Plagues that Oppress 42 Million of Our Brethren

by the Editorial Board

From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

Harriet Tubman, the "Black Moses" of the Underground Railroad
Harriet Tubman, the “Black Moses” of the Underground Railroad

AT PASSOVER, as part of the ritual of connecting to the Jewish spirit of liberation, Jews recite a list of the legendary plagues that marked the days of resistance to slavery in ancient Egypt. The recounting can sometimes feel rote, the plagues horrible but rather distant from our modern lives. That’s why conscientious Jews often add or substitute modern plagues to this section of the hagode, in hope that the recounting will evoke our empathy for the very real suffering of real human beings in our world, and thus make our Passover a cultural tool for changing the world.

“Racism” is often prominent on that list of contemporary plagues — but a quick recitation of the word does not begin to flesh out its reality for African Americans, that 13 percent of the U.S. population for whom the generation-to-generation heritage of slavery and institutional racism still infuse daily life. And racism is not, in fact, a single plague, but a constellation of plagues:

 

ECONOMIC OPPRESSION: Thirty-eight percent of African-American children live in poverty — four times the proportion of white or Asian children (Pew Research). In six states, more than half of black children live in poverty (Children’s Defense Fund).

Moses, the Jewish "Harriet Tubman" of the Exodus from Egypt
Moses, the Jewish “Harriet Tubman” of the Exodus from Egypt

For black men and women of every age, the unemployment rate is between two and three times higher than the rate for whites of equivalent age. For blacks of family-building age, 25-34, more than 10 percent are now out of work (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

The median income for black households is only 61 percent of the white median income (State of Working America.org). As for household net wealth (primarily from home ownership), the median for African Americans is $7,113; for whites, $111,146 (Forbes, as of 2011). From 2007-2010, black wealth fell by 31 percent; for whites, 11 percent (Urban Institute).

Forty-three percent of African Americans own homes, compared to 73 percent of whites — and “wealthy minority neighborhoods [have] less home value… than wealthy white neighborhoods,” while “poor white neighborhoods had more home value… than poor minority neighborhoods” (Brookings Institute).

In cities throughout the U.S., the homeless population in 2007 was 47 percent African-American (U.S. Conference of Mayors).

 

INFERIOR EDUCATION: In K-12 public education, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students, and are far more likely to be referred to the police than white students for the same infractions (U.S. News & World Report).

Three quarters of black students attend segregated schools, and 38 percent attend “intensely segregated” schools (90-100 percent non-white; The Civil Rights Project). Black students have less access to veteran teachers than whites, and 7 percent of black students attend schools in which as many as 20 percent of teachers fail to meet license and certification requirements (U.S. Department of Education, 2014).

The high school graduation rate for black males hovers at 60 percent; for white males, about 80 percent (Schott Foundation for Public Education; note that many dropouts go on to gain equivalency diplomas).

The four-year college graduation rate for African-American students is 42 percent; for white students, 62 percent (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education).

 

MASS INCARCERATION AND POLICE VIOLENCE: White people use illegal drugs more frequently than African Americans, yet blacks are three times as likely to be incarcerated for drug possession (Bureau of Justice). When charged with the same crime, a black male is six times more likely to go to jail than a white male (The Sentencing Project), and black men receive prison sentences 19.5 percent longer than those of white men committing similar crimes (U.S. Sentencing Commission).

African Americans are twice as likely to be victims of the threat or use of force by the police. Young black males, 15-19, are twenty-one times more likely to be to be shot and killed by police than young white males (ProPublica). Thirty-nine percent of young black males killed by police were not attacking when killed (FBI Supplemental Homicide Report, 2012). “Extensive research has shown that… the vast majority of Americans of all races implicitly associate black Americans with adjectives such as ‘dangerous,’ ‘aggressive,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘criminal.’ Since the nature of law enforcement frequently requires police officers to make snap judgments about the danger posed by suspects and the criminal nature of their activity, subconscious racial associations influence the way officers perform their jobs” and may “significantly increase… police officers’ willingness to employ violent or even deadly force…” (The Sentencing Project).

Young white men with a felony record are more likely to be called back after a job interview than young black men with a clean record (American Journal of Sociology). “Job applicants with white-sounding names get one callback per ten resumés sent while those with African-American-sounding names get one callback per 15,” an advantage equivalent to an “additional eight years of [job] experience” (National Bureau of Economic Research).

 

DISEASE AND INFERIOR HEALTHCARE: African Americans have significantly higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and other stress-related conditions than whites, and black children have a 500 percent higher death rate from asthma compared to white children. Blacks also die more often than whites from many cancers because of a lack of early diagnosis and treatment, and “are woefully underrepresented in cancer trials and are much less likely to survive prostate cancer, breast cancer, and lung cancer than their white counterparts” (Center for American Progress). African-American life expectancy, now 74.6 years, is 4.3 years shorter than white life expectancy, and does not match or surpass it in any state of the U.S. (Kaiser Family Foundation).

Black adults are half as likely as white adults to use mental health services (8.6 percent to 16.6 percent; National Institute of Mental Health). Less than 4 percent of mental-health professionals nationally are African Americans (Psychology Today).

 

VOTER SUPPRESSION: Black Americans are far more likely to be affected by the rise of voter identification laws, which are now on the books in thirty-three states. With 7 percent of the general voting public lacking an adequate photo ID, the figures rise to a full quarter of African Americans, and the onerous tasks involved in obtaining photo i.d. (such as going to court and paying various fees) especially affect them because of impediments imposed by poverty (Mother Jones).

 

WE COULD go on and on. What we cannot allow to go on, however, is this living reality of racism in America.

Indeed, slavery will not truly be over in our country until black lives do matter just as much as all other lives. Let it therefore be our resolve this Passover to end racism and to heal its damages — and let us turn our words into action through solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and other outpourings of African-American resistance.