On Sunday, May 3, 1992, I’m asked by my dear friend Pastor John Bowie to address his congregation in South Los Angeles.
The city is in flames. Black residents see their confidence in American justice bruised and kicked beyond recognition in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. The South L.A. community erupts in outrage. It is James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” come to life, 30 years later, born of centuries of broken promises, neglect, and racial contempt.
As I speak that morning, I hold back tears. I say I can no longer be invited to a Black church and speak of brotherhood and sisterhood, and then leave and say we had a nice time together.
I ask: How do we begin to repair the bridges that have been destroyed and become strong in the broken places?
We can only repair the breach by beginning to counter the stereotypes that engulf us in our White and Black communities, I say. It will come from honest, tough conversations about the deep hurts of racism you experience almost every day of your lives. It will come when we acknowledge that in America, Black means fear to most White people.
I tell the congregation I know this as a Jew. Untold numbers of Americans hate and distrust Jews. I know that hurt, and you know that hurt, I say.
At this moment when Californians are suffering, we are galvanized for action, I say. Californians are the most diverse people in this country. Now is the time to stand up and be counted and act on our core values, not just say or preach them. It will be a long arduous journey. There is an apartheid in America that must be exposed and confronted. We’ve got to stop blaming the welfare system and stop heaping the problems of America on the poor.
That is what I say 28 years ago. Today, we’re witnessing the powerful reaction to the death of George Floyd and a growing understanding that Black Lives Matter.
As it was in 1992, so it is in 2020. Americans — and Californians — are being tested. Our promises and our character are on trial.
Californians are champions of partnership over polarization. As we have in times past, we must lead the nation in crisis. We must do everything in our power to call out and bring an end to racism, both individually and through our public and private institutions. We must probe deeper than ever before to fight the spiritual demons that eat at our souls. Racism. Anti-Semitism. Asian and Latino-bashing. All forms of hatred and discrimination must go.
We need healing. We need hope. Let us resolve that the pall of the tear gas smoke will not obscure the rainbow and its beauty and we will embrace, as President Lincoln said, the “better angels of our nature.”
We dare not wait. The sign of the rainbow has come. The time to move forward is now. The phoenix shall rise from the ashes. Not from God but from each of us.
Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs (retired) is a recognized civil rights leader who still devotes his time to racial justice issues and interfaith relations.