Addressing racial bias


In Ferguson, Mo., and again in Staten Island, N.Y., the widely reported decisions by grand juries not to indict white police officers accused of killing unarmed black men has brought protesters into the streets. The Jewish community, while not silent on the decisions, has been spotty in its response, perhaps reflecting the view that as white middle-class Americans, Jews are not affected by racial profiling and police abuse of power.

In a sense that’s true in this relatively comfortable time and place for Jews in our county. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be sensitive to the issue. In that light, St. Louis-area Jews who went to Ferguson to offer aid and comfort after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown are to be commended. So, too, are those who joined in peaceful solidarity in New York against a grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer shown on a video holding Eric Garner in a choke hold.

In response to the Ferguson decision, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center called on communities “to assess whether victims of law enforcement shootings are disproportionately people of color” and if so, to respond with an “action plan.” Bend the Arc called on Americans “to dismantle the systemic racial injustices underlying” Michael Brown’s death. And following the decision in the Garner case, the ADL said, “We must all come together to address the persistence of racial bias.”

A few individual voices have also risen up in the last week, seeking to focus our community on the fact that that Ferguson and Staten Island are closer to our Jewish community than we all might think. Writing in Ha’aretz, University of Maryland undergraduate Benjy Cannon said Jews must “challenge the system” under which Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed. “We must do so out of moral conviction,” he wrote.

Jewish African-American blogger MaNishtana pointed out in Tablet magazine that not all Jews are white, and that he faces the same risks of racial profiling and police brutality being highlighted in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “And it’s not OK for you to be OK with it,” he wrote.

But most Jewish organizations, which issue a steady stream of statements on a wide variety of issues, were silent on this one. We all choose our causes, and we respect the right of organizations to choose issues on which they think their input will make a difference. That said, it is worth considering that while we may not be able to prevent an act of terrorism in Jerusalem, we are all ready to make our views on the issue known. How much more so should we be willing to do what we can to help influence a system in which justice seems to elude unarmed black men felled by officers charged with keeping the peace?

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