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On Racism, Its Costs And Its Causes

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It doesn’t take very much to lose a neshamah.

The young woman was witty, charming, frum, and a Harvard Law School graduate. She was also black, and lived in an Orthodox neighborhood. One Purim, she was treated in a neighborhood shul to the sight of a young mother with a few children in tow. As her Purim get-up, the mother had chosen to adorn herself and her kids with blackface and thick lips. The connection to Purim was not clear.

The black young woman, recounting to me why she eventually left that community and relocated to another state – outside of a frum area – had this comment. “What was that woman trying to tell me? What was she trying to say?”

This was no isolated incident. Teachers in our community too often use racial and ethnic slurs in the classroom; too many rabbonim still use disparaging language – or words like “shvartze” or “goy”– thinking that they are harmless within the “in” group.

They aren’t. There isn’t an in-group anymore. Today, almost everything that starts off within our walls quickly finds its way out. The in-group is not so homogenous anymore either. Many people wearing black hats have relatives who are members of the minority groups that are mocked. They are hurt, offended, or worse when they hear words they cannot accept from those to whom they are supposed to look up. The very authority of those people sometimes shrinks in the process.

(Pointing out that some of those words are actually quite neutral in their original meaning will not prove an effective defense. Whatever the origin of those words, they are today considered pejorative and offensive to too many people.)

Still more people have joined our community with some of their old sensitivities intact. They are turned off when they hear words they stopped using in grade school.

And then there are those who have been enticed to drop by – sometimes for the first time in their lives – to a shul or a Shabbos table, and are so shocked by the language they hear that they never return for another visit.

It does not take much to convince someone just testing the waters of the observant community that it is not for them. We should be making it easier for them to stay, not to exit.

Like it or not, many people look down on those who use racist humor or language. To them, it is the antithesis of the refinement and discernment they expect to see in an elevated soul. Racial humor is built upon stereotyping, upon ignoring the differences between individuals within a larger group rather than noting and savoring them. It is about looking at an amorphous collective, rather than respecting individuals as individuals. It is about blaming, rather than understanding. It is about focusing on the negative, and giving little or no credit for the positive.

It is thought to come from a place of insecurity, where one’s own faults don’t seem so onerous when they can be compared with group that is assumed to be even more blameworthy. Anyone who can take these reactions lightly must have a Torah vocabulary from which the term “chillul Hashem” has been omitted.

Why haven’t racial stereotypes completely disappeared from our community?

Three reasons come to mind quickly.

Many of us are still only a generation or two removed from forebears who had good reason to despise all non-Jews, and thought – just as did their despised non-Jewish neighbors – in terms of the hostility that groups had for each other. Much of this has mercifully disappeared in the course of time; much still remains.

Patterns of Jewish settlement provide a second reason. American Orthodox Jews live primarily in larger cities. Within those cities, Jews are often cheek by jowl with other ethnic groups, and often not with those at the higher end of the socio-economic scale. Many Jews, therefore, have been forced to interact with elements of the population given to higher rates of deviant and criminal behavior.

People too often define groups by their own experience. (Where I grew up in Manhattan, non-Jews were “Catholics,” especially Irish-Catholics. You stayed clear of them, unless you preferred your bones broken. All people who spoke Spanish were called Puerto Ricans.) A byproduct of the map of Jewish habitation was a dismissive, contemptuous attitude concerning non-Jews.

About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Sydney M Irmas adjunct chair, Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School.

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