To Be More Perfect
I am a white, non-Hispanic, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied male. This is the identity I have been born with and it’s one I can’t change.
I hold a bunch of other identities that I have picked up from birth, choices I’ve made, or people who have come into my life. I’m a proud Miamian, college graduate, and advocate for improved access to opportunity. However, there is no identity that has so pervasively influenced the others nor one that has impacted my view of the world than being Jewish.
I’m not a particularly religious Jew, but I’ve extensively studied Jewish History and I have been to the death camps in Poland. The lessons learned from the Holocaust are not Jewish lessons, they are human lessons. The Holocaust was a government approved systematic massacre of 6,000,000 Jews and as many as 5,000,000 other marginalized members of society. It was carried out by the very people who were charged with keeping Germany ‘safe.’ A lot of otherwise good Germans allowed this to happen because they were unwilling to listen to the uncomfortable screamings of the small marginalized minorities. It was a hard thing to listen to their suffering and worse still to imagine a country they loved could be capable of dehumanizing a subset of the population.
For this reason, much of the Holocaust teachings focus on preventing any possibility of entering into the downward spiral of willful ignorance and ambivalence. It is a constant reminder within the Jewish identity how critical it is to listen to the fears manifesting in people who have different identities from your own.
I’m always stunned by the problems people have with “Black Lives Matter.” I believe it comes from an unwillingness to listen and an inability to comprehend the depth of pain someone else could possibly be feeling. My personal understanding of Black Lives Matter is that it’s not a statement that “Black Lives Matter MORE THAN others,” but that “Black Lives Matter EQUALLY AS MUCH AS others.” What you’re hearing — if you’re listening — is that in a land where we pride ourselves on life and liberty, an entire portion of the U.S. population is screaming that they feel left out. They’re scared that the very people charged with upholding their rights and protecting their communities are too frequently the ones doing the exact opposite.
Too many of us refuse to empathize lest it conflict with some identity that matters to us. Black Lives Matter isn’t meant to trivialize or belittle the service and courage of our military nor our public servants. We, as a country, are unanimous in the feeling that fallen soldiers and officers killed in the line of duty are tragedies that we should all mourn. Their courage, their sacrifice, and their lives are honored with all we have and their bravery serves to inspire us all.
That said, when we lose a black civilian to lethal force, we find a way to remind ourselves that protecting the professionalism of our heroes — and possibly holding them accountable for potential wrongdoing — is something that should supersede the damage done to the black civilian and his/her community.
To be sure there are a vast majority of phenomenally talented and committed police officers out there. In the cases of Dylann Roof, James Holmes, and Jared Lee Loughner, the brave members of the police departments were able to arrest armed mass murderers without the use of lethal force and bring all three to justice. Contrast that to the interactions Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile, and Eric Garner had with police, where all three men were killed while still — because no trial will ever be provided for them — under the presumption of innocence we afford every person in this country. This is what we’ve signaled to the black community: if you are a white mass murderer with a deadly weapon, you will be treated to more justice than an unarmed black man.
No one is anti-police, the request is that police are held to the same standard of professionalism when they serve all people. That’s a reasonable request.
The black American community is struggling through yet another scary part of a history that has been marred by tragedies caused as a result of skin that looks different than the majority — an identity they cannot hide that attracts the biases that others carry. Once again, they feel that their protests are falling on deaf ears. If you choose to listen you can hear the real fear they feel that the circumstance of their birth — an identity they had no choice in — has the potential to condemnation they cannot avoid.
I cannot imagine carrying that fear in one’s heart and that weight on one’s shoulders. The best I can do is ask how they are handling it and if I can help.
The hard reality we have to come to terms with is that recognizing the identity of a police officer or a soldier is a choice. The dangers that those who protect this country face every day are dangers that they have bravely chosen to face. The identity of being black is not a choice. The dangers that face people of color in this country are ones they face without a choice.
America is not great because of how well we treat our most privileged; we are great — and have been great throughout our history — because of a willingness to treat “those huddled masses yearning to be free” to the same opportunity we afford our most privileged. We found a way to make controversy out of some people not standing at full attention for the National Anthem despite the quite clear reality that the part of our Pledge of Allegiance that we swear to — the part about “with liberty and justice for all” — was quite clearly being violated without us upholding our pledge. We cannot continue to be great without recognizing that we’ve stopped listening to those most marginalized — that we’re not taking care of fellow Americans.
An identity most of the readers here will share is American. It’s something we can unite on. We can struggle through the hard thing, that when we started this country in 1776 we inked the desire “to form a more perfect union” and acknowledged that we needed to struggle along together to find the best versions of ourselves and our country. That work is not done and a more perfect version of this country is achievable if we’re willing to do hard things — listening to those who are suffering beside us, finding solutions to unequal applications of justice, and speaking on behalf of those whose voices are not being heard — we can create a more perfect union.
We all have many identities and while it is easy to note the superficial differences — the color of one’s skin, the gendered nature of one’s clothes, or the accent of one’s English — the hard thing, the thing we should push ourselves to find, is to look a level deeper and find the identities we have in common. Today it’s Black Americans who are facing a seemingly unending nightmare, but it’s been Protestants, women, immigrants, and countless others throughout our history as Americans. We’ve been at our best — and moved forward the most — when we’ve struggled to hear the cries and pains someone with a different identity faced. How can we expect anyone to fight on our behalf if we are unwilling to fight on theirs? ‘Today you, Tomorrow me.’
The identity I’m growing most proud of is one I’ve had the privilege to choose: Ally. I’m increasingly learning that there are obligations and burdens that come with this identity, not the least of which is a need to create more allies out of people who have identities similar to the ones I was born with and the ones I’ve chosen.
As a side note I founded an organization, brEDcrumb, that focuses on using shared identities to improve access to opportunity for those who most need it. If you’re interested in finding out more or volunteering, I’d encourage you to visit bredcrumb.org