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The Arc of the Moral Universe Doesn’t Bend on Its Own

September 10, 2013

Thinking about the New Jim Crow During These Days of Awe

by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Sacco wo wordsRosh HaShana, Yom Teruah, is the day when we awaken in our beds, thanks to an alarm clock, a beloved’s voice, or the morning light streaming through a window. And then we are woken up again by the raucous sounding of the shofar. Our first wake-up call of the morning was for our bodies. This second wake-up call is for our spirits.

Beginning with Rosh Hodesh Elul, which fell this year on August 7th, Jews have been sounding the shofar every day, trying to wake up our souls. Many of us spend a great deal of energy keeping our bodies healthy, fit and awake. Today, and throughout the Awesome Days, the Days of Awe, we focus on waking up our souls, arousing our spirits, opening our hearts to the new possibilities that beckon us.

This year, the month of Elul was filled with wake-up calls. This year, the 22nd day of Elul corresponded to the 28th of August. On that day, our country observed the fiftieth anniversary of The March on Washington, the largest demonstration up until that time in our nation’s history. Thanks to television and the Internet, millions of us were able to join the tens of thousands who gathered under the overcast skies and misty rain at the Lincoln Memorial last Wednesday, at the site where the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

Those of you who heard, or have read, President Obama’s words, delivered last Wednesday, may have noticed, as I did, a phrase he employed: “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”

Throughout his speech, the President was echoing and responding to King’s “I Have a Dream.” Although not in his 1963 speech, this phrase seems to have been a favorite for King, who used it in March, 1965, when he posed the following question at the conclusion of the historic five-day march from Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama to demand voting rights. In the rhetorical style of many powerful African-American preachers, King asked the crowd: “How long will it take to achieve the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children?” Then he answered his own question. “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

President Obama concluded his words last week making a connection between courage and justice: “That’s where courage comes from — when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from. . . . That’s where history bends.”

I have been thinking about courage.

I was privileged to travel to India this summer under the sponsorship of the American Jewish World Service. I joined sixteen rabbis from across the spectrum of Jewish life to work with and learn from residents of a rural village in the state of Uttar Pradesh that exists “off the grid.” We met folks who have never experienced the convenience of living with electricity and running water. Many of the routines of their daily lives resemble the patterns of our ancient ancestors, whose days were filled with tending animals, hauling water, cooking and cleaning for their families, and working in the fields.

In preparation for our trip, we read about the Indian caste system, and how it was officially abolished in 1950. We learned that many Indians continue to suffer discrimination, prejudice, and indignity as a result of the remnants of this deeply entrenched hierarchical system of economic and social distinction.

But caste is not an issue in India alone. On this Rosh HaShana Day, I would like to continue the wake up call of the shofar by sharing with you — or reminding you — about some of the “unfinished business” referred to by President Obama last week. The caste system, my friends, is alive and well here in our beloved United States. My travels in India have prodded me to see inequities that are all around us, every day. I returned from my experience with our global neighbors, who live in a young democracy, to take a hard look at our democracy, now 237 years old.

I want to share with you the insights of a legal scholar whose findings have woken me up and roused me from my slumber. Some of you may be familiar with the disturbing and important work of Michelle Alexander and her 2010 book: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2012, second edition). As many of us remember, “Jim Crow” was the umbrella term for the repressive state and local laws that were enacted here in Virginia and in many other states after the Civil War. These laws, which were in effect until the 1960s, prevented newly freed slaves from integrating into mainstream white society by curtailing their access to education, housing, public services and public places, by creating barriers to employment, by forbidding interracial marriage, and more. With detailed and persuasive arguments, Professor Alexander documents how the incarceration of thousands of African American and Hispanic men under the banner of the United States’ War on Drugs has not only equaled but surpassed the destructive and insidious effects of the Jim Crow laws.

She shows how the expansion of American prisons to accommodate mass numbers of individuals rounded up and convicted of minor drug crimes has destroyed families and created an underclass of poor African Americans and Hispanics. Alexander writes,

“In less than 30 years, the U. S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.” (p. 6)

Every one of us knows that illegal substances, including marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, and meth can destroy families and communities. Too many of us sitting in this sanctuary have ourselves dealt with addiction, or have tried to reach out and help family members and friends whose lives have been irreparably altered by drug-related issues. Yet the number of individuals who end up in jails and prisons for drug-related offenses does not accurately reflect the percentage of our population who use or traffic in drugs. Alexander exposes the heartbreaking and mind-numbing reality of imprisonment of black and brown men, most of whom are undereducated and poor, and the concomitant destruction of their families and communities. And once these individuals are released from custody, their freedoms “on the outside” of prison walls are severely curtailed. They face discrimination in securing employment and in seeking housing. In many states, they are denied drivers’ licenses and can never vote, and are disqualified from receiving food stamps and student loans. These men may be out of the lock-up, but they are locked out, marginalized, and left with very few options. Tragically, many felons return to jail. Among nearly 300,000 prisoners released in 15 states in 1994, 68 percent were re-arrested within three years.

There are, of course, men and women who are convicted of crimes where removal from society is an issue of public safety. But there are thousands who are incarcerated for drug crimes that may have no “victims” but the perpetrators themselves. And every individual who is jailed is a son, a brother, a father, a neighbor, a co-worker. Each incarceration affects not a single soul, but a community that is dragged further and further from health and well-being, a community that is distanced further and further from the American dream of liberty and justice for all. With Alexander’s help, I saw how mass incarceration locks thousands of individuals into a permanent underclass, stigmatizing these ex-felons and their families as a distinct, inferior, powerless racial caste.

We are in a Jewish season of waking up, seeing what we have not yet seen, hearing what we have not yet heard. Reading The New Jim Crow helped me to bring together my admiration for the passionate and articulate social justice advocates I met in India — women and men working to overcome the historic inequities of the institutionalization of caste discrimination and privilege — with my desire to carry on the work of the American civil rights movement that we celebrated last week. Reading The New Jim Crow, I thought of the many times in our history when Jews have been wrongly imprisoned, labeled as agitators or traitors, or as victims of what we now call racial profiling. And I thought of the many gay men and lesbians and transfolk who continue to be the target of hatred and, in some countries today, are imprisoned simply for being who we are. And I remembered my work in a half-way house with a group of white, Jewish ex-felons; I first met some of these men when they were still in jails and prisons, and from them, I learned about their soul-deadening experiences of incarceration.

The men Alexander writes about are not strangers. They are my brothers. And I am a Jew who, every year, sits down at the seder table and declares, “In every generation we must see ourselves as if we, ourselves, came out of Egypt, as if we, ourselves, came out of slavery, as if we, ourselves, came out of a narrow place.” We who were slaves must recognize others’ slavery. The voices of the wrongly imprisoned call out to me.

I have joined a small but deeply committed group of Jews who are bringing this issue to the attention of the Jewish communities where we work and live and pray. We “Jews to End the New Jim Crow” (contact Susan Griss by clicking the link; also, watch this video) are hopeful that we can, together, rekindle the fire that brought so many Jews into the heart of the civil rights struggle fifty years ago. For me, joining with other “Jews to End the New Jim Crow” presents an important opportunity to work towards increasing justice in this new year.

How does the shofar call to you? How will you bend the arc in this new year?

Dr. King asked, “How long will it take to achieve the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children?” He answered his own question, “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

May each of us, with determination and clarity, by joining hands and hearts with others, neighbors, brothers and sisters all, may each of us, in this new year, bend the arc towards justice.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is Rabbinical Director of the East Congregational Network of the Union for Reform Judaism. The founding director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center, she edited The Open Door, the CCAR Haggadah (2002), served as the poetry editor and member of the editorial board of the award-winning The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (2008), and co-edited Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001) and the forthcoming Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (2013).