Despair or Hope? Part II

November 4th: Noach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

We don’t spend much time, in the Genesis account of the Great Flood, thinking about the people or animals that did not make it onto the Ark. We focus on Noah and his family and all the lucky animals and the way they survived the great calamity. For them, there was trepidation but hope, while, for those other people and animals, despair was the only option. My question, last week and this, regards the despair we hear so passionately expressed across our society. Are things really that bad? And, no matter how bad they are, is despair the best response?

Last week, I challenged the narrative that our “failed system” is destroying a “way of life” and the ethnic and economic group of working class White people. This week, I want to turn to the political Left and consider some of the despair expressed in the Black Lives Matters Movement.  I begin with the obvious moral position that, of course, Black lives matter. All human lives matter, and, if individuals or groups suggest—in words or policies or actions—that the lives of People of Color are less worthwhile than those of White people, such unconscionable bigotry needs to be identified and stopped. 

That being said, I find myself wondering why this new movement has come on the scene, and why it has appeared now? Have things changed in recent years? Is the situation of racism so different as to warrant a new movement and a new strategy? 

Racism has been a persistent blight on humankind since pretty much the beginning, and its particular effects in America have been tragic and unrighteous and an inconsistency in the American Dream. However, I wonder if the despair expressed in some quarters is appropriate. 

Some examples: reporter Wesley Lowery looked at the narrative of genocide against the African American population in a book entitled They Can’t Kill Us All. Poet and singer Jamila Woods recently commented that the Afro-Futuristic vibe (a style of music) is radical: “Part of Afro-Futurism is the idea that, because Black History has had so many struggles, it is radical to imagine ourselves in the future.” Writer Vann R. Newkirk II recently wrote (in The Atlantic) that, given the oppression of Black people in America, the odds have been against his existence. 

Are they/we really trying to kill them all? Though the cultural prompt for this seems to be the spate of shootings of Black citizens by police, the facts of the individual cases do not reveal a vast campaign or conspiracy. At worst, there seem to be some poorly trained or trigger happy police officers—and they deserve to be disciplined/punished appropriately. But, in systematic investigations, the narrative of a campaign to murder African Americans in the streets has not been confirmed in any way whatsoever. An example is the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown. The U.S. Justice Department investigation was ordered by an African American President and supervised by an African American Attorney General, and it did not find the officer to be at fault. The report cited a pattern of racial harassment which needs to be addressed, but the narrative of trying to kill them all was simply not verified, supported, or even alleged. 

And so, I ask again. Why this new campaign—Black Lives Matter, and why now? I think three factors may be at play. First, the term can be seen as a rebuttal to an unintentionally pernicious phrase that has peppered crime statistics for a number of decades. When murder rates alarm local populations, they are often calmed by the clarification, “Don’t worry, it’s Black on Black crime.” I think I understand the motivation: the murder rates are not a matter of roving marauders, indiscriminately murdering people. Citizens should not be worried. On the other hand, the implication is that the murder of African American citizens is somehow less tragic—that their lost lives matter less. This is a horrible suggestion, and, after years of this absurd and obnoxious logic, the phrase Black Lives Matter is a direct rebuttal. 

A second possible factor may be the aftermath of the Obama Presidency. Though it may seem naïve or absurd now, there was the thought—the audacious hope—that the election of an African American man to the highest office in the land would mean the end of racism. It is one thing to hope, but it is another thing entirely to believe that President Obama would signal the end of a plague that has afflicted so many for centuries. When viewed in the context of history, as many old people are wont to say, the struggle for Civil Rights has seen much progress over the last 50-100 years. But, in the ahistorical mentality that is so pervasive among young people, the focus is not on the advancements made but rather on the inequities that still exist. The young people are not wrong, but neither are the old people who see the fight for Civil Rights as a long term and slow process. Add to this two Millennial characteristics, the demand for immediate gratification and the need to remake the world in their own image, and you have a sense that things are different and worse now, and we need a new immediate solution.

(We Baby-Boomers should cut them some slack because we, too, felt the need to remake the world in our own image, and we, too, have difficulty being patient.)

The third factor in the appearance of this new Civil Rights movement—and perhaps the most significant philosophically—is the limited shelf-life of Affirmative Action, racial quotas, and other ameliorative strategies to right the wrongs of racism. From the very beginning of Affirmative Action and racial quotas in the late 1960s, there has been a disconnect between traditional American notions of equality and the remedial steps taken to redress historical inequality. Saving places for Blacks or Women or any other disenfranchised group inevitably means discriminating against White Men. This was seen as necessary to make up for centuries of prejudice, but the implicit understanding—from the very beginning, was that these quotas were temporary—until the “playing field was level.” The length of time these therapeutic strategies would be necessary was never specified, but everyone understood that eventually they would no longer be necessary. There is evidence that this temporary social therapy may be approaching its terminus—the end of its shelf-life, and the big question for our society is: Is the playing field level yet? 

What has changed in recent years is the belief that, with a Black President and with the substantial progress in Civil Rights, the playing field is getting close to level. This general sensibility found a legal expression in the recent voting rights case involving Shelby County, Alabama. For almost half a century, the traditional anti-Black penchant of Southern governments was remedied by the Federal Justice Department overseeing local elections. Changes in district lines, rules about who represents whom, and who gets to vote were supervised by the Justice Department, and localities were forced to let Black people participate, vote, and serve. It was one of the ways that the South was changed. In recent years, however, some local governments have come to believe that Federal oversight is no longer necessary: that what was broken has been fixed. This was the case in Shelby County, and, in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, their contention was affirmed. Federal oversight is no longer required.

Are they fixed? Is the playing field now level? The progress made, as exemplified by the two term Presidency of Barack Obama, suggests that it’s time to declare the problem fixed and trust good people to behave righteously. The persistent and pernicious racism that still plagues American society, however, suggests that the shelf life of government-ordered anti-racism policies needs to be extended. Stepping back from the fray, I wonder how much of the Black Lives Matter sensibility is based on the belief that we still have a long way to go and that sanguine self-congratulations on solving racism is way, way premature.

I see the injustice and frustration. I understand the need for continual attention and persistent demands for justice. I recognize the need to examine the system and fix its many problems. What I do not see, however, is a conspiracy to commit genocide against our African American population or to destroy the Black Soul. I see problems and I see smart people whose minds are better utilized working on solutions rather than eloquently spreading the narrative of despair. 

Sometimes, drama can help stimulate our emotions and focus our minds of the immediacy of the problems at hand. But, sometimes, drama can warp our perceptions and create despair in times and places where creative problem solving is a much better response.

We are not the people and animals Left off the Ark. We are on the Ark. We all have a future. It’s a matter of figuring out how to craft and live that future.