Liberty for All the Inhabitants of the Land
I didn't appreciate what it means for me to be white until I walked into a hotel in Cancun.
In terms of ethnic identity, I think of myself first and foremost as Jewish, and while I wasn't exactly poor as a kid, I grew up in very different material circumstances from most of my classmates at Wesleyan University.
So, whenever I would encounter treatises on “white privilege,” I knew they were talking about DAR kids from Westchester, not me.
I walked into the hotel in Cancun after leading an American Jewish World Service delegation of rabbis to the rural village of Muchucuxcah. There, we worked along-side human rights activists and learned about the work they were doing to protect their communities. We traveled together with our hosts to Cancun in order to visit one of the hotels where these leaders had worked as busboys and maids.
Our group walked in through the front door of the hotel and we were immediately stopped by hotel security. We were all wearing dirty work clothes and the Mexican security guard stopped us.
“They can’t come in this way,” he said to me in English, pointing at our Mexican hosts.
“They are my friends and guests,” I said.
“It doesn't matter,” the guard replied.
“I’d like to speak to your manager,” I said.
The manager came, and I explained that I and my large group of friends wished to go to the veranda and enjoy some refreshments. After some back and forth he relented, and we all went in and enjoyed a breathtaking view and pina coladas.
Ultimately, it made no difference that I was wearing work clothes, and it made no difference that I wasn't even a guest at the hotel.
I was a white American man, I expected to be treated with respect and I was.
Unlike my Mexican hosts, it never occurred to me to enter the hotel through anything other than the front door, it never occurred to me that I wouldn't ultimately get my way and never occurred to me to defer to the security guard when there was someone higher up the hierarchy who would allow us in.
The fact that all my life, I've always been the scholarship kid made no difference – my white skin was, and is, my uniform. I wear it every time I walk into a store, every time I talk to a cop, every time I pick up the phone.
As Peggy McIntosh and others have pointed out, even as a member of a religious minority, my white skin is backpack of super powers I’m not even aware of carrying.
To talk about race is to talk about a legacy that I don’t want. My family came to this country to escape Russians who tried to kill them and my wife’s family came to escape Germans who tried to kill them. We didn’t come here because we were trying to wield our white skin privilege.
Nevertheless, it is on me to grapple with this country’s racial legacy. It is on me because I benefit from it, whether I want to or not, and so do my kids.
In the Torah, the patriarch Jacob famously had to wrestle with a "man" before he could become Israel. In much of the Jewish tradition, that "man" is the spirit of Esau, the brother whom Jacob wronged again and again. Jacob couldn’t move into his future until he not only reckoned with his past, but absorbed its injuries. Jacob walks with a limp after his night with the spirit of Esau. His spiritual wholeness comes at a cost.
Germany, of course, has its own history of racial hatred and violence, perpetrated against my people and others. While, far, far from perfect, Germany has gone to considerable lengths to grapple with the history of the Holocaust. I remember visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, smack in the middle of Berlin, and wondering what my family would have become had they lived. I also wondered what the circumstances would have to be for the United States to tear up half the national Mall and place a memorial to the murdered Africans of America.
In my mind, as a Jew, I am a victim of history - a victim of inquisitions, pogroms, holocausts. I also happen to be Jewish in a country where the essential dividing line is of race, not religion, and in that division, I drew the high card. That high card was on my face when I walked into that hotel in Cancun, and that high card is always on my face.
Jacob could not become Israel until he wrestled with Esau and Germany could not take its place among nations until it wrestled with the Holocaust. We Americans too, have to wrestle with our painful legacy of racial slavery before we can fulfill the promise conveyed in scripture and engraved on our Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
True liberty is the birthright of all the inhabitants of this nation. Not the white inhabitants, not the English speaking inhabitants, not the inhabitants who look like us.
All the inhabitants – every last one.