Counting Everyone in Society – Ban the Box

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The other night I was watching Friends when Ross decided that he should get a spray tan.  He heads over to the facility and the camera cuts to him taking off his shirt wearing swim trunks, about to get into the booth.  The spray-tan-technician instructs him to get in to the booth, and then he will be sprayed.  Once the spraying stops, he is to count to three, pat down the spray, and then turn around so that the spray will hit his back, making for an even tan.  Ross, always eager to show off his intellectual prowess, he has a PHD after all, repeats the instructions: “spray count pat, turn, spray, count pat.”  His ego pierces the glass of my television screen and the technician rolls his eyes and walks away.  Ross enters the machine and the spraying begins on his front side.  When the spraying stops, he begins to count: “one Mississippi, two missipp…” when the spraying resumes.  He yells, and when the spraying finishes the tech comes into the room.  Ross furiously describes his encounter with the machine.  “no one said anything about Mississippi,” the tech responds.  He prepares to enter the machine again, with similar, hilarious, results.  Ross became bi-racial for the rest of the episode.

What and how we count figures into our lives every day.  We count spare change, we count global change, we count newborn babies and we count the deceased, we count the leaves on the trees and the amount of food that we eat, we count up time leading to a big event and we count down the time until we can be with special people, whom we also count.  This Shabbat marks the 49th day of the Omer, which means that tomorrow at sundown, on day fifty, we will begin our Shavuot celebration.  We’ll pray, study and sing together, and we’ll also have the ever-important cheesecake competition.  We’ll gather together in a recreation of Revelation when God commanded everyone, no matter their stature in the community, to gather at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.  Everyone in the community, from the woodchopper to the water-drawer was counted that day.

As we count down the hours until Shavuout, on this Shabbat we begin reading the book of Numbers, Parashat baMidbar.  In English, we call this book “Numbers” because the entire first portion details the number of people in each tribe.  God commands us to “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.[1]

This verse is so confusing, are we to count the entire community or just the men?  All men or just the ones who would serve in the army?  Do we count the slaves within each tribe?  What about the people who are strangers residing with the Israelites?  While attempting to figure out who exactly God wants us to count, I realized that we ask this same question today, because we sadly have not quite figured out who we should count in our society.

As we celebrate Memorial Day, hang our American flags outside and eat our red, white and blue cupcakes, it is only appropriate to reflect on the counting of people in our country.  When our founding fathers created the constitution and declaration of independence, they wrote a line similar to the commandment in our Torah.  “We hold this truth to be self-evident that all men are created equal.[2]”  All men?  Well, of course women were not counted, and with a further inspection into history we learn that they only counted white men of a certain pedigree who owned land.  As time passed, we evolved as a nation and began to count non-land owning white men, Jews, free people of color, 3/5 of each slave, women, and eventually all people of color.  After 1965 followed by President Obama’s inauguration in 2012 finally, we believed, all people were created equal.

But when we look around, we find that we still live in a segregated society and we still don’t count all people equally.  In the past three decades our country has systematically created tougher penalties for minor non-violent offenses.  Once people are branded a felon our society stops counting them.  We don’t count them in our voting ranks either in jail or on parole, we don’t count them for housing assistants or food stamps, we don’t count them for student financial aid, and we make them check a box on every single form they fill out so that most employers and banks don’t count them as potential job or loan applicants.  We make it incredibly difficult to escape poverty and crime.

It should come as no surprise that even though white people and people of color commit the same types of offences with the same frequency, the majority of people arrested and branded as felons are people of color.  So much so that we have instituted a new form of racial penalization.  Every time someone is profiled and arrested we perpetuate a cycle in which 1 in 3 black men are removed from society and their children are left with single moms and the streets.[3]  For the rest of their lives we stop counting them.

We can change this system.  I’m not suggesting that we allow violent offenses to go without punishment but for non-violent, minor offenses, often small drug possession charges, we don’t need to pay to lock them up and we can instead help them live a better life.  I hope that you’ll join me in an effort to ban the box, part of a campaign through PICO, the national multi-faith community organizing network of which Temple Emanuel is a member through our local affiliate, Together Colorado.  They have a petition on their website asking President Obama to ban the box within the federal employment system.

God commands us to count people and reminds us that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.  On this Shabbat, this Shavuot, and this Memorial Day, we must work harder to count everyone in our society.  Every member of our community, every member of our city, and every member of country.

After his mis-spraying, Ross, as you can imagine, is furious.  He goes back to the apartment, where he attempts to explain things to Monica.  He asks her the same question we ask ourselves, “Well how do you count?”  Learning that no-one counts mississippily, he realizes that he was the one who ultimately made the mistake.  We assume that he will never count mississippily again.  Just like we have evolved Judaism to count all Jews over the age of bar mitzvah in our minyan, whether man or woman, gay or straight, black, white, latino, Asian or other, we can remember to count all people and create a better world.

[1] Numbers 1:2

[2] U.S. Declaration of Independence

[3] 2013 Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/rd_ICCPR%20Race%20and%20Justice%20Shadow%20Report.pdf.  Accessed May 22, 2015

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