Opinion: Arbery case shows need to keep working to move past white supremacy

Today we commemorate Ahmaud Arbery Day. On this date two years ago, it was a quiet Sunday in southeast Georgia. Three gunshots rang out and pierced the silence of the day and Arbery lay in the street as his blood pooled around his body. As his life left him, no hands touched him. No voices soothed him. Surrounded by police officers, his attackers and strangers, he died.

As the rabbi in Brunswick Georgia, as someone who has been close to the events of the last two years, I wonder what we will make of the memory of that day in 2020. What legacy will we, those still living in a world so angry and so raw, receive as our inheritance from this man?

In the federal hate crime trial that ended in convictions Tuesday, the content has been brutal. Much of the language spoken in the testimony is too obscene to publish or repeat. People sitting in the courtroom, people who love Ahmaud Arbery, people who have melanin-rich skin, listened for a week as words like the n-word and its equivalent fell from the mouths of witnesses and landed leaded and laden into the universe. One Arbery family member told me, “I know people have these things in their minds, but I cannot believe people say them aloud or carry them out.”

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Brunswick, Ga., Rabbi Rachael M. Bregman/Photo by Bobby Haven.

Brunswick, Ga., Rabbi Rachael M. Bregman/Photo by Bobby Haven.

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Brunswick, Ga., Rabbi Rachael M. Bregman/Photo by Bobby Haven.

The language is shocking, and I hope you feel it in your body like I feel it in mine. And for many, the gut-turning is reassuring proof of not being a racist.

I have come to learn that being not-a-racist is no longer sufficient. Actually, it was never sufficient. For me, Ahmaud’s violent and lonesome death is the clarion call to deeper engagement with dismantling white body supremacy on a local, national and even a global level.

But how?

I have felt moved by the Levitical verse of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” What I am understanding is not the emphasis here on love, but the emphasis on equity in the place of difference. Whereas your neighbor is someone different, love them in the same way as you love yourself, which leads to loving them all in the same manner.

In the Jewish tradition, we end the sabbath with a ritual known as Havdallah. This word could be translated as difference. We mark the difference between the holiness of shabbat and the ordinary nature of the rest of the week. In this ceremony, we light a twisted, braided candle and raise it high in the air once it is dark enough to see three stars in the sky. All who are present are invited to raise their hands up and notice. We curl our fingers as if grasping some of that light, some of that hope and turn our hands so we can see how the light reflects differently on the surface of our fingernails than it does on the surface of our skin. We end the ceremony with a blessing that loosely translates to, “Blessed are You, who is running this show, the Holy Being uniting us all, who made these things different, one from the other: the holy and the ordinary, the light and the dark, the special seventh day and the six days for doing all the stuff we do. Blessed are to You, Adonai, who made holy time and ordinary time different from one another.”

What this ritual teaches is that different is different -- not better or worse. It ignites the idea every week that you cannot have the sweet rest of shabbat if you do not have the hard work of the week and you cannot have your hard work if you do not have sweet rest. Lest we think one might be better than the other, we affirm that one is in relationship with the other.

Different is not about domination and the vertical. Difference is about relationship; it is about the horizontal.

Somatic abolitionist Resmaa Menakem teaches that white body supremacy means white bodies are deemed the supreme standard of “human” by which all other bodies shall be measured; everything else is less than human. The core of supremacy is life on the vertical. The core of equity is life on the horizontal.

I want the legacy of Ahmaud Arbery to be that we, all of us still engaged in the sacred act of breath-in and breath-out, are committing to not only seeing the vertical, but also to actively turning the giant wheel of culture towards the horizontal.

I see everywhere the flourishing of dominance, the flourishing of supremacies of one kind or another. I believe that the vertical is the lifeblood of dehumanization; of how we got to where we are right now.

What blows my mind is when I see different as neither better nor worse, I can see more clearly the rich array of thoughts, feelings and opinions as a glorious, divine panoply. For me, there is a regular “a-ha” moment of, wow, look how magnificently different each and every single one of us is. We really are made in the image of God. And the more I can see the differences amongst as, the more access to the holy I feel I have.

Right now, I see an ever-more-polarized and polarizing world. Us. Them. Those People. So stupid. Idiots. How could anyone think like that? These are words from the playbook of white body supremacy. And I see them proliferating in conversation from everything from vaccines to what brand of products I buy. And I hope reading them feels just as bowel-clenching as the racial slurs I referenced above because they differ only by degree and not by kind.

All the politicking, all the social media rants and all the friends no longer speaking are all the same fight. Gathering all the same people together as one person or people positions themselves as superior to another person or people. In the echo of three shotgun blasts from two years gone now, I hear a prayer. Please. Stop.

Rachael M. Bregman is the Berman Family Rabbinate Rabbi of Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick.