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COLUMN: ‘Justice, justice!’ we must run after it

COLUMN: ‘Justice, justice!’ we must run after it

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Rabbi Barbara Thiede

Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede of Temple Or Olam in Concord.

I walked into the house. It was tiny and dark. There was a small, narrow room in the front with a kitchen alongside. There was little furniture. There were no shelves, and no natural light source I can remember.

I was there to interview a boy who loved to read.

He lived in Concord’s Logan neighborhood with his grandparents. I never met his grandmother; she was dying, bedridden and confined to the dark back bedroom.

The boy was shy with me at first. But I, too, love reading. We got comfortable with one another as soon as I asked him to show me his favorite books. He didn’t have many, but it was clear: he had read them many, many times.

The boy’s home was so small and dim, perhaps around 900 square feet. That boy was one source of light it seemed to possess.

I wrote about the boy decades ago. Sympathetic readers sent me books to deliver to his home. I did not discount such generosity, but still, I knew. That bright little boy was living in a crushing, difficult, dangerous world because of one thing he could not change in any respect: he was Black. No amount of private gifts would change the statistical realities that would limit and confine that child. Worse: such gifts would do nothing to ameliorate the systemic racism he would face, lifelong, in America.

Today, decades later, employment for Black Americans still falls significantly lower than for whites or Latinos. Black workers earn far less than white workers in comparable positions. The poverty rate for Black households is twice that of white households. Black Americans are underrepresented in high-paying jobs. The same is true for government. Only 56 of the current 535 voting members of Congress are Black. Black mortgage applicants still are denied loans while granted to aspiring homeowners of other races.

Black men are about five times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts. Twice as many Black men as white men are at risk for being killed by law enforcement. Black men earn less than white men occupying the same jobs. The murder of George Floyd may have shocked many white Americans, but it could only do so if those same white Americans willfully ignored systemic violence against Blacks -- violence that has been part and parcel of American history for centuries.

Disparities like these are not accidental. They are the product of systemic racism that permeates this country. White America has punished Black Americans for the color of their skin for hundreds of years. White America continues to do so.

Justice, Justice, shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20). The rabbis ask: why is the Hebrew word for “justice” repeated twice?

Because God is calling out to us, repeating the ask, emphasizing the need, insisting that we pay attention.

Why use a word like “pursue?” Why not “foster” or “support"”

I must run after the justice I seek. I must put my whole self into the task. Justice cannot be achieved with a sporadic gift of charity, with an occasional kind word or deed. Justice is meant to be systemic. Justice is meant to be total. Justice, my God tells me, must permeate every aspect of the world I inhabit, and it can only do that if I pursue it with my every breath and make it with my own hands.

I have thought a lot about that boy in the past year, especially since the murder of George Floyd. That boy would now be a grown man in his 30s. I wonder if the love of reading stayed with him. I worry: how could the light and life he possessed survive in a world in which every statistic was against him?

I have failed to bring him justice. White America, of which I am a part, has failed to bring him justice.

All white Americans who insist that they believe in our shared sacred scriptures -- both Christians and Jews -- will need, in the months and many years ahead, to name and acknowledge our failures. We may not simply ask for forgiveness, we must act to earn it.

Justice, justice, must we pursue.

Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede of Temple Or Olam is part of the Interfaith Collective of Cabarrus County.

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