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September 05, 2008

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Dee Axelrod

I want to talk about racism.

Tough subject, so let’s say we make it a one-on-one conversation. How about this: We’re on my deck, soaking up the last of the fall sunshine, and I’ve just handed you a cup of tea. Or a glass of something stronger, if you prefer.

Now that we’re set, I do have some uncomfortable things to say about Jews and black people. About how I’ve felt about black people. Before we get to the voting booth, it’s worth checking in to make sure that racism’s not driving the decision. I don’t know about you, but my own racism has a long history.

If you're a boomer Jew or older, you might share some of this history.

My grandfather came from Dol Hinov, a shtetl near Vilnius. With his two brothers, he opened clothing stores on Boston’s North Shore. He helped build a Conservative synagogue to which we belonged. Otherwise, my family adopted an approximation of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant values.

I was 5 in 1954 when I was shown, along with the other Sunday school preschoolers, film footage of bulldozers pushing bodies into mass graves. You know the ones. And I was told, don’t trust them. And by “them,” those grim-faced temple elders meant Christian America. Anyone who wasn’t us.

The rest of the world, in short.
I got the message.

And it was reinforced, because the North Shore in the 1950s was a place where divisions ran deep. There were no blacks. Jews and Catholics were the “out” groups. Antisemitism was a fact of life. You had your Irish and Italians, you had your Jews and you had your WASPS, who belonged to clubs we couldn’t join and lived in neighborhoods that were “restricted.”

Inner-city kids weren’t bussed to the North Shore. I knew one black person, and that was Elsina, the long-time housekeeper for my mother’s parents in Hollywood, Florida. Elsina and my grandmother had a sort of "Driving Miss Daisy" relationship.

I was 11 when Jews marched with blacks for civil rights. My family approved, at a distance. In 1967, as a freshman at Goucher College, I tutored in Baltimore’s inner city. Tutoring meant I was the helper, they were the helped, which was easy. During the race riots of 1968, I stood on the roof of a building at Johns Hopkins and saw Baltimore burning. I stood at a remove, but had not yet taken the measure of that gulf.

In the mid-1960s my mother and aunt inherited a building in Harlem and promptly sold it, so as not to be slum landlords. I understood that as Jews traded East Coast inner cities for the suburbs, blacks moved in. They often lived in Jewish-owned buildings and shopped at Jewish-owned stores and the relationship between landlord and tenant, shop-owner and customer wasn’t necessarily a happy one. I knew the right things to say. I could tell you why the civil rights movement had to turn away Jews and other friends to foster Black Power. I avoided the N word. That went double for schvartzeh.

I got a masters degree at Washington University in St. Louis, where the racial divide was the Missouri River: Blacks lived in East St. Louis, a place to avoid. After graduate school, I taught at a college in Minneapolis and later moved to New York.
I lived in Manhattan for a decade, and I lived there with the omnipresent, low-level fear of a woman alone. Walking home late at night, I kept to the middle of the street, away from dark doorways. I crossed to avoid groups of blacks.

I was afraid until I got sick of fear. My personal tipping point came late one night in a subway stop. I was considering the long flight of stairs up which I would have to lug my rock-heavy suitcase, when I was approached by a young black man.

He said, “Can I carry your bag for you?” I looked at him and realized that I would rather lose the bag than be afraid. So he carried the luggage up and across the overpass and down the other side. He put the suitcase down and we stood there for a long minute, looking at each other. Then we both burst into tears.

I took the hand he held out.
“You’re a good man,” I said “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Don’t let me tell you otherwise.

It would be a tidy ending if that encounter ended my racism. What it did do was start a transformation that is ongoing.

I moved to the West Coast and married. When it came time to adopt a baby, I was ashamed to realize I didn’t want a black baby. I turned that into “not fair to the child.” A few years later, when I ran my own adoption agency, I heard other nice, white people say the same thing.

I’d tiptoe up to it: Would they take a Chinese baby?
No problem.
Could they accept a Hispanic baby?
Sure.
How about a black infant?
Nothing doing.
And always it was framed as “unfair to the child.”
Each time I had to look at my own racism.

I may have come of age in the 1960s but I was formed in the 1950s–in a racially divided place, amid a deeply traumatized people. I was middle-aged before I fully realized that my parents–like many Jews of their generation–were in a protracted state of shock over the Holocaust. On the surface they assimilated, but they were afraid. If a few thousand years of persecution hadn't done the trick the Shoah made them, us, all-too-adept at drawing the line between our group and others.

I've seen my tiny Pacific Northwest congregation tear itself in two over how to treat non-Jewish spouses. Some were willing to embrace without condition. Others wanted “them” to keep their hands off the Torah, not make aliyah and so forth.

My first impulse when faced with the Other may always be to recoil, but I have reason to hope that reflex will continue to weaken. I wish I did not have to make a conscious effort to reach out, but history raised that barrier and my personal history reinforced it.

In a generation or two such obstacles may be a fading memory.
Today, the wall around my heart is mine to breach.
***
I offer you more tea and you say no, you have to go, you have to meet a friend, you have to pick up a grandchild. Before you leave, one more thing.
Be honest. If fear and prejudice are holding you back from supporting Obama, acknowledge what’s going on. And if you do look into your heart and you still can’t get around the fact that this is a black man, then ask yourself this: Is it better to have a highly intelligent black man in charge or a medium-smart white guy whose political agenda is more-of-the-same?

Our last, best chance to stem climate change could slip away; we would stagger forward under the burden of our own health care. an ongoing Iraq war would saddle our grandkids and their kids with (even more) debt. The split between rich and poor would grow wider, with all the social instability that brings, while global instability spreads. And none of this will be good for the Jews. Or Israel, for that matter.

Everyone's entitled to an opinion and a point-of-view. I'm just hoping that if you do feel “uncomfortable” with the thought of Obama as president, you'll consider taking a really good, hard look at the deepest reasons why. Because I think that if we have any shred of prejudice we’re a set-up for major manipulation.

If you’ve already expunged racism so that you come to this vote without that handicap, then you have my apologies. You have your act together and you don’t need me to tell you. You can be proud you’re prejudice-free.
Me, I’m still working my way toward that goal – but I’m going to stay on top of my racism, so I will have the freedom to vote for the right man, not just for the white man.

feathermaid

One proactive way to defang the emphasis on Barack Obama's name is to come at it via the first name: Barack. Though not as inflmmatory as his middle name, it is still used to engender a sense of foreigness and fear. It actually originates with the Hebrew name "Baruch," which means blessed. Take a look at this fascinating article in the Washington Post which explores the biblical, historical, archeological, and linguistic origins of Baruch:

http://tinyurl.com/5q2zm5

It shows how important that name has been in many faiths.

feathermaid

One proactive way to defang the emphasis on Barack Obama's name is to come at it via the first name: Barack. Though not as inflmmatory as his middle name, it is still used to engender a sense of foreigness and fear. It actually originates with the Hebrew name "Baruch," which means blessed. Take a look at this fascinating article in the Washington Post which explores the biblical, historical, archeological, and linguistic origins of Baruch:

http://tinyurl.com/5q2zm5

It shows how important that name has been in many faiths.

feathermaid

One proactive way to defang the emphasis on Barack Obama's name is to come at it via the first name: Barack. Though not as inflmmatory as his middle name, it is still used to engender a sense of foreigness and fear. It actually originates with the Hebrew name "Baruch," which means blessed. Take a look at this fascinating article in the Washington Post which explores the biblical, historical, archeological, and linguistic origins of Baruch:

http://tinyurl.com/5q2zm5

It shows how important that name has been in many faiths.

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