November 2018 Racial Equity
Addressing Racial Equity and Justice
Our sages note the repeated emphasis on the stranger in biblical law. According to Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud (Baba Metsia 59b) the Torah “warns against the wronging of a ger.”
Today we define ger, the stranger, as those whose liberties and lives are threatened simply because of the color of their skin, their gender identity, their country of origin, or their religious beliefs. The stranger is anyone who must daily confront systemic denial of access to opportunities enjoyed by most other members of society.
In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Britain, “Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the color of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says God – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”
The American Jewish community is justifiably proud of our history of pursuing racial justice in the Civil Rights movement. Images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma deserve a place in our collective story, as do the decades of local efforts to improve living conditions for both African Americans and Jews in our shared St. Louis communities. As Jews, we remember the history of discrimination from our ancestors, and know members of our Jewish community that still experience it today. We have carried forward this memory in our pursuit of racial justice and a world where all are recognized as created b’tselem Eloheim, in the image of God.
The racism that sparked the monumental push for civil rights in the 1960s has persisted in often more subtle, but still extremely destructive forms. According to For the Sake of All, a Washington University report on racial health disparities in St. Louis, there is an 18-year life expectancy gap between some predominantly white and predominantly black zip codes in St. Louis. Policies such as housing and zoning practices, inequitable school funding, access to early childhood education, differential policing practices, prosecutorial decisions, and sentencing practices, transportation patterns, healthcare disparities, biased credit and lending practices, discriminatory school discipline policies, and more, continue to create widely differing life outcomes for black and white residents.
Why does this inequity exist? What is the Jewish community’s responsibility to address it? While the contributing factors are complex, our Jewish tradition teaches that we have an ethical and communal obligation to work for a racially just and equitable St. Louis. This absence of racial justice matters within its own right, for the health and prosperity of African-American members of our community, including Jews of color, as well as other minorities. It also impacts the strength of the entire region; according to the National Equity Atlas, St. Louis’ economy would be $16.4 billion dollars larger if there were no racial gaps in income — the impacts of which would be much larger than individual income gains alone. Pursuing racial justice — the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all —is an important and necessary driver of our work to improve our community as a whole.
While JCRC has maintained a long-standing opposition to discrimination, current research makes it clear that our approach and priorities need to be updated and clarified to reflect the current reality. We recognize that the causes and effects exist well beyond the personal attitudes and behaviors we witness today. The way we address it needs to focus on systemic changes to make St. Louis more equitable over the long term. We need to respond to issues and solutions articulated by African Americans and other people of color in St. Louis, rather than lead the conversation. The best place to start is to align with and support important priorities and actions that our partners in those communities have identified.
Based on conversations with our partners, the JCRC recommends that the Jewish community supports policies that promote racial equity in, for example:
● Policing and Criminal Justice,
● Environmental Equity,
● Transportation, and
● Employment and Income.
JCRC also recognizes, however, that there are internal areas in which we need to lead. As a collection of institutions and leaders with significant influence in how St. Louis rises or falls over the next few decades, we have a responsibility to recognize our own internal biases and behaviors and continually recommit to addressing the scourge of racism head-on. As part of this work, we must improve how we, as the Jewish community, welcome, include, and make equitable the experiences of both Jews of color and non-Jews of color in our professional and communal spaces. This internal work is necessary for us to be responsible and effective advocates for racial justice.
We applaud the many rabbis, Jewish organizations, and community members that have already shown up as vocal actors and allies in moving this work forward. We also recognize that we may have injured Jewish community members of color, whether consciously or not. There have been times when we have engaged in non-inclusive behavior, or lacked the appropriate response to racist behavior. The commitment articulated above is merely a starting point for the long journey ahead, one that we welcome our entire Jewish community to join.