I have been close friends with Senator Cory Booker for nearly a quarter century. When Cory speaks, I take him seriously.
Recently, at a speech to my children’s school, Cory mentioned an astounding statistic: there are more black men currently locked up or under federal or state supervision in America than there were slaves in the United States in 1850. And while the circumstances of course are different, it surely makes you think.
My friendship with Cory has been distinguished by an effort on both our parts to rise above our respective identities and experience the other’s community. For Cory, that meant learning thousands of hours of Torah with me and visiting synagogues throughout the United States. For me it meant immersing myself in the history of the civil rights movement and speaking at African-American churches, culminating in my becoming the first white radio personality to serve as morning host on America’s legacy African-American radio station, WWRL 1600AM. Peter Noel, my co-host, a renowned journalist as well as a critic of Israel, became and remains a brother to me.
I now need to look at the most recent, painful stories of African-American men dying at the hands of police through the eyes of a Jewish man.
A year ago I visited Istanbul with my son Mendy. Everyone told us how dangerous it is there, and I should never wear a yarmulke in the street. I was torn. I have never succumbed to hiding my identity. I was not about to now. But should I risk my life and Mendy’s?
In the end my son made the decision for me. “You taught me, Tatty, to always be proud of who I am. You taught me that it’s an honor to be a Jew. That’s true in every place and every time.”
So we toured Istanbul’s great mosques as the Jews we are, yarmulkes and tzitzit flying. There were no incidents.
But what I remember from that experience was the feeling of being a marked man. I was a marked man. I was disliked for something intrinsic to my being.
It was a horrible feeling.
Many African-Americans in America face that feeling every day. When a man is arrested in Baltimore on a charge of carrying an illegal knife and ends up dead a week later, there is something desperately wrong. Is there any mystery about the anger of the African-American community?
To understand what is going on, it is important to consider a few facts. Some of it has to do with the total injustice and incompetent policies that the African-American community has had to deal with for decades, and some has to do with the dangers police face every day as they do their jobs.
Unfortunately, African-Americans in this country have faced discrimination at every turn. Even after segregation ended, blacks faced all types of bigotry and racism. They had poorer schools, fewer resources, faced bias and hatred because of the color of their skin, and their needs often were ignored and treated as an afterthought by those in power.
Many solutions were brought up over the years to try to balance the field for African-Americans, to invest in their schools and neighborhoods, and to bring an end to racial discrimination. Some of these solutions worked well. Many others, however, did little to bring positive change, and in fact made things worse.
Baltimore is a perfect example of solutions that have failed. Baltimore is now 63.7 percent African-American. It has been controlled by Democrats for almost 50 years. The mayor is black, the city council is close to 2/3 black, the chief of police is black, and the majority of police officers are black.
In the past five years, $1.8 billion in stimulus money has been poured into Baltimore, and yet almost nothing has changed for the African-American population there. Look at these shocking statistics.
According to the Washington Post, 15 Baltimore neighborhoods, including the one Freddie Gray came from, have a life expectancy lower than North Korea.
Teens living in Baltimore were most likely to report witnessing violence in their neighborhoods. Teens experienced the highest rates of sexual violence, depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Out of the 100 largest counties in the United States, children in lower income households in Baltimore had the worst odds when it came to upward mobility.
Furthermore while the national average of unemployment for black men is around 10 percent, statistics show that in Baltimore, among working-age black men, 42 percent were not employed in 2010. This rate was 20 percent higher than for whites. More recent statistics have not shown much improvement.
Baltimore spends the third highest amount per capita in its public schools, but test scores have remained very low and these schools are still terrible for students.
An inevitable result of all these dismal facts is that Baltimore has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country.
This pattern in Baltimore is typical of what happens in many black communities around the country.
Now, how does all this relate to accusations of police violence against African-Americans?
Well, there are now about 800,000 police officers in the United States. As part of their jobs, they can arrest people. These are the men and women who go out every day to ensure that America does not descend into lawlessness and chaos.
Every year, there are an average of almost 52,000 assaults against police officers in the line of duty. Approximately 15,000 of these assaults result in injuries to the police officers. And about 150 officers are killed each year in the line of duty.
These are scary numbers. What they mean is that every year 6 percent of police officers are physically assaulted, and of those, about 2 percent are injured. So when police officers are out patrolling they have to think that after working as an officer for 10 years they have about a one in five chance of being physically injured doing their jobs.
Obviously, when police officers are patrolling in areas with higher crime rates, the probability of being attacked and harmed jumps exponentially.
So, on the one hand, you have an area like Baltimore, whose African-American population has been neglected for decades by elected officials. They face inferior education, fewer opportunities, higher unemployment, desperation, and, as a result, very high rates of violent crime.
On the other hand, you have police officers who are very aware of the high rates of injuries that officers suffer each year.
Remember, the majority of cops in Baltimore are black. In fact, of the six officers indicted for Freddie Gray’s death, three are black and three are white. So even black officers can and do sometimes racially profile African-Americans.
The vast majority of African-Americans are honest, law-abiding, hard-working citizens, who must deal with the stress and fear that they may be unfairly profiled and judged simply because of the color of their skin.
It is also important to understand that because government money often is thrown at these communities as a panacea, without regard to private investment that leads to jobs, in many cases this can cause an eventual breakdown of the family unit and the values that go along with it, leaving young people without guidance and proper role models. Meanwhile, young people are assaulted with attitudes and messages about violence, women, and police expressed in rap culture that can compound the problem. All these factors increase the crime rate.
Once they are arrested, many cannot afford the expensive attorneys who win lower sentences for more affluent clients. And, unfortunately, with the privatization of prisons you even hear of large corporations lobbying for longer sentences, including for juveniles. Keeping people locked up longer earns these corporations greater profits.
What is so tragic is that it costs about $27,000 a year to house one person in jail for a year. Imagine if that money had been invested in job creation.
In the end, whatever is being done in Baltimore has failed the African-American community. The same policies have been tried time and again and have not worked. Yet politicians will insist that they must double down on these failed solutions and provide ever more cash infusions to implement them.
There was an interesting idea floated by ESPN commenter Stephen A Smith, who is African-American. He asked that all blacks in the United States vote Republican for just one election. Why? Because close to 90 percent of the black vote in America goes to the Democrats. As Smith explained it, “Black folks in America are telling one party, ‘We don’t give a damn about you.’ They’re telling the other party, ‘You’ve got our vote.’ Therefore, you have labeled yourself ‘disenfranchised,’ because one party knows they’ve got you under their thumb. The other party knows they’ll never get you. Nobody comes to address your interest.”
If the Democrats thought they would lose the black vote they might start trying a little harder by pushing corporate and private investment that leads to upward mobility. And if Republicans believed that African-Americans would start voting for them they might invest more in trying to address black voters’ concerns.
Clearly, none of us has all the solutions. But I have to say that as a Jew, I deeply empathize with my African-American brothers and sisters, who must experience the fear and stress of being judged just because of appearance. We Jews have had to experience something similar throughout our long and trying history. We must do everything in our power to help make this country a place where race no longer matters.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best when he dreamed of a country that would judge his children for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
We all hope that this dream will be turned into reality.