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Healing Virginia is our Responsibility Too

03/10/2019 10:52:42 AM

Mar10

Rabbi Amy Sapowith

Rabbi Amy attended Healing Virgina (#HealingVa), an Interfaith and Civic Discussion with Attorney General Mark Herring on Sunday, March 3rd at Mt. Zion UMC in Leesburg. Here are her reflections on this event and the issues it raised:

     As Jewish tradition understands the Bible, humanity’s first sin is Cain’s killing of his brother, Abel. It’s not about Adam and Eve. It’s about Cain and Abel. It’s not about disobedience. It’s about not controlling our passions, our jealousy, our humiliation. Scroll ahead to the formation of the Jewish people qua Jewish people at the base of Mt. Sinai when looking up we experience Adonai’s revelation upon the summit, and we accept Adonai to be our God, yet soon after our people lose faith and commit their first sin.  Moses delays in returning from the summit with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and without the wherewithal to endure his absence even a day, we instantly turn to our smart phones—I mean we immediately devote our attention to a replacement god, we worship at the foot of a golden calf.  

     What makes these sins “original” and worthy of our constant attention is that they are sins that we are repeatedly committing.  Fratricide and its relations, homicide and genocide, continue to wreak misery in our world.  And we continue to worship one form of idol or another. Our attention must continually be turned back to the lessons of these original sins in the hopes that we will one day truly repent, change our ways, and rid ourselves of these behaviors for good. 

     It is in this light that I understand racism to be America’s original sin. No doubt you’ve heard this before. We know that racism was canonized in the constitution and had to be amended out. But what needs retelling and renewed emphasis, even among those of us who may have voted for a Black (or biracial) president, is that racism continues today. It’s a sin that persists.

     It’s not that racism exists everywhere equally.    On the one hand, racism flourishes brazenly in people who envision America as a country meant only for white Christians and among those who assert the superiority of white people. These are the same people who see Jews behind every screen operating the levers of world domination.  At the same time, racism continues less transparently and more awkwardly in everyday perceptions we hold and assumptions we make.  While racism no longer figures as a founding law of the land, neither have we successfully routed out every vestige. That’s why on February 3rd, I along with Sonja Benson and Muriel Gardner, attended a Race Relations and Reconciliation Service led by Rev. Tracey Lyons at Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Leesburg.  To show support. And that’s why I headed back to Mt. Zion Church last Sunday, March 3, to participate in our county-wide race and reconciliation effort called #HealingVA.  

     When Governor Ralph Northam admitted to wearing blackface, and later Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to the same, faith leaders of Loudoun who know and respect AG Herring, saw a teaching moment in his confession and an opportunity to make inroads in the cause of racial equity. He was invited to attend a community working session, another effort at reconciliation. This was #HealingVa.

     The goal of last Sunday’s meeting was not to chastise nor to humiliate the AG.  It was not to blame all white people. The goal was to bear testimony to the ways racial bias can inform the behaviors of any one of us, even a well-meaning or perhaps frivolous act of fun like dressing up as a favorite rock star.  The case in point was just this, performing in blackface. Why is this objectionable? Because blackface derives its fun from 19th century minstrel shows rooted in a deeply insulting and dehumanizing perception of black people.  For the entertainment of white audiences, white performers would wear black make up to create exaggerated portraits of plantation slaves and free blacks, portraits that were demeaning and self-serving and which became onerous and long-lived stereotypes.  Like any stereotype, once given life, these images then work in a culture to blind us to a person or group’s full humanity. 
Consider the stereotype of the greedy or stingy Jew—a stereotype that continues in full force today and which denies us as a group to be valued for the outsized generosity that we as a group exhibit through our contributions to hospitals, museums, other houses of culture and causes. It’s a stereotype that also blinds others to the greed or malfeasance of other individuals who are not Jewish.  It’s a stereotype that has worked its way into everyday phrases and concepts like “to Jew someone down.” 

     AG Herring’s admission and willingness to attend a community gathering and the African American community’s willingness to forgive and to teach set the stage for real reconciliation—for exposing those more subtle, implicit biases we hold and identifying solutions that will lead our society closer to the goal of full racial equity.  
The conversation was moderated by NAACP Loudoun President Pastor Michelle Thomas and Rizwan Jaka of ADAMS, both members of the Loudoun Interfaith Clergy group and no strangers to the BCRC community. Also present was a panel to address concerns raised either by the moderators or the audience and to offer professional counsel and workable solutions. The panel was comprised of Leesburg councilman, Ron Campbell, former delegate, Randy Minchew, NAACP attorney, Buta Biberaj, and school psychologist, Charles Barret, among others. I was tasked with recording the key points and discussion highlights. One takeaway of the evening was a call for the AG to use the influence of his position to strengthen hate crime laws. Another was to impress upon LCPS officials, also in attendance, to revise course curricula to better teach the history of racial oppression.  

     To give an example of the give and take, at one point during the evening, Pastor Michelle’s daughter, Anna, who I believe is in the 6th grade, went to the mic and wondered aloud why she and other black people have to regularly travel on a main road, Lee Highway, otherwise known as route 7, that is named for a segregationist?  How clear some things become when expressed through a child’s eyes.

     Another example: Lisa Kimball, former BCRC president and current executive director of the Arc of Loudoun, went to the mic to recount an incident one Halloween when two white girls, dressed as Venus and Serena Williams, came trick or treating. They were dressed in tennis wear and wore black face. At the time, Lisa congratulated them for emulating these talented, strong, successful women.  “Was I wrong?” she asked the Loudoun panel. One panelist recognizing everyone’s good intentions, commented that right and wrong can be hard to determine, but what’s most important in those cases is that there is a conversation. Another panelist offered a different view. Blackface is a line that should never be crossed.  “In most cases what we are talking about today is white people coming to terms with [the realization that] not everything is for you. . . . You can honor Serena Williams. You can honor Venus Williams, but their skin tone and complexion is not for you. So I would say part of the way forward is putting perimeters around how we honor and respect people.”

     Racial bias like gender bias and Antisemitism perpetuate, even if unwittingly, distortions about classes of people, which then accrue to create institutional biases that regularly, even if unintentionally, privilege certain classes of people over others. These forms of implicit bias are not easy to identify. Sometimes they are hard to understand. And as in the case of the girls in blackface to emulate Serena and Venus Williams, not everyone will agree that it should be forbidden for all time and in all cases. But the history should be known and the conversation should be had. 

     Leaders of Loudoun’s African American community turned what has been an ongoing and misunderstood insult into a sacred learning opportunity. That this moment for learning and changing hearts was viewed as a sacred act is evidenced by the choice to hold the meeting in a church and by the non-accusatory, respectful and graceful tone that was maintained throughout the evening. AG Herring’s admission and in-person apology offered our community a teaching opportunity. His pledge to racial equity also promises to change Loudoun’s landscape, personally and institutionally, in the cause of racial equity.   And we as a Loudoun Jewish community, ourselves racially diverse with a white, Latino, Asian, black and biracial membership, we too have the responsibility to address racism—overt and implicit—in our midst and in ourselves. In our Purim story, Esther must speak out because her own people, our people, was at risk. In the American story, we must speak out because our own people—Jews of color and fellow Americans of color-- are again at risk.  We are still on the road to the Promised Land.

     Hazak hazak v’nithazek.    

Mon, May 20 2019 15 Iyar 5779