Fixing broken America

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America is broken; our country has become the “Dis-united States.”

We routinely pledge allegiance to “one nation … indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Yet our “one nation … indivisible” remains deeply divided by race and by class, by “haves” and “have-nots,” while the promise of “liberty and justice for all” means liberty and justice for those who can pay for it and who happen to be white.

We Americans are living through a threefold crisis: the as-yet-unchecked and devouring coronavirus pandemic, our economic collapse, and an explosion in race relations precipitated by the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by a white Minneapolis policeman. A series of videos has shown the world how the officer kept his knee on his handcuffed victim’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, sadistically snuffing out Floyd’s life as the Black man cried out again and again, “I can’t breathe … I can’t breathe.”

As a nation, we have come to see how these three crises are interconnected, for it is Black Americans – indeed, all people of color – who have disproportionately borne the burden of both the virus and the ensuing precipitous loss of jobs. Suddenly, we white Americans are beginning to feel the pain embodied in the words “Black lives matter.”

Of all that I have read, seen and heard about what it means to be Black in America, nothing has touched my mind and my heart more deeply than Ta-Nehesi Coates’ 2015 book, “Between the World and Me,” his cri de coeur, his unburdening of the soul, which takes the form of an extended letter to his only child, his son Samori, who was 15 years old when the book was written.

I reviewed Coates’ book in the Sept. 4, 2015, issue of what was then called The Jewish Voice. What strikes me most about Coates’ examination of being Black in America is his sense of physical vulnerability: “When I was eleven (1986) my highest priority was the simple security of my body.  My life was the immediate negotiation of violence. …” 

He insists that even with a Black man in the White House, he was still living in an America where white men go unpunished when they kill Blacks: Trayvon Martin (Florida), Eric Garner (Staten Island, New York), Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri), Ahmaud Arbery (Georgia), Breonna Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky), George Floyd – a list that goes on and on ….  Will white men at last be punished for murdering Black men?

Coates argues that in America, the deck is stacked against Black people.  To his way of thinking, to his way of feeling, the rest of his countrymen “believe themselves to be white,” an invented construct that keeps Black people at the bottom of society’s barrel so that everybody else can participate in the false and destructive American Dream of “being white” – that is to say, not being Black.

At his most bitter, most angry, most despondent, Coates writes: “And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who sent them into the ghetto armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think that they are white to flee the cities into the Dream.  The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”

It remains to be seen whether the widespread, mostly peaceful protests following the slaying of George Floyd have brought our society to a tipping point, whether we will find the courage and the compassion to bring forth what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Will most of us “who believe that we are white” at last accept Coates’ diagnosis, and work together to address our original sin, our endemic illness, the disease of racism that began to infect us the day a ship of slaves sailed into Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619?

A few weeks ago, as I was taking my morning bike ride up Blackstone Boulevard, in Providence, I saw the following notice written in well-formed blue-chalk letters in the designated bike lane: “The East Side is complicit.” Those words stung me then, and continue to sting me now.  For 33 years as rabbi of Temple Habonim, I lived a life of white privilege in Barrington. During these past 13 years of retirement, I have continued to live a life of white privilege in our sun-filled condo in the “complicit” East Side of Providence. 

It is true that as a rabbi I have tried to reach out to Rhode Island’s Black community. I have had the privilege of preaching at the historic Congdon Street Baptist Church, in Providence.  I have attended more Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfasts than I can count, although I have always sat at the all-white Kosher table  – no bacon, please – sponsored by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.  And over the years I have engaged in serious dialogue with leaders of Rhode Island’s Black community. But, sadly, though I have enjoyed the company of many Black acquaintances, in the course of my 76 years, I have never had a single Black friend. 

Part of my excuse – which, of course, is no excuse – is that I have perceived the need for ethnic and religious diversity in America almost exclusively through the lens of my Jewishness. As a congregational rabbi, I have endeavored to celebrate our Jewish distinctiveness while expanding our interfaith relationships within the broader “salad bowl” of American culture. I use the metaphor of “salad bowl,” not “melting pot,” because I most certainly do not want our religious and cultural individuality to melt into an amorphous blob.

Charles Dickens began his 1859 novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” with these well-known words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness ….”

It is up to all of us Americans to determine through our collective words and deeds whether we will transform this here and this now into the best of times or the worst of times.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.