Racism - Post Election Thoughts

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

A number of years ago I drove to Northbrook to visit one of my congregants who was sitting Shiva. Lost, I pulled over to the side of the road and reached into the glove compartment for a map. A loud tapping at my window shocked me. Turning toward the sound, I looked out into the blinding light of a flashlight aimed at my face. “What are you doing here?” said a voice. “Roll down your window!” When my eyes acclimated to the light, I realized a policeman was confronting me. I rolled down the window and responded, “I’m lost.” “What are you doing here?” he asked again in a stern voice. “People like you don’t belong in our neighborhood. Let me see your driver’s license.” (For those who don’t know me, I dress in Chassidic garb.) I gave him my license. He returned to his car.

Moments later he returned, handed me my license and again asked me what I was doing in the neighborhood. “People like you are rarely seen in this community.” I explained I was a Rabbi and was in Northbrook to visit a synagogue member who was mourning the loss of a loved one. His attitude changed immediately. “How can I help you, Rabbi?” he asked. I told him the address I needed to find and he graciously gave me the directions.

This rather minor incident had tremendous impact upon me. After all, I am a fourth-generation American, a Jew raised in Brooklyn, who never experienced any form of real anti-Semitism. My early public school years were marked by a classroom population of about 45 of which 43 were Jewish and two Italian. The world I was raised in was a harmonious one where Italians and Jews respected each other’s culture and religion. Thank G‑d, other than anti-Semitic gears and occasional physical confrontations I have experienced in Chicago, this was the worst experience I have had with anti-Semitism. For this was a policeman, not a coarse, vulgar gangbanger.

This story comes to mind when I consider the sense felt by many in the African-American community that, in opposing President Obama’s re-election, many white Americans, whether they are willing to admit it or not, exhibited some measure of racism.

In my lifetime I’ve seen the end of the horror of the dreadful segregation of the South, the restriction on black Americans appearing on television or in the movies, limited to playing the role of the maid or the “step and fetch it.” Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in professional sports seems like ancient history. America has moved forward in many ways. Yet the pain of discrimination, of racism, lingers.

A number of years ago we hosted a Unity Dinner as part of the Human Relations Commission of the City of Chicago’s celebration of Unity Month at our home. Five couples were chosen by the Commission to join us for dinner. Included in that group, I later learned, were the Dean of a city college, a member of the Illinois Supreme Court, an attorney who worked for the Commission, a Chicago public school teacher and an owner of a construction company.

To get the evening moving along I turned to the attorney and asked him if it was true that as an African American he felt that all white people had latent feelings of racism. He responded by asking me politely not to put him on the spot After a little coaxing, we were well acquainted as a result of my work for the Commission, he said. “Of course that’s true, there is no white person in America who doesn’t harbor some element of racism in his soul.” This began a lively, candid discussion of hatred and bigotry – the very purpose of the dinners. Latent feelings of both racism and anti-Semitism were revealed. Each of us finished the evening emotionally spent yet with a new understanding of ourselves. Success!

Not too long ago while visiting a medical clinic, in speaking with the receptionist, who I had come to know quite well as a result of my visits, I realized she was a bit upset. I asked her what was wrong. African-American, she told me that she and her husband had gone out to dinner at a local, well-known, Skokie restaurant. They stood on line waiting patiently for a table. For over an hour they were ignored while others who came after them were seated. Finally her husband turned to her and said, “We’re not welcome here, let’s go home.” I was both amazed and sickened by her story. “Rabbi,” she said, “You have no idea how much bigotry still exists in America, even in Skokie.”

With the above in mind, I well understand the reaction many of our black fellow citizens have when white citizens express their reservations about President Obama. We Jews, who have known hatred for so long, should resonate with this deep felt emotion, prompted by years of abuse and shame visited on these reviled people by whites through much of the history of our nation. Instead of being put out by it, attempting to minimize this visceral emotion festering in the open wound of racism yet unhealed, we should be empathetic, motivated to work with renewed effort to create a society in which any form of bigotry or discrimination has been eradicated.

It is true that I do not subscribe to the policies of the Obama administration, particularly as they reflect upon the Middle East and our First Amendment religious rights. I as well do not believe, from my experience living abroad, that “Obamacare” will prove to be a positive step forward for our society. Nevertheless, I fervently pray that G‑d will give vision and understanding to our President, protect him and his family, so that he may move our nation forward in a manner that brings dignity to his office, new respect for our nation world-wide and continue in the path of enhancing the rights of each and every American citizen to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”