Counting Doesn’t Count Unless People Matter

Nearly every time I end up in a heated (and therefore likely, pointless) exchange about inequality and discrimination on The Internet, it disintegrates into an argument over numbers. Whose statistics are correct? How many Black folks were killed by police this past year? But how many Black folks were killed in homicides by other Black folks? Some insist on replying. How many COVID-19 deaths? But how many were elderly or disabled? Weren’t these people gonna die anyway? comes the response.

I’m sick and tired of the numbers. I’m sick and tired of the way we collectively insist on turning to the supposedly unbiased nature of science without simultaneously insisting on careful attention to systemic, unconscious bias in the methodology of our research and on careful contextualization of the results presented.

Counting doesn’t count unless it’s ultimately people who matter.

Historians and scientists trained in the theories now collected under the umbrella of postmodernism have argued at least since the 1990s that racism (and sexism, and heterocentrism, and ableism) is ingrained in much of the scientific methods on which we’ve relied as a society. For example, Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University Katharine Park has published on gender biases in medicine, biology, and chemistry that have limited women and non-binary folks’ access to health and happiness. Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science (Beacon Press, 2019) warns against the ways in which even explicitly racist ideologies can be couched in the language of objectivity and research.

There’s another, even more insidious problem: our perpetual insistence that all scientific data be presented in a “neutral” and emotionless manner, detached from its cultural context. It is paramount that we have research on a marginalized identity or group that experiences systemic exclusion, discrimination, and unconscious bias. When we present that research in a way that discourages strong, emotionally resonant responses from those very marginalized identities, we do violence.* It is the violence of minimization and invalidation.

This is precisely the problem I ran into this week, while reading several posts about an article measuring the number of people of color (POC) in the Jewish community (often referred to as Jews of color or JOC).

I am not a person of color. I am Jewish, converted as an adult. I am a white, Italian-American and something-else-unknown-probably-European-American woman, cisgender, queer, ordained Reform Jewish rabbi. And I try every day to ally. I strive to be anti-racist. And sometimes I’m exhausted, especially when I realize how damaging (as in, literally damaging to the immune system, the autonomic nervous system, to the body as a whole) systemic racism is for those who bear its consequences every single day.

It was late at night. I was sleep-deprived. I was on a certain, extremely problematic app, where I, like too many of us, normally live in a bubble of values and opinions that mostly match my own. Then I saw the headline, “How Many Jews of Color Are There?

Did I post a knee-jerk reaction to a public forum? Yes, I admit, I did. I saw the title and I freaked out. And then I read the article. And I was still angry.

How many Jews of color are there? Who are you? And why are you asking?

The article is a fairly dry, detailed recalibration of some recent (but not the most recent, and certainly not the most recent done with deep leadership by JOC) data on the percentage of JOC in American Jewish communities, and is the work of demographers Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky. Many folks have weighed in all over Jewish social media to note that the article’s sole purpose is to help, as the authors themselves state, “make certain that, in both developing programs for any population subgroup and in evaluating the effectiveness of those programs, we do so based upon accurate information.”

Yes, and.

EJewish Philanthropy, the site that published the article, connects funders, philanthropists, and grant-making organizations, with both large and small non-profit Jewish organizations, leaders, and thinkers. While some might argue that the “bottom line” of any and all research on the demographics of the Jewish community ultimately leads to shared values regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), I would argue that this is far from a fait accompli. For one, the article itself contains problematic language challenging the self-definition of Jews of Color, and for another, numbers can be used to justify prioritization of funding. As in, if there are “only” x number of JOC in my community, then I don’t “need” to fund any inclusion projects.

Until Jews of Color (and, indeed, we can apply this to any historically excluded or marginalized group or identity) hold positions of power in all areas of Jewish life and feel a sense of belonging in any Jewish community — until we know that the people in power in our Jewish institutions are funding DEIB-minded investigations into and overhauls of the systems we use to build community — then numbers will not matter.

And we’re not there yet.

We’re in the wilderness, Bamidbar. Which, incidentally, is this week’s Torah portion.

Also called Numbers, this fourth of the five books of Moses begins with… numbers: a census of the people of Israel by (male-led) tribe. All so-called able-bodied (that is, able to go out to war) males above the age of twenty are counted and numbered and organized, with a hierarchical map of their placement in the wilderness encampment (Bamidbar/Numbers 1:18–49).

But, as my teacher and colleague Rabbi David Stern points out, all that neatness and order basically goes right out the window as our ancestors bicker and mourn and learn and transform from a mixed-multitude of enslaved people into a united but diverse community with explicit, shared goals. I’m thinking, for example, about the exclusionary “order” of the tribes, androcentric, giving way to the demands of Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah (usually, and frustratingly, referred to only as “the daughters of Zelophehad,” as if it were his legacy, and not theirs, that moved our people forward), who refused this patrilineal method of inheritance and claimed their family’s portion of land. The system immediately responded to challenges. The census numbers helped, but they can’t be the whole story.

It’s a shame — a shonde — that folks who are passionate about DEIB are often silenced by others who demand that we never get angry about things we should all be furious to witness and perpetuate. Particularly for folks affected by the issues discussed, it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to remain “neutral.”

With regard to race, I am in a privileged position. Could I have worded my critique differently? Yes, and I should have. That’s why I’m publishing this piece. But I am also not deleting my older posts. Because for every privileged, white, exhausted cisgender queer woman like me, there is one JOC staring at their computer screen wondering, “How many of us do there need to be, documented, for my Jewish community to think I matter?”

“Racism” is not reading an article on demographics and agreeing with or defending its methodology. When we call out “racism,” we are too often read as “labeling” or “name-calling” someone “a racist.” But we need to be able to call it out, because we are all implicated. Racism is systemic blocking of access to POC. Racism is a system whereby supposedly objective fields, like medicine and statistics, have long been used to exclude and to label and to control. This does not mean we need to eschew all research. It does mean we need to call attention to the ways in which “science” and “statistics” are too often put to racist ends. And we have to counter them, and we have to signal to POC that we do not want research employed to those racist ends.

The demographers of the study that sparked so much response insist, “it is more than unfortunate if even just one person is made to feel uncomfortable in a Jewish setting,” and their work is an attempt to provide Jewish institutions with the necessary information to address that discomfort.

The words “unfortunate” and “uncomfortable” minimize the problem. We might instead use words like “unjust” and “excluded,” “unacceptable” and “erased,” “immoral” and “dehumanized.” This article presented a minor tweaking of past statistics, and was released during a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities, just days after a Black man was lynched for running in “the wrong neighborhood.”

Jews of Color are telling us that what we’re already doing is not enough. Studies that have not involved POC at every state of their conceptualization, execution, and publication are not enough. They do not measure the right information. The way Jewish institutions need to prioritize our time and our money and our energy has less to do with how many JOCs are already part of our communities and more to do with how much we care that our communities are places where every Jew can belong.


* I learned this through making mistakes, especially with regard to my own unconscious biases around ableism.

queer belonging. sex positivity. progressive lifecycle. inclusive judaism. weekly wednesday 8 am edt meditative jewish practice on insta live @ravnikkid

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