When Ms. Snow writes that “the American legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation is a wound so deep it may never fully heal,” what process of healing is she referring to?
Would it be the “healing” that has resulted in an incarcerated population that is larger than any other in the world, and overwhelmingly Black and brown? The “healing” that comes from more Black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850?
Is it the “healing” that comes from a “War on Drugs” that has decimated neighborhoods, and even entire cities and towns, upending families to punish the economically and socially disenfranchised?
The painful truth for Black and brown Americans is that there is no “healing” process in this country. It is an illusion concocted by America’s privileged classes to comfort ourselves that we are different in some meaningful way from our parents and grandparents. The same comfort that many Jewish Americans, sadly, try to extract from our otherwise noble civil rights legacy.
Talk to protesters of color from Ferguson, or New York City, or my home in North Carolina, or really anywhere, and you’ll learn a lot. They’re not feeling Ms. Snow’s “healing”–they’re too busy enduring police harassment, ghettoized neighborhoods, horrible schools, and mass incarceration.
One in three Black men in America will spend time in prison. That’s not “healing,” it’s not justice, and it’s not civil rights.
Why do I bring this up? Not to knock Ms. Snow, whose view of this matter is so overwhelmingly common that it would be cruel to pick on her specifically. Rather, I offer an invitation.
Do you want Jewish people to be credited for a deeply laudable commitment to the civil rights struggle? Well, the struggle is alive and well. Indeed, it is more desperate and more needed than ever before. That’s not “good news,” per se–better that we should already have won–but it does represent an opportunity.
To Ms. Snow, and to Jewish people everywhere who want to honor the “legacy” of Jewish civil rights activists, I implore you: take that legacy out of its glass display case and try it on for yourselves.
Recognize the existence, and lift up the leadership, of Jews of color in your community. Join Black Lives Matter activists in your city or town. Organize reading groups around Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow or viewing parties of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In. Start a Jewish social justice organization where you live and demand that your Jewish institutions and representatives speak up, loudly and clearly, against mass incarceration and systemic racism.
Tell your Zayde, your Shabbas table, and your rabbi that you’re finished tolerating anti-Black, anti-immigrant, or anti-Arab racism in your conversations and sermons. And mean it.
Connect with organizations in your town that seek to short-circuit the school-to-prison pipeline through restorative justice programs. Mobilize Jewish people to volunteer their time as parent volunteers in high-risk public schools to intervene on behalf of Black and brown children, who are expelled more than three times as often as white children nationwide.
Or scrap all of those ideas and develop something that makes sense for your setting. Whatever you choose, though, please divest yourself of the collective fantasy of the privileged that the civil rights movement is a historical legacy over which we might compete. There is no legacy. There is no “healing.” The struggle continues, with or without Jewish people.
Meeting many of the Jewish Freedom Summer veterans last summer was a transformative experience for me. I can’t speak for them. But I strongly suspect, based on what they tell me in our conversations, that most of these vets would much prefer an engaged, activist Jewish community committed to today’s civil rights struggle over some bit part in a Hollywood movie. That’s a call I want to respond to. And perhaps that is the beginning of some common ground for me, Ms. Snow, and all of us concerned with Jewish involvement in civil rights.