American Jews and Affirmative Action

Sermon given January 10, 1997, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

My paternal grandmother was born some eighty-nine and one-half years ago in a little village in the old country called Kosciusko, Mississippi. Remarkably, her mother and grandmother, my great-grandmother and great-great grandmother, were also born in Kosciusko. In recent years, Kosciusko has achieved much greater notoriety than it ever had previously. Kosciusko, you see, is also the birthplace of Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately, as my grandmother says, “We never knew anybody by that name.”

The common birthplace of Oprah Winfrey and various members of my family notwithstanding, the histories of African-Americans and American Jews have been as different as night and day. Our own American story began when some of our ancestors came to these shores seeking religious freedom. More still came in search of the fabled “streets paved with gold.” Even though most American Jewish immigrants were poor, America always represented opportunity for the Jews.

African-Americans, on the other hand, came here in chains, as slaves. They did not choose to come to these shores, seeking opportunity or anything else. Though slavery was abolished over 130 years ago, entrenched state laws kept African-Americans enslaved in many ways until the 1960s. Just one generation ago, within my own lifetime, the law of the land stood between African-Americans and the land of opportunity.

Our differences notwithstanding, there are some similarities between our larger Jewish history and that of African-Americans. In this week’s Torah portion, we read God’s command to Moses: “Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go!” These words were vividly brought to life in Negro spirituals during the days of slavery. African-Americans themselves recognized that their own enslavement, and their hope for liberation, found a precedent in the stories of ancient Israel.

We also know about slavery after freedom, for Egypt was not the last place that we tasted bitterness. We were persecuted in Spain. We were terrorized in Poland. We were slaughtered in Germany. And these are just a few of the many, too numerous to list. Though our American Jewish history has mostly been grand, we have even faced anti-Semitism here. Jews, like African Americans, have indeed known suffering.

In the 1960s, many Jews and African-Americans sought to forge alliances based on this common history. Jews were in the forefront of the struggle for civil rights. We cherish the image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. We are proud that our own Rabbi Jacobson fought successfully to desegregate restaurants and other public facilities in San Antonio. We recall that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded and initially led by Jews. We revere the memories of Schwerner and Goodman, Jewish martyrs of the civil rights movement. Reaching way back into the depths of Jewish history, these Jews observed the commandment: “Remember the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” In gratitude to God, Who liberated us from slavery and ultimately brought us to Israel and America in freedom, these American Jews took up the mantle of Moses. They spoke out; they risked their very lives for freedom in their own day.

Sadly, the alliance of African-Americans and Jews has fallen into disrepair over the last twenty years or so. To be sure, the reasons for the decline are many, and errors have been made on both sides. Tonight, though, as a Jewish congregation, let us concentrate on our own.

Among the many divisions that have plagued Jews and African-Americans is disagreement about affirmative action. To most African-Americans, affirmative action is key to their achievement of full freedom and opportunity in this land. For decades, they were subjugated to inferior public education, excluded from institutions of higher learning, and restricted in the work place. Now, they contend that an official end to discrimination is not enough. They charge that most white Americans, even those who are well meaning, harbor at least some vestiges of racism. Indeed, the first thing that White Americans notice about an African-American is the fact that she or he is Black.

Many American Jews view affirmative action differently. We Jews have succeeded in America because of our own hard work and our enduring commitment to education. As soon as the laws of the land prohibited discrimination against us, we got ahead, based on nothing but our own merit. Naturally, then, many in our community oppose the idea that something other than merit should be a legitimate basis for hiring, promotion, and admission to institutions of higher learning. After all, wasn’t the civil rights movement all about removing race as a legitimate factor in American life?

Yes, that was what it was all about. Sadly, though, the struggle remains incomplete. Within recent months, the nation has been rocked by the revelation of deliberately discriminatory employment practices and racist remarks of some of the highest officials of one of our nation’s largest corporations, Texaco. Similar allegations have been made about Avis and other corporations, as well. Many of us were shocked. African-Americans were not. Racism, they tell us, remains a significant part of their daily experience in our own United States. Merit alone is not yet enough to get African-Americans ahead in corporate America. Unfortunately but evidently, affirmative action is needed to counteract racism, still very much alive today.

In recent months, thanks to our Community Relations Council’s Black-Jewish Dialogue, I have come to know one of our own city’s most inspiring African-American leaders, Rev. Thurman Walker, Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church. Rev. Walker is particularly concerned about the concept of merit. He wonders whether merit is limited to the kinds of achievements reached by American Jews. He reminds me that America has been built, to a great degree, on the merit and hard work of African-Americans, from the cotton fields to the factories, to the boardroom and the halls of Congress today. Sadly, though, the kind of merit achieved by African-Americans is often not highly valued, and not well paid, in our country. Hard-working African Americans frequently do not have sufficient income to send their children to college, to afford a better future for the next generation. Even their own merit is not enough.

Finally, I often wonder whether we American Jews are not being somewhat hypocritical when we assail racial or religious preferences in hiring. We are delighted when an established Jewish lawyer or doctor or business owner brings a young Jewish associate into the firm. In our professional and business lives, we frequently seek out our friends, others who are like us, the people that we know. The result is that we often turn to our fellow congregants and members of our Jewish community, when we make referrals, hire a protégé, or choose a vendor. Are we being racist? I think not. And yet, the African-American community has far fewer business and professional leaders in the position to make those referrals, to hire those proteges, and to choose vendors. Affirmative action is needed to give the rest of us the encouragement we need to open the door to real opportunity for African-Americans.

Far be it from me to suggest any specific program of affirmative action. To do so would be to speak far outside of my area of expertise. Moreover, I have not addressed tonight questions of affirmative action for women or any other minority groups. I do not oppose affirmative action for them, but the issues are different and perhaps less clear.

As we approach our African-American neighbors, though, let us acknowledge the wide gulf that separates our histories in America, even as we affirm the longer sweep of history which unites us.

Let us recognize the significant meritorious acts that African-Americans have contributed to American society, even as we celebrate the great successes of American Jews.

Let us admit that racism continues to plague America, even as we note our country’s great advances against that scourge in recent decades.

Let us support affirmative action for African-Americans, even as we continue to promote professional and business successes in our own community.

Then, may we be called successors of Heschel, of Schwerner and Goodman, and of our own Rabbi Jacobson, civil rights heroes all, who remembered the heart of the stranger. Then may we be worthy successors even of Moses, who once said to Pharoah: “Let my people go!”

Amen.