In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Comedian Chris Rock tells about receiving a call from white friends stuck with a flat tire on Martin Luther King Boulevard. What should they do? “Run!” he cries.
Most white Americans have taken his advice. Forty years after the assassination of Dr. King, there are now more than six hundred and eighty U.S. streets named in his honor, from New York to Atlanta, Chicago to Salt Lake City, Portland to Dallas, and “Rosa Parks” is embossed on street signs in a score more cities and towns — but there’s hardly a white pedestrian to be seen on most of these thoroughfares, which usually lie in the heart of African-American neighborhoods.
What’s seen instead are lots of very hard-working Black people worried about ballooning mortgages, gang violence, cops with anxious trigger fingers, and other dangers to their and their kids’ future. Often they live near empty, rubble-strewn lots, check-cashing and payday loan stores, dilapidated public schools, and other monuments of discrimination. Often there are groups of men marooned on the corner by unemployment (9.5 percent, twice the rate for white men), poverty (25 percent, three times the white rate), and the rules of parole (African-American men are seven times more likely than white men to be incarcerated; all statistics from the National Urban League’s 2007 State of Black America report).
It’s good to have street signs that remind Black communities about yesterday’s inspiring civil rights leaders — but what about the rest of us? Eighty percent of white people live in virtually all-white neighborhoods, with nearly nine in ten white suburbanites living in communities that are less than one percent Black. What is there to remind them of the insight delivered by Dr. King at that historic 1963 March on Washington: that white people’s “destiny is tied up” with African-American destiny, and “their freedom is inextricably bound” to African-American freedom?
Most white Americans instead run from King’s insight by underestimating the everyday impact of racism on people of color. In the wake of the ongoing noose case in Jena, Louisiana, for example, a CNN poll showed that only 47 percent of white respondents think that the criminal justice system discriminates against Blacks, a view held by 79 percent of African Americans. Similarly, a 2001 survey showed that 40 to 60 percent of whites (depending on how the question was framed) considered the average African American to be doing as well as, or even better than, the average white. A 2006 survey reported [PDF] in Harvard’s Du Bois Review showed a preponderance of whites of different ages and geographic regions saying they’d be willing to spend the rest of their lives as an African-American for ‘compensation’ of only $10,000 — while requiring $1 million to spend the rest of their lives without television!
Such feedback reveals an utter lack of comprehension of the structural nature of American racism and how it penetrates African-American lives — an incomprehension cultivated by conservative political voices, both white and Black, that have assured us that the achievements of the civil rights movement should have been perfectly sufficient to bring healing and prosperity to a community assaulted for centuries by racial hatred and extreme exploitation, and that it is only the self-defeating social pathologies of ghetto life that block progress. Why believe otherwise when our million-dollar television sets an African-American judge on the bench in every other crime show? — plus there’s that gorgeous Beyoncé and that oh-so-wise Oprah and that smart-as-a-whip Condoleezza Rice . . .
Presumably, American Jews know better. We have known the difference between discrimination and equal opportunity in our own recent past. We have experienced how ghettoization produces heroism in some, parasitism in others. We have experienced the value of reparations and affirmative action. And we talk, read, and make rituals about the process of redemption from slavery every chance we get.
Still, Jews have largely stopped visiting the corner of MLK Boulevard and Rosa Parks Place, even for annual synagogue-church get-togethers. Instead, we laugh ruefully with Chris Rock, and then spend our life savings on houses in neighborhoods with good, i.e., white-majority, school systems. (Former Congressional Representative Peter Deutsch has even launched a Hebrew-themed charter school in Florida and has plans to open a hundred such public schools across the country. Daniel Treiman recently critiqued the plan in The Forward: “It’s one thing . . . to opt out of the public school system; it’s another thing to cash out. It’s one thing to privilege your group’s private interests; it’s another to demand that government privilege those interests, as well.”)
Among the rare exceptions to the rule of Jewish flight from involvement with the African-American community are several organizations of the Jewish left (in a repeat of history — see Cheryl Lynn Greenberg’s article, “Leftists and the Civil Rights Movement,” in our January-February 2008 issue). In New York, for example, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) has made common cause since 2002 with Domestic Workers United, a coalition of nannies, house cleaners, and elderly care providers, the great majority of whom are people of color. In Chicago, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs has a long history of working with the city’s African-American community, dating back to the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington in 1982-83.
Nationally, the Jewish Funds for Justice has organized nearly a hundred synagogues into grassroots organizing coalitions since 2000, and has also catalyzed over $30 million from Jewish federations, synagogues, family foundations, and other institutions as investments in community development financial institutions and community development corporations around the country. This money provides low-interest loans in minority communities for housing and jobs development — a strategy that the American Jewish community modeled in the early 20th century through Hebrew Free Loan funds and other credit-providing institutions. Ultimately, the investing organizations get their capital back, along with a renewed appreciation of how Jewish identity can be cultivated to serve universalist goals.
Thirty million dollars, however, is less than one third of one percent of the combined assets of major American Jewish organizations — and the organizing work required to gain even that percentage for community development has stretched out for two decades. It seems that MLK Boulevard and Rosa Parks Place need rerouting, to the doors of our organizations, and to the center of our hearts.