Teshuva: A Letter from Charlotte

Black Lives Matter Black FridayIt is a day before S’lichot. I live in a country that has done no teshuva, that avoids the consequences of four centuries of white privilege and white power.

On Tuesday, my husband, Ralf, and I left the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where we both teach.  We walked to our car wondering why a helicopter was circling overhead.

On Thursday morning, after two nights of mostly peaceful protest (yes, really), I listened to a well-known, local, liberal white journalist insist to Charlotte’s mayor on the radio that videos of the killing of Keith Scott should be released. Why? Because, he suggested, protesters would then see why Scott was shot. If there were “reasons” for the police shooting, protestors would realize they were reacting on the basis of hyped stories, and everything in Charlotte would calm down.

Convenient, isn’t it? Convenient not to face the fact that in North Carolina, as in the entire United States, the disenfranchisement and oppression of black America is a daily reality. White and privileged conservatives have made national news by their every effort to gerrymander districts, to limit and restrict black votes. White liberals have, mostly, responded by not responding to the stink of this reality, a stink sadly measured in statistics: Who is being arrested, who is being stopped, who is being killed? Black people. Here and across this nation.

White America should be surprised how little protest it has witnessed. It’s nothing. It cannot compare to the violent oppression black America knows every day.

Thursday, on campus, I heard students and faculty decry violent protest. It shouldn’t be done that way. Violence only leads to violence, they said. Even black students said this – as if they had to reassure their white colleagues that they knew that there should be well-mannered attempts to be heard by a system that has been, for centuries, deaf and dumb. Black people need to whisper, and politely, too.

It is convenient for white people to insist that black people behave themselves. Frequently this takes the form of referring to Martin Luther King as the ideal role model and depicting the Civil Rights Movement as the appropriate way for a tormented people to clearly, kindly convince white people to be nice.

But to insist that black people make sure not to act too angry, not to reach for rocks or trash cans is the privilege of the powerful. The powerful can and do use the police and the national guard and curfews and the law to make sure that black people are controlled. To make sure their movements are confined. To make sure they can’t vote. To make sure…. Shall we count the ways?

This is violence, too. It is widespread, endemic and pernicious. It is a violence inherent in the political, social and economic systems built by a white elite.

My black students tell stories of that violence. Your car breaks down and when the police approach you make sure to move very, very slowly when you get out of the car. Be careful not to drive in late night or early morning hours at all – stay inside and at home lest your actual appearance in the world be regarded as a danger. Make sure to give white people all the space they need to be anxious. Be understanding about their fears, be able to explain why they don’t need to fear who you are or what you want from them.

White America has done enough to convince itself that they’ve done enough. But what has been done is nothing, really.

There has been no teshuva. There has been no constant, clear, precise acknowledgment of this country’s past. White people have owned black people. White people have controlled black people. White people do not need for black people to explain why racism is still “a problem.” They need a teshuva that will have actual consequences, that will offer genuine reparation, that is widespread, systemic, and institutionalized.

Yesterday I sat with five students in an advanced class on the history of European antisemitism. One white student spoke about the inevitability of Martin Luther King’s name coming up in white conversations about black protest, and added, “and they killed him.”

Even during that raw, open conversation, I wondered: Were we white people in the room approaching the teshuva we are responsible for wholeheartedly embracing?

Did we even make a start?

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White People, Take it In: On Racism and the Charleston Murders

Charleston murderedWe were checking out various apartments and homes for rent around our new town, Charlotte, North Carolina. My husband, Ralf, stopped to talk to different folks in in what appeared to be a diverse neighborhood.

I was sitting in the car looking at newspaper ads when Ralf got back into the driver’s seat.

“Find out anything?” I asked. For a moment, Ralf was silent.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I can’t believe the language I just heard,” he said. “I was just talking to that white man over there in that front yard. He told me we should think about whether we want to move in to this neighborhood.”

“Why not?”

“Because – and these were his words – the ‘niggers’ are taking over.”

It was 1990. Neither one of us could take it in.

Photo by James Keivom, originally published in the NY Daily News

That was a quarter century ago. And now? We are taking in Eric Gardner on the sidewalk, choking to death. We are taking in the vision of a 14-year-old African American girl pushed to the ground and kneed in the back by a white police officer. We are taking in Dylann Storm Roof’s murder of nine African Americans in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. During bible study, no less.

The list is, of course, endless. And we white people? We are, apparently, not sick enough.

There are so many pernicious ways for racism to run its course. Just cut out the facts of history, for example.

In 1999, I worked for the North Carolina State Department of Cultural Resources as the bicentennial coordinator for Reed Gold Mine. Reed Gold Mine is the location of the first documented discover of gold in America, and almost as soon as the family had sold enough nuggets, Reed began purchasing slaves to search for gold.

The white manager of the site called the place “John Reed’s farm.” John Reed’s enormous wealth was made on the backs of slave labor, but that went unmentioned in the tour shpiel which was delivered then, not unsurprisingly, mostly to white visitors.

Does this fact seem innocuous in comparison to the police brutality we have been witnessing in videos and pictures on YouTube? To a criminal justice system that routinely rounds up African Americans for, among other things, driving? To a mass murder of the faithful in a church sanctuary?

How about this (not small) fact: After WWII white people fled to the suburbs, often financed by banks who refused loans to African Americans. The result? Over decades, lower class white people were able to build home equity and inheritable wealth while African Americans were confined to decaying inner cities. One group got a hand up to the middle class; the other was prevented from moving at all.

These facts are among the millions of facts underpinning American racism. Racism is systemic, pervasive. It is not merely unacknowledged in this country, it is nourished by the white world’s inability to take it in.

Since 2000 I have seen more and more African American students in my classes at UNC Charlotte. They seem different from those I was teaching in the 1990’s. They are more self-assured, more confident. They seem, generally, to trust that I want to help.

Why should they?

Why should African Americans trust any white person who has a position of authority? Why should they trust any white person?

White people have enslaved black people, we have oppressed and persecuted black people, we have made it impossible for any black person to be born into true freedom.

A thousand, a million, an uncountable number of cuts. Banks, police, the criminal system – white America is sick with hatred and violence against African Americans. But not yet sick enough?

Why did those members of “Mother Emanuel,” the oldest AME church in the south, invite in a lone white man into their community? Into their sacred space? Into their sanctuary?

“They were so trusting,” church historian Liz Alston said.

Now it is time: White people – all white people must consider what they must do to earn such trust.

Take it in.

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The Procrustean Choice: Living with Antisemitism or Living with Racism

NetanyahuBenjamin Netanyahu flies to Europe not to grieve, but to calculate. As families are mourning their loved ones, he chooses to agitate for his political agenda. Instead of compassion, he offers European Jews a lesson. Theirs is misplaced allegiance. Israel, so Netanyahu, is the only place they can truly call home.

I’ve taught the Holocaust for almost three decades. Antisemitism has never left Europe. I don’t believe it will. Even the murder of a million Jewish children and five million Jewish adults could not do away with it. What could?

Europe was long ago infected with a cultural pathology, a virus that appears to go into remission only to return – still virulent, still horrifying, still murderous.

White Europeans may not, however, point fingers at non-white Europeans and claim antisemitism is no longer “their” issue. This is not the problem of some Muslim “other.” This disease was born in Europe. Variations on neo-Nazism are everywhere, and they find a home in a number of varied populations across the continent.

It is true: No one can guarantee the safety of Europe’s Jews.  But is Israel their home? Is it mine? What will Israel offer, should we make aliyah?

A lot better, of course, than it offers other refugees seeking asylum. Do you happen to be a black and African soul fleeing violence instead of a white, European, and Jewish one? So far, the Israeli government has managed to respond to less than 1½ percent of asylum requests from Sudanese nationals. Not a single Sudanese has been granted refugee status.

Eritrean asylum seekers face similarly awful conditions. Just four of almost 2,500 Eritreans in Israel have acquired refugee status. Some of the detainees in the Holot detention facility, where such refugees face (and freeze) in despicable conditions, have been there for six years.  Israel is hardly a safe haven for them.

Nor is Israeli society free from its own forms of virulent racism. Lehava (Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land) is just one of many virulently racist groups whose supporters can be heard screaming “death to Arabs” in the streets of Jerusalem. Three Lehava supporters have been indicted in the arson attack against a Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school in the city.

Last January, a Druze man who had recently completed his service with the IDF reported that ten religious Jewish men had assaulted him after hearing him speaking in Arabic. He had to pay for his own ambulance to get to a hospital.

Before we consign Israeli racism to extremist right-wing groups, we might want to consider the kinds of things coming out of the mouths of some Israel’s leaders – and as a matter of course, these days. Just this month, Naftali Bennett, Minister of the Economy, spoke about internal security concerns in the country, referring to areas with high Arab populations. “Anyone who’s gone traveling in the Negev in recent years knows,” he asserted, “that they can’t leave their car … because it will be broken into and stolen.”

Arabs, who make up a fifth of Israel’s population, are car thieves.

European Jews fleeing antisemitism will, if they make aliyah, live in a country that is home to hate speech and hate crime. They will be fleeing to a country that has been – for five decades – exercising colonialist methods to subdue and control millions of Palestinians.

Netanyahu claims to belong to a western culture that is “based on freedom and a culture of choice.”  For whom, exactly?

The extent to which any western culture has achieved such an ideal is worth questioning. The extent to which Israel presents humanity with anything close to such a thing is debatable.

I want Israel to exist. Most Jews in the world want Israel to exist. But the Jews of the Diaspora do not live in order to support Israel on any and all terms presented by Netanyahu and his supporters. The dangers faced by Jews in a Europe that is still home to antisemitism should not blind anyone to the dangers of living in an Israel that has been made a comfortable home for rampant racism.

No home we have had has ever been a safe one. That fact should not keep us from trying to create one.

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