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It was puzzling for the mostly African-American guests at Camp Williams – who had been evacuated from a destroyed New Orleans to Utah – to suddenly see a rabbi with a yarmulke about to address them in their temporary military home.
It was even stranger for them to suddenly recognize that that rabbi was the radio host whom the Utah papers had been reporting all week had lost his radio show after using his program to stage an event that would assist the evacuees to find permanent homes in the white, middle-class neighborhoods that Mormon Utah is famous for.
And it was positively startling for them to hear the message that the rabbi delivered:
Some say that the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina was delayed because most of the victims were black. I don’t know if such accusations are true. But what I do know is that when I visited New Orleans six weeks ago, I saw what I have seen all over America, namely, white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods.
A country that calls itself the United States, 230 years after its founding, continues to be shamefully segregated. What Hurricane Katrina provided, through its curse of displacing so many hundreds of thousands of African-American residents, is the possibility for the blessing of true racial integration, by having those black families welcomed all over the country into white neighborhoods, permanently.
While black America has ills for which it is personally accountable and must do everything to rectify – foremost of which is an out-of-wedlock birthrate of more than 60 percent, guaranteeing that untold numbers of black children are raised without fathers to nurture, guide and inspire them – white America still has a great many sins for which it must repent, foremost of which is white flight from neighborhoods that black residents move in to.
Hence, the white community in the United States, with the devastation wrought by Katrina, finally had the opportunity to welcome homeless black families to live in their communities and treat them as fellow citizens whom they cherish rather than fear.
Instead, we have seen a visceral reaction on the part of many white Americans to just that proposition. When David Brooks of the New York Times penned a recent piece advocating black refugee integration into white communities, I heard a prominent New York radio host respond, “I’m going to say what no one has the guts to say, but what all of you feel. I don’t want some guy who hasn’t worked a day in his life, who has sponged off welfare, and who can’t keep his neighborhood clean, moving in as my next-door neighbor.”
A caller to my own radio show expressed a similar sentiment, saying he did not want poor black families moving into his neighborhood because they were dirty and kept their own neighborhoods slovenly.
But six weeks ago, when I drove my children through the broken and crumbling African-American neighborhoods of east New Orleans in search of the Chalmette battlefield where Andrew Jackson delivered the greatest blow that the American Army ever inflicted upon the British, I saw distressed neighborhoods of staggering poverty and my children saw it as well.
What was on my mind was not whether, as liberals contend, white racism and a cycle of poverty were responsible for these conditions, or whether the black residents should have pulled themselves out of poverty, as conservatives maintain. Rather, I simply thought that no matter who was responsible, all children deserve to grow up in neighborhoods where they can see some grass and trees. Just a few weeks later, seeing black Americans living on freeways and surviving on rooftops while struggling to survive sewage-infested waters, made even the most indifferent Americans feel the same way.
To be sure, with my own considerable conservative political positions, I am certainly no liberal and I am possessed of no bleeding heart. Rather, my kinship with the black community stems from my being a man of faith. My foremost belief is that we are all God’s children, that we are all equally loved by our Father in heaven, that every human life is of infinite value, and that the best demonstration of that fact is to look at every human being – regardless of superficial differences – as our equal brother and sister.
From my earliest days, I have had a special relationship with the black community. From the time I became the first white radio host on America’s oldest black radio station, I have always felt a transcendent affinity with my black brothers and sisters.
Many believe that Jews and blacks are kin based on their shared history of suffering. But theirs is a relationship built not on shared oppression, but on a shared faith, a common destiny rather than a common history, shared values rather than shared interests, and a mutual commitment to social justice rather than a mutual alienation from the mainstream.
My attachment to the black community stems from how its central pillar has always been its faith. The civil-rights movement was not a political response to injustice and oppression, it was a religious movement, conceived in churches, led by ministers, and marched to the sounds of old “Negro spirituals.” The unforgettable speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. were based entirely on Scripture and brought the ancient prophets to life.
The soldiers of the civil-rights movement were fueled by faith and sustained by sacrifice. The same chains of slavery that bound the Jews in ancient Egypt and the blacks in the New World imprisoned their bodies, but liberated their spirit. Those chains taught the Jews and blacks, above all else, to rely on God for their salvation rather than on any professed human liberator, be he as righteous as Moses or as resolute as Lincoln. Both became nations to whom faith was endemic and sustaining.
For many people, the purpose of religion is to gain entry into the afterlife. But for blacks and Jews, religion is about fighting persecution and creating heaven on earth.
And for a great many, heaven on earth simply comes in the form of having a place to call home in the wide spaces of tree-lined suburbia, rather than the dank squalor of the inner city.