Donate to RNS

A kaddish for George Floyd

It's about lives that matter.

A person reacts near Cup Foods in Minneapolis on April 20, 2021, after a guilty verdict was announced at the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin for the 2020 death of George Floyd. Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

(RNS) — This evening, I was having dinner with a friend, who proceeded to tell me a tale of real estate woe.

His friends had just forfeited a rather sizable deposit on a lovely house in Atlanta.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They put the deposit down, and they did some further research, and they decided that they simply didn’t want to live in a mixed neighborhood.”

“‘Mixed’?” I asked. “As in …”

“Right. Black and white. So, they lost the deposit.”

There is a German term that describes my feelings about their financial loss.

Schadenfreude.

The irony of this conversation was lost on neither my friend, nor me.

It happened only an hour after a Minneapolis jury found former police Officer Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd.

Here is what you need to know. It is about Black bodies. it is about our society’s relationship to Black bodies.

In one sense: To use the elegant Hebrew term, Black bodies are hefker — ownerless property, the very symbol of vulnerability.

For Chauvin (how appropriate his name), to take a Black life is a meaningless act. To place a knee on a Black throat for nine minutes, to look blithely away as the life force evaporates from that body, to ignore his cries for his mother — to commit this act is to commit it against a nonperson.

In another sense: Black bodies are only important when they are out of place. As when they are in the neighborhoods in which we would want to live.

So, yes — like so many Americans, I rejoice in the guilty verdict in the George Floyd case. It is a victory for justice.

To all those who quibble about the use of the phrase Black Lives Matter: Understand what that phrase means. It does not mean that Black lives matter to the detriment and negation of other lives. It means that Black lives matter — because for four centuries in this country, those lives have not mattered.

Let me, therefore, turn to the most famous, and most controversial, parental complaint against a private school.

I am talking about the letter recently penned by Andrew Gutman, who pulled his daughter out of Brearley School, a $54,000-a-year girls school on the Upper East Side of New York City.

Gutman complained about the school’s anti-racism policies, which he regards as little more than indoctrination.

To be sure: There is much to debate on the nature of “cancel culture,” in all its manifestations.

But here, IMHO, is where Gutman went off the rails.

I object to the charge of systemic racism in this country, and at our school. Systemic racism, properly understood, is segregated schools and separate lunch counters. It is the interning of Japanese and the exterminating of Jews. … We have not had systemic racism against Blacks in this country since the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, a period of more than 50 years. To state otherwise is a flat-out misrepresentation of our country’s history and adds no understanding to any of today’s societal issues. If anything, longstanding and widespread policies such as affirmative action, point in precisely the opposite direction.

Gutman made a semantic error — an error that would be interesting if it were not also so tone-deaf.

No systemic racism in this country? You didn’t need Chauvin’s knee to tell you that. Compare the talk that Black parents give their kids, to the talk that white parents give their kids.

I am referring to the talk about driving. White parents don’t have to teach their kids — their sons, primarily — how to talk to law enforcement officers should they be pulled over for a moving violation.

True — many racist and bigoted policies are now illegal.

But, that is like saying that the ability of Jews to buy homes in, say, Palm Beach, has ended American Jew hatred.

Or, that the establishment of the state of Israel has abolished international anti-Semitism.

So, yes — Black lives matter.

What about Jewish lives matter — in France?

Not so much.

In 2017, Kobili Traore threw his neighbor, a Jewish woman named Sarah Halimi, out of the window of her third-story apartment. The court ruled that he would not have to stand trial, after he pleaded that he had committed this heinous act of murder while under the influence of marijuana.

Unthinkable? Immoral?

French President Emmanuel Macron would agree with you. He found this ruling to be so incomprehensible that he has called for a change in his country’s legal system.

Understand, therefore: A French court ruled that a Jewish life is, in fact, nothing.

A Minneapolis court decided that George Floyd’s life was, in fact, something.

America got just a little bit better.