For this year’s High Holidays, I decided that I would step on that most perilous of third rails and speak with my congregation about racism. My goal was to move the conversation away from the partisan clichés and focus on deeper truths. Racism has the power to erode our basic humanity. We need to recognize that the toxicity is found in each of us.
I confessed to my own failings. While I firmly believe that I am as colorblind as they come, I know that I am the product of a society that is struggling so mightily to overcome a pathology so inbred, so pervasive and so insidious that it affects us all.
My congregants quickly understood that I was framing combatting racism not as a political issue but as a moral imperative, and that I was not speaking as an accuser, but as one who has been complicit in the sin. It helped people with vastly differing political allegiances to receive my message positively. But I needed to get deeper.
So I decided to have my DNA analyzed. I spat into a test tube (my most expensive spit since Mrs. Allen’s class in third grade), mailed it in, and here’s what I discovered about my ethnic background:
- 97.2 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. No shocker, there;
- 0.8 percent Eastern European – I knew there would be a Cossack in there somewhere;
- 0.2 percent Southern European, which includes Italy, Iberia and the Balkans. It’s noteworthy that 20 percent of the current population of the Iberian Peninsula has Jewish ancestry;
- 1.7 percent Broadly European – pointing to some more generalized strands of genetic material going back to the hunter-gatherer days when Europe was settled;
- And finally, (wait for it…) 0.1 percent Native American.
Call me a mutt.
Did you know that one-in-five African Americans has Native American roots? In Louisiana, 12 percent of European Americans have some African ethnic ancestry. We are all people of color, it seems. Not just color, but colors, the colors of the wind. There is a veritable rainbow coalition within each of us.
“It turns out that most white Americans actually do have black blood,” says the civil rights expert and activist john powell, a professor at U.C.-Berkeley. “White blood and black blood have been mixing up for a long time. And so as we deny the other, we deny ourselves. Because there is no ‘other.’”
It brings a whole new meaning to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The revised translation should be, “Love: your neighbor IS yourself.” We should see a bit of our own genetic heritage even in the one who looks very different. Genetically speaking, all human beings are 99.998 percent the same.
My DNA study revealed other hidden genetic traits. I tend to favor salty snacks over sweet ones; I am likely to have little or no upper back hair. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (I don’t want to get nasty emails from the Anti Back Hair Defamation League). I’m also genetically marked for hazel eyes, thinning hair, a few freckles, no dimpled chin — oh, and by the way, fair skin.
Skin color is not racial; rather it results from generations of exposure to ultra-violet radiation from sunlight for those living in hotter climates, which increases the production of melanin in the skin, making it darker. It then, of course, becomes a crucial part of one’s ethnic heritage.
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But pigmentation is just one marker among an untold number of markers that tell us so much of what’s on the surface and what lies beneath. But while there are markers for skin color predisposition, there is none for race. There is no single gene for race. The more we learn about the genome, the more scientists conclude: Race is not genetic, and skin color is just the wrapping for a much more complex package. “Do not look at the flask,” says tractate Avot, “but at what lies within.”
As I explored the history of this subject, I discovered that race is an artificial construct, based on faulty theories of Europeans like Johan Blumenbach, a 23-year-old grad student, who in 1775 correlated human character with skull size. He found the biggest skull while rummaging in the Caucuses, so he called it Caucasoid. He created the “oids.” The larger skulls, in his mind, correlated to larger brains, which he connected to light colored skin. Spoiler alert — Blumenbach’s pigmentation was also white. That’s like standing in the end zone and inventing the touchdown.
Of course, if brain size were truly a determinant of mastery and superiority, we would all be working overtime for whales and elephants, whose brains are much bigger than ours.
There is little doubt that the racial theories that evolved in the 18th century have tainted the soul of humanity more than just about any other system of ideas. Communism killed its millions, true. Millions more have also been killed senselessly in the name of God and religion. But think about the tens of millions of lives destroyed by these misguided theories of racial superiority, which justified American slavery, spawned South African apartheid, led to the genocides of indigenous populations everywhere, including here, and culminated in the Nazi Holocaust.
Here is where my sermon turned to why it has become obligatory for Jews to lead the charge against racism. Jews believe that all human beings are of equal value in God’s eyes.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal and evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”
And today, with some dangerous theories of eugenics still being propagated, in particular by the increasingly empowered white supremacists, who are also virulently anti-Semitic, we must extinguish this insidious brand of hatred. We must extinguish it in society — and in ourselves.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn.