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April 22, 2016 0

A Passover Reflection on Vestiges of American Slavery

By Lau­ren Jones, Civil Rights National Counsel

As Jews gather around the Seder table to tell the story of the Exo­dus from Egypt, we are com­manded to tell the story as if we had per­son­ally fled slav­ery. We will read from the Hagad­dah, “This year we are slaves. Next year may we all be free.”

Photo credit Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit Wikipedia Commons

In grade school we learned in his­tory classes that the 13th Amend­ment abol­ished slav­ery in the United States in 1865. What fewer learn or remem­ber, how­ever, is that there is one crit­i­cal excep­tion: the 13th Amend­ment abol­ished slav­ery “except as a pun­ish­ment for crime.” For decades after the abo­li­tion of slav­ery, South­ern states engaged in “con­vict leasing”—the prac­tice of send­ing peo­ple con­victed of crimes to work on plan­ta­tions or for pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions like rail­way con­trac­tors. Per­haps unsur­pris­ingly, nine-tenths of peo­ple impris­oned were black.

In 1893, in The Rea­son Why, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass wrote this of African Amer­i­cans caught up in the abhor­rent system:

Pos­sess­ing nei­ther money to employ lawyers nor influ­en­tial friends, they are sen­tenced in large num­bers to long terms of impris­on­ment for petty crimes. The People’s Advo­cate, a Negro jour­nal, of Atlanta, Geor­gia, has the fol­low­ing obser­va­tion on the prison show­ing of that state for 1892. ‘It is an astound­ing fact that 90 per­cent of the state’s con­victs are col­ored; 194 white males and 2 white females; 1,710 col­ored males and 44 col­ored females. Is it pos­si­ble that Geor­gia is so color prej­u­diced that she won’t con­vict her white law-breakers? Yes, it is just so, but we hope for a bet­ter day.’

Thank­fully, the United States no longer engages in con­vict leas­ing. But the shame­ful his­tory of a sys­tem that incar­cer­ated an over­whelm­ingly African Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion and con­tin­ued to enslave them after the offi­cial abo­li­tion of slav­ery plagues us to this day. Almost 125 years after Fred­er­ick Dou­glass wrote those words, racial injus­tice still runs through­out our crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

Mass incar­cer­a­tion in the United States con­tin­ues to have a disproportionate—and devastating—impact on com­mu­ni­ties of color. Although approx­i­mately thirty per­cent of peo­ple in the United States are African Amer­i­can or Latino, almost sixty per­cent of pris­on­ers are. In 2006, one in 14 African Amer­i­can men was incar­cer­ated, com­pared with one in 106 white men. Today the United States incar­cer­ates a higher per­cent­age of black men than South Africa did dur­ing the height of apartheid. If cur­rent trends con­tinue, one in three African Amer­i­can male babies born today will spend some of his life behind bars.

Stud­ies show that crime rates do not account for the racial dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. Rather, laws that pun­ish par­tic­u­lar behav­iors more than oth­ers, as well as sys­temic racism that under­girds poli­cies and prac­tices, all con­tribute. For exam­ple, stud­ies con­firm that whites are just as likely to use drugs as African Americans—and are as likely or even more likely to deal drugs—but police are twice as likely to arrest African Amer­i­cans for drug crimes as whites. In some states, African Amer­i­can men are serv­ing time for drug-related charges at a rate that is twenty to fifty times higher than rates for white men.

Racial dis­par­i­ties per­vade each step in the crim­i­nal jus­tice system—from stops to arrests, pros­e­cu­tion to sen­tenc­ing. For exam­ple, pros­e­cu­tors are approx­i­mately twice as likely to file charges against African Amer­i­can defen­dants that include manda­tory min­i­mums, and African Amer­i­can men on aver­age serve ten per­cent longer sen­tences for the same crime as white men. In Geor­gia, where a “two strikes and you’re out” law imposed a life sen­tence for a sec­ond drug offense, for exam­ple, dis­trict attor­neys invoked the law one per­cent of the time in pros­e­cut­ing white defen­dants accused of a sec­ond drug offense, but 16 per­cent of the time in pros­e­cut­ing African Amer­i­can defen­dants accused of a sec­ond drug offense. The result was that 98.4 per­cent of peo­ple serv­ing life sen­tences under the two strikes law were African Amer­i­can. Race—including con­scious and uncon­scious biases—clearly con­tin­ues to play a deeply trou­bling role through­out the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

As we begin the Passover cel­e­bra­tions, and tell the story of the lib­er­a­tion from slav­ery in Egypt, may we also think about the ves­tiges of slav­ery here in the United States. May we com­mit our­selves to end­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion and work­ing towards more jus­tice in our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. As Fred­er­ick Dou­glass hoped for a bet­ter day, may we com­mit our­selves to cre­at­ing one. And next year, may we all be free.

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April 21, 2016 Off

This Passover Let Us Remember That Once We Were Strangers, Too

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared on The Huff­in­g­ton Post Blog

Syrian refugee woman reacts while travelling in an overcrowded dinghy as it arrives at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey

This Fri­day night, Jews around the world will gather at Seder tables with friends and fam­ily to tell the story of the Exo­dus from Egypt. We are com­manded to tell the story as if we had per­son­ally fled slav­ery, trans­form­ing the expe­ri­ence from the sim­ple recount­ing of an ancient tale to an exer­cise of empa­thy and reflec­tion on the suf­fer­ing of others.

Today, as 60 mil­lion peo­ple have been forcibly dis­placed from their homes around the world, we face the worst refugee cri­sis since World War II. Many are caught between the ter­ror of the Islamic State and the bar­rel bombs of Assad’s regime and his Iran­ian back­ers in Syria. Oth­ers flee the ter­ri­fy­ing grip of Boko Haram in Nige­ria, or extreme gang vio­lence in Cen­tral Amer­ica. Still oth­ers flee other coun­tries where they are per­se­cuted and tor­tured because of their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­tity. There is one thing that unites all these refugees: No mat­ter their home coun­try, they are flee­ing for their lives and seek­ing safety in new lands.

In place of com­pas­sion and open arms, how­ever, too often refugees have been met with hate­ful rhetoric and closed doors. More than half of U.S. gov­er­nors have either said they will not accept refugees in their states or have asked the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to shut our doors. A bill pend­ing now before Con­gress, the ill-named “Refugee Pro­gram Integrity Restora­tion Act” (H.R. 4731), would dras­ti­cally reduce and cap refugee admis­sions and cre­ate new pro­ce­dures that would sub­stan­tially delay reset­tle­ment for many refugees whose lives are in dan­ger. It would also allow state and local gov­ern­ments who “dis­ap­prove” of a group of refugees to veto reset­tle­ment in their communities.

Shut­ting our doors to those flee­ing extreme vio­lence is un-American. It flies in the face of our val­ues as a nation that has served as a bea­con of hope for those around the world seek­ing a bet­ter life. But, sadly, it is not the first time we have seen this kind of ugly response to a refugee crisis.

For those of us in the Jew­ish com­mu­nity who have fam­ily mem­bers, like my grand­fa­ther, who fled Nazism in Europe, this nar­ra­tive is all too famil­iar. In July 1938—three years after the Nurem­berg Laws had stripped Jews of Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship, deprived them of most polit­i­cal rights, and left hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jews seek­ing inter­na­tional refuge—For­tune mag­a­zine asked Amer­i­cans, “What is your atti­tude toward allow­ing Ger­man, Aus­trian, and other polit­i­cal refugees to come to the U.S.?” Shame­fully, more than two-thirds said we should keep the refugees out.

The fol­low­ing year the St. Louis, car­ry­ing 937 Ger­man refugees—mostly Jews flee­ing Nazi Germany—set sail for Cuba. Most had applied for U.S. visas. Turned away from Cuba, as the St. Louis sailed so close to Florida that the pas­sen­gers could see the lights from Miami, they appealed to Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt to give them safe har­bor. With pub­lic opin­ion opposed to lift­ing the strin­gent immi­gra­tion quo­tas or to mak­ing an excep­tion for the ship’s pas­sen­gers, the St. Louis returned to Europe. Almost a quar­ter of the pas­sen­gers per­ished in the Holocaust.

It was uncon­scionable to turn our backs on Jew­ish refugees flee­ing Europe in the 1930s, just as it is uncon­scionable today to seal our bor­ders to those flee­ing extreme vio­lence around the world.

The temp­ta­tion may be to give into fear and fear-mongering claims that ter­ror­ists will slip into our midst dis­guised as refugees, but Amer­ica has put up the high­est hur­dles in the world for refugees seek­ing entry. In fact, refugee sta­tus is the sin­gle most dif­fi­cult way to enter the United States. Refugees must pass dif­fi­cult and thor­ough screen­ings by the U.S. Depart­ment of State, the FBI, the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­rity, inter­na­tional intel­li­gence agen­cies, and the United Nations. Refugees are not ter­ror­ists. There may be even more that can be done to edu­cate refugees as they seek to inte­grate into our soci­ety, but we must remem­ber that they are peo­ple flee­ing the very same bru­tal­ity we fear.

As we gather around the Seder table, and we tell the story of the Exo­dus as if we too were flee­ing Egypt, may we also have com­pas­sion for those flee­ing bru­tal­ity today. The Passover story is the story of peo­ple flee­ing slav­ery. It is the story of peo­ple seek­ing safety abroad. It is the refugee story. This Passover, may we open our doors to refugees and grant safe har­bor to those flee­ing for their lives. For once we were strangers, too.

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April 20, 2016 15

White Supremacists Up in Arms over Tubman on $20 Bill

Harriet Tubman. Photo Credit: Ohio History Connection (OHC) via U.S. Treasury Department, dated circa 1887 by H.G. Smith, Studio Building, Boston.

Har­riet Tub­man. Photo Credit: Ohio His­tory Con­nec­tion (OHC) via U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment, dated circa 1887 by H.G. Smith, Stu­dio Build­ing, Boston.

On April 20, the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment announced that famous abo­li­tion­ist and res­cuer of slaves Har­riet Tub­man will be the new face of the $20 bill, replac­ing Andrew Jack­son (who moves to the bill’s back). The move is intended to answer a long-standing call for more diver­sity on America’s paper cur­rency. Tub­man, a for­mer slave her­self, helped hun­dreds of other slaves escape into freedom.

Ini­tial reac­tions were largely positive—but not among racists and white suprema­cists, who wasted no time react­ing to the news with ferocious–and unsurprising–venom. “Talk­ing mon­key Har­riet Tub­man to replace Indian killer Jack­son on $20 bill,” Andrew Anglin, edi­tor and founder of the white suprema­cist Daily Stormer web­site, announced on his blog.  A forum mem­ber on the white suprema­cist mes­sage board Storm­front warned, “Just make very sure you don’t ‘inte­grate’ this new $20 bill into your wal­let. You’ll likely find the rest of your money miss­ing in no time.”

Other Storm­front con­trib­u­tors posited the idea of “hav­ing fun” with the new bill by defac­ing it. One sug­gested he would make a stamp with a “white nation­al­ist cross” and the words “White Pride World Wide” to embla­zon on every $20 bill he encoun­ters. Yet another pledged never to use the new $20 bill, to demand to be given other bills instead.

On Face­book, racist com­ments also sur­faced quickly. Some­one post­ing as “Pete Lam­bro” wrote, “Who the hell is har­riet tub­man [sic]…if Obama want to put an african amer­i­cans [sic] Pic­ture [sic] on some­thing how about food stamps or ebt cards.”  In another Face­book post­ing,  a “Nick Fran­cis” com­plained that “now we have to stare at a mon­key every time we get paid.”

Oth­ers were quick to intro­duce anti-Semitic con­spir­acy the­o­ries, alleg­ing that the Trea­sury Depart­ment announce­ment was the brain­child of the Jews.  One anti-Semite posted to his Face­book page the com­ment “More Zion­ist Jack Jew,” refer­ring to Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Jack Lew.  A Storm­front poster using the screen­name Proud_White_Chap asked, “Who cares who Jews put on their fake paper? Andrew Jack­son fought against them and they besmirched his mem­ory by plac­ing him on the 20 dol­lar bill.” This seems to be a ref­er­ence to the anti-Semitic belief that Jews con­trol the bank­ing sys­tem and to the fact that Jack­son dis­man­tled the U.S.’s national bank.

A Trea­sury spokesper­son said the design for the new bills will be made pub­lic in 2020, the cen­ten­nial of women win­ning the right to vote. The actual cur­rency, how­ever, won’t be in cir­cu­la­tion until 2030, giv­ing white suprema­cists plenty of time to gnash their teeth and accu­mu­late other denominations.

White suprema­cists will prob­a­bly be no hap­pier with the new $5 and $10 bills, how­ever, which are to fea­ture five women’s suf­frage activists, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and African-Americans Mar­ian Ander­son and Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., on the reverse sides.

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