Yom Kippur Is About Rejecting the Status Quo — and Vowing to Change It

This Yom Kippur, a sacred refrain is running back and forth through my head: Texas, what the hell?

That’s right Texas, what the hell? In just one day, on September 1, the Texas state legislature all but banned abortions statewide, passed the most restrictive voting laws in the U.S., and allowed Texans to carry handguns openly without a license. And if that were not nearly enough, this past June, Texas’s governor signed a bill limiting the teaching of the New York Times’s “1619 Project” and other content deemed by conservatives to be “critical race theory” in public schools.

Yet, we must also refrain from demonizing Texas as some wholly disconnected outlier. These trends are not at all unique to that state. Indeed Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and South Dakota are currently preparing abortion bills that mimic the Texas legislation. Meanwhile, there are 20 other states besides Texas that allow permitless handgun carrying. And as of August 26, 27 states have introduced bills or have otherwise taken steps to restrict the teaching of what conservatives see as critical race theory.

So, while it might feel satisfying for progressives to pile on Texas, it’s probably more accurate to say that this particular state represents a larger phenomenon that has been part of our national culture for some time. For lack of a better term, let’s call it the rage of the white American man.

White rage is, of course, nothing new, it might be argued that it’s currently entering an era of renewed ferocity. Last month we learned from the Census Bureau that the percentage of white people in the U.S. has actually decreased for the very first time. Since the last report 10 years ago, the overall white population in the U.S. has declined by almost 10 percent. In that same amount of time, the Latinx population grew by 23 percent, the Asian population increased by over 35 percent and the Black population grew by almost 6 percent.

When you consider that the United States was built on a foundation of white supremacy — that is, by white men, for white men — it’s not difficult to grasp the impact of news such as this. While the country’s percentage of white people may be declining, white supremacists surely won’t go away quietly. We know from history that a dying beast can still do a considerable amount of damage on the way down. Indeed, this is precisely what we’re seeing unfold in Texas and around the country: the anger of white supremacist, misogynist Americans who are increasingly galled by what their country is becoming.

And they are galled. They’re galled by the fact that the U.S. actually had a Black president for eight years. They’re galled that there’s a new national reckoning going on over the legacy of slavery and structural racism in our country. They’re galled by the increased national attention being paid to police violence against Black people and by a Black Lives Matter movement that mobilized the largest mass protests in U.S. history last summer. They are galled every time another statue of a Confederate is toppled in a Southern state, as was the case at the Virginia statehouse last week.

And it doesn’t stop there. They’re also galled when women, nonbinary and trans people seek power over their own bodies — and really, whenever they seek more power in general. They’re galled by the rising movement for reproductive justice. They’re galled that there are now a record number of women serving in Congress, including a Palestinian American and a hijab-wearing former refugee from Somalia. They’re galled by the #MeToo movement, which is removing sexually violent men from positions of power. Last November, they were particularly galled when a powerful voting rights organizing effort largely led by Black women helped turn Georgia blue in both the presidential and congressional elections.

Of course, white and misogynist anger over voting rights in this country didn’t begin last year. It surged in 1870, when the 15th Amendment technically gave Black men the right to vote. It surged in 1920, when the 19th Amendment technically gave women the right to vote. And it surged again in 1965, when the Voting Rights Act went into effect. Even as we celebrate these landmark legislative events, we can’t look away from the immense backlash and rage they engendered — and continue to engender — throughout the U.S., which makes it all the more crucial that we keep fighting for real universal enfranchisement. (It’s worth noting that truly universal enfranchisement would also include populations that don’t yet have the vote, such as undocumented people and most people who are incarcerated in prisons.)

As we contemplate how to respond to the events transpiring in Texas and around the country, it’s immensely important for us to understand the historical power of white rage. This phenomenon has been part of U.S. national culture since this country’s founding on stolen land, and the colonial mass murder of Indigenous people. The current brand of self-righteous white rage is reminiscent of the racist backlash that played out during Reconstruction. We shouldn’t be surprised by the current devastating setbacks to public policy; on the contrary, we should expect them.

The staying power of white supremacist anger in this country sometimes reminds me of a certain Biblical trope. Readers of the Hebrew Bible are, of course, familiar with the story of creation in Genesis 1, in which an omnipotent God creates light out of darkness and separates the primordial waters of chaos. It’s a satisfying, deeply aspirational myth that expresses a certain vision of the world as it should be: a neat and tidy process by which the world moves from chaos to greater order and progress.

However, scholars have pointed out that there is another creation story embedded in the Bible, influenced by epic stories from the Ancient Near East that portray a battle between the gods and powerful sea monsters that represent the primordial forces of chaos. Biblical books, such as the Psalms, Job and Isaiah describe God’s battle with a mighty sea monster named Leviathan, among others. Unlike the orderly movement toward progress that we read about in Genesis 1, this other narrative portrays creation as an ongoing and even desperate struggle. And while God generally gets the upper hand, it’s not at all clear in the Bible that the primordial sea monster is ever completely vanquished.

It sometimes occurs to me that our conventional, liberal view of history reflects a “Genesis 1 mindset,” i.e., an orderly movement toward greater progress, proceeding neatly from victory to victory. And while these landmark moments certainly represent political progress, they do not fundamentally change the foundational truth of this country. To put it differently, we too often forget that the sea monster is never fully vanquished. Yes, victories should be celebrated. But even more than that, they must also be protected.

If we were ever sanguine about the threat of white supremacist resentment in this country, we should now have no doubt that it still exists, after the past four years of Trump (which literally culminated in an armed insurrection on the U.S. Capitol). This rage is real and it is mobilizing in truly frightening ways. It’s no coincidence that among the bills passed in Texas earlier this month was legislation loosening restrictions on gun carry laws. Indeed, the dramatic spike in gun ownership and the erosion of gun control measures around the country should make it clear to us that the threat of white nationalism is deadly serious.

So where do we go from here? How do we resist such fierce and unrelenting rage? Perhaps the first step is to remember that white resentment is fueled by fear — and in truth, white supremacists have genuine cause to be fearful. They are afraid because they know full well that there are more of us than there are of them — and our numbers are growing. We should never forget that while fear may be one of their primary motivations, it’s also a sign of their fundamental weakness.

White nationalism is essentially a reactionary movement; that is to say, it has historically reacted to changes that genuinely threaten its power and hegemony in this country. But even though by definition, these reactionaries have been playing defense throughout American history, the liberal response to white supremacy has been to resist the prospect of a strong offense as “too much,” “too radical,” or “too extreme.” White liberals often distance themselves from revolutionary people-of-color-led movements in this way, and those of us who are white must consciously resist this form of distancing, because this phenomenon is itself a form of white supremacy preservation. During the years of the civil rights movement — just as we’re seeing today — many white liberal leaders would publicly criticize movement tactics they felt were too radical or extreme.

This is precisely what Martin Luther King Jr. was addressing when he so memorably wrote from a Birmingham jail, “the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” The Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry put it succinctly in a 1964 speech entitled “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” saying, “We have to find some way to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”

In other words, as long as white supremacy is baked into the very systems that govern our country, we can ill afford to play defense. If anyone has any doubts, consider this: Two months before the census reported the decrease in the white population in this country, the Reflective Democracy Campaign released a report that demonstrated how radically white minority rule pervades politics across the U.S. Despite the recent electoral gains for women and people of color, white men represent 30 percent of the population but 62 percent of state and national officeholders. By contrast, women and people of color constitute 51 percent and 40 percent of the U.S. population respectively, but represent just 31 percent and 13 percent of officeholders.

When the Reflective Democracy Campaign released these findings, its director, Brenda Choresi Carter, put it very well: We have “a political system in general that is not built to include new voices and perspectives. It’s a system built to protect the people and the interests already represented in it. It’s like all systems. It’s built to protect the status quo.”

As I read those words, I can’t help but ask: Isn’t challenging status-quo systems what Yom Kippur is ultimately all about? Every year at this season, those of us who observe this holiday are commanded to take a hard, unflinching look at the status quo, openly admit what needs changing, and commit to the hard work it will take to transform it. It’s an inherently radical concept: to proclaim every year that the status quo is unacceptable and that nothing short of genuine intervention will do. If our Yom Kippur prayers are to mean anything at all, we must be prepared to act upon this radical idea.

Organizers and activists working to intervene in our racist, inequitable systems are already lighting a path toward a transformed world. We must take our cue from them. Because in the end, when we fight for voting rights, reproductive justice, racial justice, economic equity, or any other issue, we’re not only advocating for specific causes that have suffered setbacks — we’re fighting to transform systems that are fundamentally unjust.

So when we sound the shofar with a long blast at the end of Yom Kippur, let’s not only regard it as the conclusion to this season. Let’s consider it a call to action for transformation in the year ahead. And when the inevitable setbacks occur, let us not respond with surprise or dismay; rather, let’s remind each other that setbacks and backlashes are a sign of their fear, not their strength. Let us never forget that there are more of us than there are of them — and if we see fit to summon our strength, we can indeed create the world we know is possible.