These are interesting times. Suddenly many White people are looking at racism and capitalism with much more critical eyes. In a perverse sort of way, COVID-19 has opened avenues for change and given White people an unexpected opportunity to reflect on how our society fails all but a handful of us.
With the economy going down like the Titanic, suddenly many White Americans have noticed who’s being escorted into the First Class lifeboats, and it’s been an eye-opener to see how the whole system is rigged. Overnight, multiple crises have generated a little more understanding and sympathy for people who have been in coach or steerage their whole lives. Sitting at home during an enforced “time-out” White Liberals have had a chance to do some much-needed and long-postponed introspection. Everyone is learning more about the depths of depravity and dysfunction of a system built around White Supremacy.
But there is a certain tendency of White Liberals to start with introspection and stop there. Robert Kuttner, writing in the American Prospect (“Beyond White Navel-Gazing”) gives an example of dutiful but hollow Yom Kippur apologies a few of us offer, where the resolve to change and repair is absent from the apology.
Unless an apology is specific and accompanied by a specific plan to repair the injustice, injury, or insult, most Talmudic scholars don’t regard it as serious. The requirements for Jewish Tshuvah are very similar in the Muslim world. Depending on the offense, repentance often includes restitution or reparations.
Many of the anguished White tears we’ve been seeing lately are empty gestures unless accompanied by work for racial justice. Book groups and discussion groups are important, don’t get me wrong. Most of us have an incredible lack of understanding of structural racism, much of our own history, many of our own laws, and we know surprisingly little about the lives and cultures of a third of our American friends and neighbors. Discussion groups help provide understanding and strengthen resolve to join the fight.
But, above all, White people mostly need to just choose sides. We either choose justice and equality — or we continue, comfortably and complacently, failing to change a system that works better for some of us than others. This country really is going down like the Titanic. And, in a time of crisis, action ought to supersede navel-gazing.
I think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who described marching in Selma as “praying with his feet.” Though I completely lack any religious impulse, I admire the Jewish Prophetic tradition of challenging unjust kings and laws. Heschel literally wrote a book about it, and he was aware of the connections between the Jewish tradition and the African-American prophetic tradition. But at the end of the day it wasn’t history or scripture or even common cause that motivated Heschel. He was just a White guy who understood that what went on inside his own heart and head was much less important than fixing a broken world.