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In Defense of Wokeness

Awaking to systemic racism is good for America, good for the Jews, and just plain good ethical behavior

by
Carly Pildis
October 21, 2020
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Shutterstock
Shutterstock
Shutterstock

We blow a shofar hoping it will blast us awake on a deep spiritual and intellectual level. We spend Elul trying to shake ourselves awake, abandon our pride, practice teshuvah, and ask ourselves how we can be better people. Wokeness is a shofar blast, demanding that we wake up and wrestle with ourselves and our place in society to achieve a better self and a better country. That’s completely compatible with Jewish life. I am blowing the shofar blast at you. I want you to wake up to the systemic racism that surrounds you.

Being “woke” is the act of consistently waking up to America’s racist history and how that history influences policy, laws, and systems across America. When we open our eyes and see these systemic oppressions we can challenge them and build a better America. Addressing structural inequality will also make America more stable and secure for American Jews because anti-Semitism thrives on inequities and the need to scapegoat troubles and tensions. Stable and equitable democracies are ultimately safer for Jews.

In order to engage in discourse around wokeness you must begin by grappling with its fundamental thesis: We live in a deeply racist country. Regardless of how individual attitudes may have changed, our systems remain inequitable at best and violently destructive at worst. Two examples of systemic racism are the racial wealth gap and racism in access to quality health care. Put more simply, how healthy you are, how young you’ll die, and how much wealth you have and can pass down to your kids. There is an enormous amount of data to support the idea that we have systemic racism in America.

First, health care. Pandemics shine a light on deep inequities that exist in societies, baked into our daily life but rising to the surface in a crisis. The CDC found that Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be infected with COVID-19 and once sick are more than twice as likely to die as white counterparts. One in three Black Americans is mourning someone who has died of COVID. This is sadly unsurprising as Black Americans have always faced racism, bias, and lack of access to quality care in America’s health care system. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Systematic discrimination is not the aberrant behavior of a few but is often supported by institutional policies and unconscious bias based on negative stereotypes.” According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, half of white medical students believe Black people do not feel pain on the same level that white people do. This myth has its root in wealthy plantation slave owner and physician Thomas Hamilton, who tortured slaves trying to prove his theory that they felt less pain. This translates into real lapses in care, with one study finding that Black Americans are 40% less likely to be treated for pain. A 2017 study found that health inequities persist for Black women across all socioeconomic statuses and that Black women rely on strategic communication to combat racism when seeking medical care. They cannot simply say I am hurt and trust the doctor to believe them, they must strategically message their health problems and advocate for themselves. Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts. The takeaway here is that Black Americans face chronic discrimination in accessing quality health care, which leads to lower life expectancy. Tragically, this begins at birth. The infant mortality rate for Black Americans is 11.5 out of 1,000 births, far outstripping the normal infant mortality rate for a wealthy country.

Speaking of wealth, and living in a wealthy country, Black Americans have been systemically denied the ability to build generational wealth. First, we must acknowledge that for much of American history, we functioned as a kleptocracy when it came to the building of Black wealth. Black land, Black crops, Black businesses were routinely stolen. A 2001 AP investigation with over 1,000 participants found over 24,000 acres of farmland, plus 85 other properties including city lots, were stolen by white Americans, often using violence. We have every reason to believe that massive land theft was the norm, not the exception. There were severe consequences for those who achieved wealth and refused to relinquish it, such as the hundreds murdered in the attack on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. Simply put, while my zayde opened a grocery store and was able to put his son through college and lend him a down payment for a home, Black Americans were having their stores and farms stolen away, and were unable to build the generational wealth that then allowed my father to pay it forward to me, paying for my education and lending me a down payment for a home.

According to the Brookings Institute, the racial wealth gap persists with staggering consequences. The average white family has a net wealth of $171,000, while the average Black family has a net wealth of $17,105. Discriminatory housing policies, from Jim Crow to redlining to appraisal discrimination stole the opportunity for generations to build wealth in homeownership and pass it on. This type of discrimination is still happening; Andre Perry wrote that while the laws have changed, the practices stayed the same. His study at Brookings found that “homes in Black neighborhoods where the share of the Black population is greater than 50% are undervalued by 23%—about $48,000 per home. That equates to about $156 billion in lost equity.” That’s just looking at appraisals, keep in mind the persistent predatory and discriminatory lending with African Americans being 105% more likely to be offered a high-cost mortgage and generally viewed as high-risk loans. Home loans are consistently cheaper for white buyers. The bottom line is Black American families have been systemically denied access to avenues to build generational wealth in ways my family never was.

As disturbing as these examples are, they are but two ways that systemic racism shows up in America. There are endless examples and the deeper you dig the further the roots of oppression go. Wokeness demands that we read about this type of systemic oppression, understand how we have benefited or been hurt by them, and then work to dismantle oppression. We all have a role to play. Educate yourself on how systemic racism, and other types of oppression manifest. Advocate for policies in your community that help level the playing field. Spend your money wisely, supporting businesses that share these values. Speak up when you hear racist tropes, it can be kind while being persistent. Vote for candidates who support policies designed to tackle oppressive systems. Scholars have been laying the blueprint for how to reform America for decades. These are complex problems but change is achievable with political will. Be that political will and consistently engage in our Democracy in order to fight for a better and more equitable America.

I find fighting for justice much like running: When you start, you huff and puff and struggle, but if you do a little every day you will soon find your muscles have grown.

Wokeness challenges you to run just a little farther every day, think more critically, take more action, add another brick to the foundation of the America you wish to see.

Wokeness is too often depicted as unintellectual or illiberal at its core. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wokeness is not about silencing, but about hearing unheard voices. It is about expanding minds, hearing new points of view that are backed by data, and bearing witness to lived experiences with systemic racism. Nothing is more intellectually compelling than realizing you don’t fully understand the system we are living in and being called to reevaluate what we think we know. The whole idea of being woke is at its core about opening the mind to new more accurate understandings about the harsh realities of American life. There is nothing illiberal about being presented with new data and allowing it to broaden your view.

Those who demean wokeness as a fad or a joke or a toxic illiberal attempt to stifle debate should look at the data. The truth of systemic American racism is undeniable and so is the obligation to do something about it. Civil rights leaders faced relentless violence from the KKK and consistent harassment from the U.S. government, opinion leaders can find it within themselves to withstand critique of their writing on Twitter, particularly when it blithely ignores decades of data on the subject in favor of grandstanding. Those who decry the “great awokening” or claim racism is a thing of the past will find their writing and their ideas left in the dustbin of history, while those who fight for a better America will be remembered as heroes. Remember, Dr. King himself wrote that the greatest stumbling block toward equality was not the Klan, but the white moderate. History is never kind to those who failed to move America forward and hid behind sophism when facing injustice.

The Jewish community should embrace wokeness and align ourselves with the fight for racial justice. Engaging in wokeness and the language of it will make American Jews safer, stronger, more ethical, and more sustainable, as well as provide new language and frameworks for analyzing our own oppression in anti-Semitic and Christian normative systems. It will also build and strengthen intercommunity relationships. A stronger democracy and more equitable society are always going to result in a safer society for American Jews, a system in which Jews refuse to fight inequity and oppression leaves us deeply vulnerable—as anti-Semitism thrives on inequity. Beyond which, our biggest victories in fighting American anti-Semitism, like passing hate crimes legislation and increasing funding for houses of worship to protect themselves from violence, have come from partnering with those fighting for racial justice in a shared vision of hope and justice. Our fight for racial justice should always include tackling racism in our own community, listening to Black Jewish experiences, and fighting to ensure their voices are both heard and put into high-level positions of communal power where they can effect change.

Most American Jews are already on board with wokeness. A recent poll from the Jewish Electoral Institute found that 66% of American Jews feel favorable about the protesters for racial justice and about Black Lives Matter. Lest you think this is purely partisan, 2 out of 5 Jewish Republicans viewed racial justice protesters and Black Lives Matter positively. Over 600 Jewish organizations signed a full-page ad in The New York Times declaring their unequivocal support for Black Lives Matter. It is, unfortunately, true that every movement, right, left, or in between has bad-faith actors. I would never encourage anyone to accept anti-Semitism or the demonization and delegitimization of Israel. But allowing fringe elements to push us out of fights that are not only just, but ultimately beneficial to the Jewish community is a losing and short-sighted strategy. This will inevitably lead to less equality and less freedom for everyone, benefiting only those, like white nationalists, who argue we were never meant to live in a multicultural society at all and pose a violent existential threat to American Jews.

How can the rabbi who shies away from ‘political’ conversation and doesn’t decry racism that surrounds us help me lead an ethical life? I can’t take a lesson on kashrut from a man with bacon stuck in his beard.

Why should any community care about our oppression if we blithely dismiss theirs? Standing in partnership, shoulder to shoulder, fighting for equity, deepening community, and having open and honest conversations with partners and friends is a far better strategy for addressing bias within movements. When we are awake ourselves, we are in a far better position to share our experiences of anti-Semitism and share how anti-Semitism hurts American Jews and American democracy, and strengthens extremist forces that seek to destroy us all.

It’s not that wokeness is our new religion, as has often been hyperbolized. It’s that those who refuse to acknowledge the racist reality of American life cannot maintain the mantle of ethical community leadership. How can the rabbi who shies away from “political” conversation and doesn’t decry racism that surrounds us help me lead an ethical life? I can’t take a lesson on kashrut from a man with bacon stuck in his beard. If you cannot acknowledge reality, how can I trust you? Especially when the reality of racism is so violent, so terrifying and so deeply ingrained in the arc of American history. America has failed to live up to the promise of our Founding Fathers, and every generation has faced challenges in fighting for our country to live up to its potential. This is our moment to wake up and remake America to be better, together. Don’t sleep through it.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story misstated the number of deaths in Tulsa; this has now been corrected.

Carly Pildis is the Director of Grassroots Organizing for the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and an advocacy professional based in Washington, D.C. Her Twitter feed is @carlypildis, and her website is www.carlypildis.com.

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