Answering the Call: Pursuing Justice

Celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a federal holiday pays due respect to someone who "answered the call" and dedicated his life to extending the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of justice for African Americans and countless other individuals who are too often overlooked. Leading multi-faith activists in peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience, King put a mirror on systemic racism in the US and compelled many Americans to face their white privilege.

We have certainly made progress since 1954, when the Supreme Court first declared that separate was unequal. But racial inequality has defied easy eradication. However notable and important, progress is not measured by the successes achieved by individuals - the first black general, the first black opera singer, or the first black president. Slavery and segregation were all-encompassing, and their legacy of racism is one we cannot overlook or cast aside as history. Racism in this country must be demolished by changing policies, perspectives, and behavior.

Since the upheaval in Ferguson, MO, after an unarmed black teenager was killed by a white police officer, there have been renewed governmental efforts to address racism in our system of justice. Justice Department investigations, body-worn cameras, and expanded training for law enforcement are important. The President is taking steps in the right direction, but the repercussions of systemic injustice in law enforcement began in the aftermath of social unrest in the 1960s. To have to begin again in 2014 shows how much our efforts have languished.

In the wake of heightened media attention to needless black deaths at the hands of law enforcement, NCJW joined Bend the Arc and other Jewish social justice groups to lift our voices in support of #BlackLivesMatter and the national demands put forward by Ferguson Action. Among other things, these include limiting the transfer and use of military equipment to local law enforcement; supporting community based alternatives to incarceration; and holding a Congressional hearing that investigates the criminalization of communities of color, racial profiling, and police abuses. Some say that singling out the importance of black lives in this effort is problematic; NCJW holds that while all lives and human rights matter, using too broad an umbrella neglects the unique persecution and obstacles to justice and equality that different groups - in this instance, black people in America - face.

But achieving a just society cannot fall solely on the shoulders of police officers and sheriffs. After all, law enforcement is an extension of self-governance and therefore stems from the foundation of a democratic society - voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to protect each individual's right to cast a ballot, but the Supreme Court recently undermined the most effective and widely used tool to combat the discriminatory practices that prevent otherwise eligible voters from casting a ballot or having it count. Alongside other civil and voting rights groups, NCJW has worked for passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act - a bill that would establish common-sense, nationwide standards of transparency and protections for voters in every state. But Congress has failed to take steps to advance this bill, while people of color across the country are disproportionately denied access to the ballot box by burdensome voter ID laws, redistricting and at-large representation, and cuts to early or weekend voting.

NCJW has also launched a new reproductive justice initiative to lift up the intersections of race, income, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, immigration status, ability, and geography into our long-standing work to advance reproductive health and rights. The reproductive justice framework, developed by women of color, goes beyond the basic legal right to access key reproductive health services and seeks to address how multiple identities and factors affect a person's ability to shape their reproductive life. For example, until black women in America have the basic human right to parent their children without fear that they will be targeted or killed by police, there can be no reproductive justice. We are proud to work as allies to the reproductive justice movement, and that means saying loud and clear: black lives matter.

As Jews, we particularly understand what it means to be targeted because of our religion. But, too many of us living in America have allowed the glaring disparities of income, education, health care, and the administration of justice to fester. As American Jews, we have historically stood in solidarity with oppressed groups, including black people in the Civil Rights movement; but by the same token, the privilege of skin color that many of us have today only makes the mandate of Tzedek, the pursuit of justice, all the more imperative.

When a black woman walks into a store and is assumed to be a thief; when a working mother who obtains health insurance through a government program is denied abortion care; when a 12-year-old boy is killed for wielding a toy gun in a park - we cannot remain silent. We must join in demanding change, accountability, demanding justice. If we don't, we are part of the system that exacts these daily tragedies. On this year's birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., together let's answer the call to pursue racial justice.