Is our problem with racism systemic?

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We in the Jewish community are acutely aware of laws created in many nations and cultures to fight anti-Semitism. The hope is that each new attempt will bring compassion and peace to our communities. Yet, given those good intentions, after 2,000 years, anti-Semitism is still going strong. There is no sign of it abating.

Anti-Semitism is just one form of racism, as are the examples we face in our nation today. Governments have created answers to the immediate problems. Some work, others do not. History teaches, however, this is nowhere near enough.

Racism, in all its expressions, is pervasive in human culture; it is abundant within human life. But, is racism itself systemic? Is it so firmly and deeply fixed in us that it affects our entire “body/system” as a species? Is it embedded in human nature — almost part of our DNA? That would mean we have no choice to be anything other than racist? If true, how could we ever heal?

Racism then, is a conscious choice we make, and is not systemic. It is, however, the result of something else that actually has been a natural, systemic part of the human animal.

We are a fragile and extremely vulnerable species. Several million years ago, we moved from the trees to the ground. In those frightfully open spaces, our vulnerability and fragility were highlighted. Fear caused us to gather close, forming protective, like-minded clusters. These perhaps became families, clans, and tribes. We expanded, and required other definitions of allegiance. Humans developed religious and political entities, evolving our allegiances to ideologically driven unions.

Our anxiety and fear led us to awareness of our differences from others, and our perceived superiority to these others. An unnecessary choice, and yet we made it. And through that choice, we made ourselves into this:

“We are better than those others. They look different from us. They behave differently. They worship a god different from our true god. We are better than they are, and prove it through continuing to exist as distinctly other from all those other Others. Why? Because we are superior, they are inferior. We are powerful, they are weak. God likes us, hates them. We enable that ‘truth’ by punishing them, even causing their suffering and death. Their skin color is different; they are obviously demonic. They must suffer, and so we punish them even if they die. Thus, we guarantee our superiority and continued life.”

All this, just because we are vulnerable and fragile, and became afraid. And, from millennium to millennium, we teach it to our children — moving it along in what we say, in our body language, the beliefs we push, the jokes and the stereotypes we repeat, the fear of the Other. Generation after generation, evolving, warping from form to form, always present, always unchecked, always sliding by, under, or over any laws we passed, any hopes we nurtured.

That is why racism will not die, even with any number of absolutely necessary laws. It isn’t racism that is systemic. It is our vulnerability as a species. We, basically, choose to hate “The Other.”

We must choose the opposite direction. We must understand, and choose to recognize and honestly teach that we are, indeed, a fragile species, despite our egos. There is no need to respond to that shared, human vulnerability with fear. We must not project fear from it. Let us start by projecting a little empathy instead.

Most likely, racism will not end in our lifetimes. But, how can we abstain from trying? It will take a huge existential effort even to begin the work on eradicating racism. The consequence of failure? We’ve already experienced this again in the vile, horrific words and actions seen most recently. The consequence of success? We may never fully know, but wouldn’t it be courageous to be the generation that continues the work of those that have come before us to remove racism from our lives? Our human brains have evolved past other primitive, fear-driven notions. We can on this one, too.

Rabbi Michael Oblath is the rabbi emeritus at Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage.

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Michael Oblath

Michael Oblath is the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage.