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This Week In Torah

 

Parshat Shof’tim: With liberty and justice for all?

 

                From an early age, we are keenly aware when a situation feels unjust, hence why it is not uncommon to hear a child cry out, “but it’s not fair!” As such, the value of pursing justice is one that our society views with high regard, and has its roots in biblical literature. This week in parshat shof’tim, we read how Moses continues to address the Jewish people, first telling them, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes . . . and they shall govern the people with due justice” (which some say is the ancient origin of our legal system), and more importantly going on to say, “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality . . . Justice, justice shall you pursue. . .”[1] I would like to think that the inspiration this nation’s founders took from the ancient Israelite justice system enables our legal infrastructure to approach Moses’ vision of fairness. However, with shooting of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, the strangulation of Eric Garner several weeks ago on August 2nd and the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9th, I believe the equal treatment of people in our justice system needs to be brought into question.

 

                The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a bulletin in December of 2013 detailing the trends in admissions and releases in 2012, and the results are anything but equal. America leads the world in incarcerations, with a total of roughly 2.2 million people in prisons. When looking at inmates by race,

 

 “Overall, black males were 6 times . . . more likely to be imprisoned than white males in 2012 . . . Black males had imprisonment rates at least 4 times those of white males in all age groups. The rates for black males age 39 or younger were more than 6 times greater than white males of the same age. Male inmates ages 18 to 19 had the largest imprisonment rate disparity between whites and blacks. Black males in this age group were almost 9.5 times more likely than white males to be in prison.”

 

These data clearly show the disproportionate number of people who identify as African American or Black (for the purposes of this article the two terms will be used interchangeably) that are penalized by our judicial system. To make matters worse, the bulletin informs us that “Between 4% and 7% of black males ages 20 to 49 were prison inmates.”[2] A sizeable swath of the African American population is behind bars, a group of people who could, given opportunities and support, be contributing to society. State punishment continues even after inmates come home. While 13 states (plus the DC) allow convicted felons to vote once they are out of prison, nearly half of the U.S. (20 states) require felons to complete their parole and their probation before restoring voting rights, and in 11 states felons risk permanently losing their voting rights. This is in addition to 10 states that restrict voting rights for those who commit misdemeanors.[3] If we have a judicial system that is disproportionately targeting blacks, coupled with laws that prevent those targeted people from voting, it creates a racially driven power structure in which those who are most disenfranchised are unable to change the system. As Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly said (albeit in a different context), “The game is rigged.”

 

Discrimination towards African Americans isn’t limited to our judicial system. According to the Pew Research Center, A majority of African Americans felt they were treated less equally than their white counterparts at work, in stores or restaurants and in public schools.[4] In Joe Feagin’s book, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations, he comments that a recent Gallup poll asked African Americans if they had suffered from discrimination in one or more of the aforementioned situations within the past month. Nearly half (47%) of the people who responded said yes.[5] How is it that blatant discrimination is persisting today when the Civil Rights act of 1964 was enacted specifically to abolish this altogether? It is not uncommon to hear that African Americans in this country exaggerate their experience of racism. How convenient it is for a white-dominated society to dismiss the suffering of non-whites., and how much harder to admit that we aren’t as far as we’d like to believe from this nation’s ugliest demons.

 

I believe the mainstream media has played a large role in making racist behavior acceptable in our society. Feagin points out that when an investigation was made into Pittsburgh news and television media, it was found that the largest block of reports on African American males were focused on crime – 36 percent in newspapers and an astonishing 86 percent in TV newscasts.[6]  In addition, the Huffington post released an article detailing how white suspects and killers were treated better than black victims in mainstream media. To give one of the many examples given in the article, white suspect T.J. Lane who later pleaded guilty to a school shooting in which three were killed and two were wounded was given the headline at Mlive.com, “. . .T.J. Lane described as ‘fine person.’” However, the New York Daily News ran the headline “Ohio man was carrying a variable pump air rifle – not a toy – when cops killed him: attorney general,” seemingly defending the killing of a black man at a Walmart.[7] Much like our government, the mainstream media is an industry that has very few African American workers, and thus makes it easier for institutionalized racism to persist.

 

Recently—and certainly historically—we have dealt with discrimination against Jews, and have an idea of what it feels like to be hated because of one’s ethnicity. We know all too well how easily political institutions and the media can be used to misrepresent and oppress minorities. As Jews, we have an obligation to defend those facing persecution and to educate ignorance. As Rabbi Hillel taught us “what is hateful to you, do not do to any other person. That is the whole Torah.”[8] 

 

For more information, check out the following resources:

 

  • Prison Policy Initiative

 

  1. ohttp://www.prisonpolicy.org/

 

  • Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, by Charles R. Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, Donald P. Haider-Markel
  • Racist America roots, current realities, and future reparations, by Joe R. Feagin
  • The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

 

 

 

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור‫, ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה

 

lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ven chorin libatel mimena

 

“It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”

 

Rabbi Tarfon, Avot 2:16

 



[1] Deuteronomy 16:18-20

[2] Ann, C., & Daniela, G. (2013, December 1). Prisoners in 2012 Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991–2012. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 25-25.

[3] State Felon Voting Laws. (2014, July 15). Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://felonvoting.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000286

[4] Vast majority of blacks view the criminal justice system as unfair. (2014, August 12). Retrieved August 19, 2014, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/08/12/vast-majority-of-blacks-view-the-criminal-justice-system-as-unfair/

[5] Feagin, J. (2014). Everyday Practice. In Racist America roots, current realities, and future reparations (Third ed., pp. 149-150). New York: Routledge.

[6] Feagin p. 116

[7] Wing, N. (2014, August 14). When The Media Treats White Suspects And Killers Better Than Black Victims. Huffington Post. Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/media-black-victims_n_5673291.html

[8] Shabbat 31a

 

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantor Richard Lawrence