Monday, June 25, 2001

Civil Rights and Wrongs

The good news about Black-Jewish relations is that there is no news. The subject has fallen off the public radar screen. I cannot recall when I last read an article importuning the two groups to join in common cause because they share a history of persecution and discrimination. Of course, they share nothing of the sort, while their separate experiences in suffering has resulted in raw nerves and super-sensitivity, factors that undermine the prospect for cooperation.

These days, the spurious claim that Jews and Blacks are natural allies is relegated to unread documents, such as the cliché-ridden Joint Program Plan prepared by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a publication that has no more utility than the fat dinner journals containing insincere love notes that many institutions regard as a virtual religious obligation. What have innocent trees done to deserve such a cruel fate?

As for Jews and Blacks, they have gone on their separate ways. There’s little cooperation and there’s little hostility and the one has to do with the other. However, while there is not – or should not be – any Jewish obligation to place the needs of Blacks on our communal agenda, we are each of us part of a society that has serious unfinished business to attend to, including the promotion of the rights and welfare of minority groups. I believe that it is right to insist that we Jews have enough of our own needs and welfare to attend to without taking on the problems of other ethnic groups and yet to insist at the same time that it is right for individual Jews to support civil rights and to work on behalf of the advancement of Blacks and other deprived peoples.

This distinction, which I first advanced in an article published in the mid-1960’s, has scant support and is readily misunderstood. The article was resurrected not long ago in a slender book – in size and intellect - published by a Hampton’s rabbi whose knowledge of public affairs is as negligible as his knowledge of Jewish subjects. Relying on the book, the Amsterdam News went after me in one of its standard anti-Semitic screeds.

With or without Jewish support, the old Civil Rights movement is scarcely alive. We celebrate its history and neglect its message and mission. Other human rights claims demand urgent attention, even when they are advanced by groups such as gays that are advantaged. There apparently is no room on the public agenda for a multiplicity of civil rights demands. As a consequence, the most needy lose out, in much the same way that we have expanded corporate welfare even as welfare for the poor is being contracted.

There is another reason why Blacks lose out. With the leaders that they now have, there is scant prospect for group advancement. I refer only marginally to Al Sharpton whose status depends far more on the willingness of the media and white politicians to showcase him than on the support of Black masses. For all of his cynicism and exploitation, he fills a vacuum, albeit in ways that are harmful to the people he claims to represent.

A greater problem for Blacks is the paucity of role models that provide vision and moral purpose. Black Americans desperately need leaders who go beyond the tawdry and accusatory, leaders who are able to take the masses into hopeful territory of the kind that has been discovered and cultivated by other ethnic groups. There are Blacks of distinction and accomplishment, many of them, but they serve as role models to only a small proportion of their community. Nowadays, the primary role models are entertainers and athletes and few of these are exemplary people.

At the lowest or worst end, there is the drug culture and the desire, too often fulfilled, to emulate the rapsters and their sick lyrics, as well as other performers who cynically market debased standards of behavior to vulnerable Black youth. At a more benign level, there is the instinct to favor cultural patterns, such as dress and language, that are certain to inhibit the advancement of Blacks. The slogan “Black is beautiful” has been replaced by behavior that suggests that ugly is beautiful.

After generations of slavery followed by generations of deeply rooted discrimination, Blacks have waited for their improvement to come from outside help in the form of governmental programs. This is both understandable and lamentable. Intervention through civil rights laws and their enforcement are, for sure, a moral and legal responsibility. It is truly awful that so little is being done by government at all levels to combat the ongoing bigotry faced by a good proportion of Black America.

But reliance on public benefits as the principal means of achieving group improvement is at best misguided and probably also counterproductive because it defeats the notion that Blacks can help themselves. For all of the wrongs that they have experienced, it remains that the surest means of exit of Blacks – especially those who are young – from the underclass morass that has trapped so many for decades are the doors that Blacks can open for themselves. These doors are not going to be opened by rapsters in baggy pants spewing out filth.

For far too long, organized American Jewry has smugly asserted that the public purse is a code word for civil rights. Substantial evidence to the contrary has not deterred our organizations from continuing to advocate that which has failed. I do not know of a single public policy area during the past fifty years on which the organized American Jewish community has rethought and altered its position. What we advocate for Blacks is only one of the many areas in which we are trapped in a reactionary mode.