uncomfortable truth to learn about myself.  I attended 3 elementary schools, two junior high schools, high school, 4 different universities, hold two bachelors degrees, three masters degrees, speak four languages and have lived on 4 continents. In all that time, I have had a total of one single black professor for one class, and that wasn’t until I was 24 years old and never since.  I had black classmates, friends and colleagues. In a cringeworthy admission, I recognize that my liberal parents never had black people over for dinner and we had no black friends in my childhood.  We had black housekeepers and nannies.  I was never taught the narrative experience of black America from a black American. I never was pointed to a black person and told “that is someone you should learn from. That is someone you should try to be like.”  Perhaps you, like me, were never exposed to that other experience of America and American history in a personal way.

How could I possibly understand what we are being told about systemic racism now if we have never experienced it?  Just like my nudnick side telling you to watch the other cable station, I realized that I have to really listen to the narrative that I am being told.  I may decide it will or won’t define my politics – that is up to me.  But I can not put my head in the sand, block up my ears, and refuse to hear the experience and narrative of 20% of our this country and still think that I am smart or well-informed.

Perhaps the words systemic racism are too shocking for a lot of people.  Racism, to a lot of people, means overt hate and prejudice.  Racists are people who use the N word, or its Yiddish equivalent the Shin word, and think Blacks are somehow less than whites or Jews or whoever because they are Black. But that is not what the words mean.  The words “systemic racism” means that the system, not the people in it, has racially biased outcomes.  When one accuses the criminal justice system of systemic racism, it does not mean that all cops are racists, or the district attorneys, judges or prison guards are racists.  It means that a black person in the system is more likely to have a negative outcome, all other things being equal, than a white person.  In science that is called a hypothesis.  Only a closed minded or biased person rejects or accepts a scientific hypothesis without weighing the evidence. The claim is measurable, and can be proven true or false. Objectively, it has been proven true.

So here are some of the facts, to dispel the noise. The following facts are peer reviewed, social science studies that account for other discrepancies and differences, such as location, economics, etc.  When all other factors are removed the following remains true:

A massive study published in Nature in May 2020 of 95 million traffic stops by 56 police agencies between 2011 and 2018 found that while black people were much more likely to be pulled over than whites, the disparity lessens at night, when police are less able to distinguish the race of the driver. The study also found that blacks were more likely to be searched after a stop, though whites were more likely to be found with illicit drugs. The darker the sky, the less pronounced the disparity between white and black motorists.

A 2020 report on 1.8 million police stops by the eight largest law enforcement agencies in California found that blacks were stopped at a rate 2.5 times higher than the per capita rate of whites. The report also found that black people were far more likely to be stopped for “reasonable suspicion” (as opposed to actually breaking a law) and were three times more likely than any other group to be searched, even though searches of white people were more likely to turn up contraband.  Other studies confirm that nationwide, while whites and blacks are roughly pulled over equally for traffic violations, stops of blacks for other reasons – or no – reasons – are double or triple the rates of white motorists.  And once stopped, they are much more likely to be searched even though the results of searches nationwide result in a higher percent of vehicles with contraband by white drivers.

So a black is more likely to be pulled over, and then more likely to be searched. That is a measurable, systemic bias.  The joke about driving while black is no joke.

Once in contact with the police, the likelihood of arrest is also higher.  A national study of misdemeanor arrests published in 2018 in the Boston University Law Review found that the “black arrest rate is at least twice as high as the white arrest rate for disorderly conduct, drug possession, simple assault, theft, vagrancy, and vandalism. The black arrest rate for prostitution is almost five times higher than the white arrest rate, and the black arrest rate for gambling is almost ten times higher.”

And the numbers for violent interaction with the police, and escalation are also higher for blacks.  In the much debated topic of black deaths at the hands of police, the studies show that if you adjust for age and remove suicidal adults, “Young unarmed nonsuicidal male victims of [police] fatal use of force are 13 times more likely to be Black than White.”

In particular, Black people are consistently arrested, charged and convicted of drug crimes including possession, distribution and conspiracy at far higher rates than white people. This, despite research showing that both races use and sell drugs at about the same rate. And given the 3 strikes and you are out crime bills that ballooned the American prison population in the last 30 years to insane numbers, this systemic difference in racial outcomes was transferred directly into the prison population.

A 2019 review of academic literature by the Prison Policy Initiative found that “in large urban areas, Black felony defendants are over 25% more likely than white defendants to be held pretrial" when charged with similar crimes. Nationally, the review found that young black men were about 50 percent more likely to be detained pretrial than white defendants, and on average were given bail amounts that were twice as high.

Blacks are less likely to receive plea deals or reduced sentences in the judicial system and A 2013 study found that after adjusting for numerous other variables, federal prosecutors were almost twice as likely to bring charges carrying mandatory minimums against black defendants as against white defendants accused of similar crimes.

According to figures from the National Registry of Exonerations (NER) black people are about five times more likely to go to prison for drug possession than white people. According to exoneration data, black people are also 12 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of drug crimes. Black people comprise about 12.5 percent of drug users but 29 percent of arrests for drug crimes and 33 percent of those incarcerated.  And once there, the sentences are more severe as well. according to a 2012 study, “black defendants who kill white victims are seven times as likely to receive the death penalty as are black defendants who kill black victims. … Moreover, black defendants who kill white victims are more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as are white defendants who kill white victims.”


According to a 2018 study by Pew, 1 in 23 black adults in the United States is on parole or probation, versus 1 in 81 white adults. And while blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 30 percent of those on probation or parole.  A 2018 survey found that 63 percent of blacks have had a family member incarcerated, versus 42 percent of whites.

While black youths make up 14 percent of the youth population, a 2018 study found that they make up 53 percent of minors transferred to adult court for offenses against persons, despite the fact that white and black youths make up nearly an equal percentage of youth charged with such offenses. Blacks are more likely to be suspended from school, all things considered, and the pipeline to prison begins.

      And prison has other consequences.  By removing an adult from the family, family structures and communities are gutted.  And the prison record has lasting consequences.  According to a 2016 study, “One in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 7.4 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.”  If imprisonment is systemically off, then the removal of voting rights is also systemically off.


      And so the science has spoken. Statistically, all things being equal, blacks do not have the same engagement with law enforcement or equal outcomes with the criminal just system. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, held without bail, tried as adults, convicted, sentenced more severally and are less likely to be let out on parole.  And yes, they are more likely, all things being equal, to die in the hands of law enforcement. So the essential critique of the black lives matter slogan is objectively correct.

      The prophets of old did not have social science research to back up their critique of power or their calls for justice.  Justice Justice you shall seek.  Speak truth to power. Hold the king accountable. Heed the voice of prophecy. Champion the cause of the widow the orphan and the stranger.  For you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and for that reason I have brought you out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.  Hear the voice of prophecy in our streets and respond.

      And when you think of these issues, think of Elijah McClain in Aurora, CO, a teenager in a ski mask walking home listening to music and dancing.  Someone called the police, because they thought he was strange. The police encountered him, restrained him, put a choke hold on him and the paramedics were called.  They administered a ketamine shot to tranquilize him, and he died of a heart attack.  Why?

      There is no reason that is good enough. Things must change.  I leave it to you to decide how, but the truth of the complaint is proven and our core beliefs about God Torah and the ideal use of power in society demand that we not turn away or rationalize that the problem does not exist.


         L’shanah tovah tikateivu.


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