Tens of millions of Americans are deeply disturbed by the racism that has recently gotten the focus that it should have had for the past many decades. The failure of juries to indict police who kill African American males was not new, but the awareness of this reality which has been just one of the many faces of racism that weigh down the lives of African Americans in this society was quite unusual and momentarily broke through the dominant discourse that “that problem has been solved decades ago after Martin Luther King, Jr. saved his people by ending segregation and winning the voting rights laws.”
Of course, even now there are many in the media who try to deny the ongoing significance of racism in our society. Yet the outpouring of anger that we’ve seen on college campuses and in the streets of the U.S. is a reason for hopefulness that when the media turns its attention away from this issue some of the consciousness about racism will remain alive beyond the peoples of color who can never forget it as long as it is shoved in their face by police, unemployment, hunger, poverty, harassment, and endless opportunities to experience the contempt that many whites feel toward them.
Is it any wonder that some young African Americans find it hard to believe that there is a strong connection between how hard they work and how well they will be treated in this society? Does anyone really think that if a Black cop had killed a middle class white youth or strangled and then let die a white man that the grand jury would not have indicted him? What we have been hearing more clearly than ever in the past few years is the tremendous fear that African Americans carry with them at all times — fear of white majority and their occupying force in communities of color that we call police and some of us call “pigs,” and fear of the way the system keeps on undermining them, manifesting contempt for them, and treating them as though their lives did not matter.
That’s why I am so glad that this Sunday, December 14, the Progressive National Baptist Convention has called for a morning of standing in solidarity with African Americans. I strongly urge you to find a Black church near you and show up in solidarity. The focus is not only on mourning but in publicly proclaiming: “Black Lives Matter.” That afternoon, we at the Network of Spiritual Progressives will be holding a strategy conference to assess what needs to change in the way the liberal and progressive forces have developed in the past few decades that has rendered them less influential and hence less able to defend the mini-steps that were taken in the past to overcome American racism. I’m hoping that our event will spur dozens of others.
This is a discussion which can’t stay at the level of pointing out how spineless and hence disappointing President Obama has been, how absent of a positive message the Democratic Party has been, how splintered and unable to cooperate have been the various organizations and movements of the liberal and progressive Left. We need to look deeper.
The issue of racism, after all, is really the issue of “othering” — taking some group and making them the demeaned other. What pain in people’s lives makes this othering so attractive?
We at the Network of Spiritual Progressives point to the corrosive impact of patriarchy and class society in dividing people and making it in the interests of the powerful to foster hatred among groups of the relatively powerless. This has taken much more sophisticated form in contemporary capitalist society where most people have been indoctrinated into the belief that they live in a “meritocracy” in which people end up economically, but also in terms of the quality of their lives, families and love relationships, in exactly the place they deserve. Those who are most successful deserve that, and the rest of us deserve what ever happens to us. The result: massive self-blaming which feels terrible. No wonder that many are attracted to religious fundamentalist or ultra nationalist movements or institutions which promise them support and caring (and this promise is often really delivered). However, the nationalist holidays pass, the Sunday church experience passes, and then people are right back in the very same capitalist marketplace in which they are seen as valuable only to the extent that they can accumulate lots of money and power. The selfishness, materialism and looking out for number one that so undermines loving relationships returns to the forefront, and the religious or nationalist high doesn’t last. And here the ultra-Right comes forward to provide an explanation: “there is some group that is destroying what would otherwise be a wonderful and nurturing society” and then point to whoever is the designated demeaned other, and blame it on them.
Jews were the identified demeaned other of Europe and it led eventually to genocide against the Jewish people (including many of my relatives). But in the US by the time my grandparents arrived here there already was a “demeaned other” that replaced Native Americans (once they had been genocided nearly out of existence), and so the demeaned other became the Blacks brought here as slaves and then eventually freed from legal slavery but subjected to various forms of domination and humiliation that continues to this moment. And the hatred of Blacks is layered over not only to function as an effective way to channel the anger that people might otherwise be feeling toward the larger economic system onto the backs of African Americans, but also as a way of protecting the American public from ever really having to face up to how debilitating and cruel has been the practice and legacy of slavery, then Jim Crow and segregation, then the more hidden but nevertheless pervasive ways that racism continues to function as a central dynamic in American politics and economics. We can witness how difficult it is for the American public to acknowledge the torture we visited on a wide variety of people in Guantanamo and other secret sites, even when a U.S. Senate committee report provides much of the evidence, and that was only a few thousand people being tortured by a handful of distorted people. Imagine then how hard it is for a society like ours to have a serious look at the way tens of millions of African Americans and other peoples of color have been living and suffering. Far easier to deflect attention by blaming the victim — particularly in capitalist societies where people have already been taught to blame themselves for their economic failures, and where othering is the coin of the realm.
A serious anti-racist movement must address these psychological dynamics. It must affirm the possibility of a world based on love and generosity even in the face of being dismissed as “unrealistic” because all of us have to some extent been immersed in the selfishness-generating worldviews that are taught in the schools and media and massively reinforced by our experiences in the capitalist marketplace, so most of us have come to believe that these behaviors reflect “human nature” rather than the products of a particular form of economic and social organization through which we’ve been living and then recreating in our own personal and economic lives.
Yet most people yearn for something quite different, and that is why we at the Network of Spiritual Progressives are building the Love and Justice movement. More of that in my next column! For the moment, I hope you might yet try to get to the Reclaim America conference this Sunday or at least join the Network of Spiritual Progressives and help convene such a gathering in your part of the world.
And given the now-documented torture that the U.S. Senate revealed yesterday that is being highlighted in the media today, we have a lot more from which to be reclaiming America. But in the long run, that torture is just another manifestation of the “othering” that permeates the consciousness of so many Americans. How else explain the collaboration with the torturers by the American Psychological Association? And that othering is most systematically manifested in the racism toward peoples of color and in particular toward African Americans. So do find an African American church this Sunday and show up and demonstrate that they are not alone and that Black Lives Matter to you no matter what your racial, religious or ethnic identity!
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine and chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. He is the author of the national best seller The Left Hand of God: Taking Back America From the Religious Right and of the national best seller Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. He welcomes responses from people who wish to build a Love and Justice movement in the U.S. with people who will take the psychological and spiritual dimension of human needs seriously–contact him at RabbiLerner.Tikkun@gmail.com