by George Stern

It’s not easy to say, “I was wrong.” It’s so much simpler to pretend that everything’s OK, to make excuses (“I really meant…”), to blame others (“he misled me…”), or even to double-down on one’s opinions citing new “evidence.” Needless to say, I’ve been guilty of all those avoidance tactics. But for me, the horrific death of George Floyd, coming on the heels of so many other deaths of Black men and women, is a time of reckoning: I was wrong about Black Lives Matter (BLM).

I was once among those who said that, while agreeing that black lives matter, it was better to say, “All Lives Matter.” Of course, it was always clear to me that singling out black lives did not mean that other lives didn’t matter. Still, “Why create divisions,” I thought, “when what we need is a concerted effort to work together to fix social ills?”

How wrong I was! “Black Lives Matter” started as a hashtag, and even today it is decentralized and grassroots, a network or collective, not a centralized organization—a prime example of new organizing tactics in this technological social media age. Its message all along has been disarmingly simple, yet profound: that as a nation we have utterly failed the black community by treating it as if black lives did not matter—and that must stop.

Who has failed? Police, politicians of all parties, and, yes, the vast majority of the rest of us. We have consciously or unconsciously denied the profound and ongoing pain endured by black Americans. Their odyssey to these shores began as slaves. And when slavery ended, we quickly sabotaged Reconstruction and resorted to one form of betrayal and oppression after another: Jim Crow; segregation, ghettoization, and the concentration of pollution in and around their neighborhoods; unequal education; voter suppression; inadequate health care, and more—all the result of laws passed by politicians whom we’ve repeatedly re-elected.

The very fact that we are surprised at the diversity among today’s persistent protestors and their ubiquitous presence in cities, towns, and rural communities is proof of how long whites have ignored, and therefore reinforced, the plight of 13.4% of our population (42% in Philadelphia). I now understand that my discomfort with “Black Lives Matter” was a part of America’s historical amnesia and national denial. As BLM has always claimed: “Black Lives Matter” is not a denial of the rights of non-blacks; rather it is an insistent cry that it’s way past time for America to acknowledge the sin of racism and stop acting as if black lives don’t matter.

Cancer neglected or undetected often metastasizes, becoming extremely difficult to treat successfully. So too our society’s willful neglect of racism.

The results of that neglect are staggering: the median income for black households is a little less than 60% of that of white households; the median net worth of black households is 1/10 that of white households; in 2018, the poverty rate for blacks was 20.8%, compared to 8.1% for non-Hispanic whites; right before COVID, unemployment rates stood at 3.1% for whites and a near record low  (but still high compared to whites) of 5.8% for blacks; in 2016, 8% of whites and 15% of blacks 25 years and older had not graduated from high school; 5.4% of white Americans lack health insurance, compared to 9.7% of blacks; black people make up 13% of the U.S. population, but 23% of COVID deaths.

Demands that statues of Confederate generals—pro-slavery traitors who took up arms against the Union—be taken down ought not surprise us. The same with the names of military bases. All the more so the statues of Confederates at the Capitol. I first saw them only a few years ago—and failed to bat an eye. As these statues—most erected decades after the Civil War—demonstrate, by the early 20th century, the South was rewriting U.S. history, aided and abetted by Washington politicos north and south who had much to gain by suppressing black progress.

I know it’s hard even to imagine where to go from here, especially since we cannot depend at all upon the federal government to lead us out of our current quagmire. For me, simply realizing how wrong I was about Black Lives Matter has been an enormous, though all too belated, first step.

Another post-George Floyd action I have embarked upon is to reach out to my black neighbors—people with whom I am friendly but admittedly not intimate—to if they are willing to talk about how they are feeling and how I might support them.

Decades ago, I became a lifetime member of the NAACP. I intend to support their new “We Are Done Dying” initiative.

I’ve also come to admire greatly Rev. William Barber II, whose Moral Mondays in North Carolina have morphed into a national Poor People’s Campaign. Reminiscent of Rev. Martin Luther King’s vision of a Beloved Community, the Campaign lays out policies that would end at last the “interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.” That too I will support in every way I can.

In November we will face what is undoubtedly the most important national election of my lifetime, the results of which will define who we really are. I will do all I can to ensure that every American can vote and that people who represent the 99% get elected to office across Pennsylvania and the nation. 

Would it not be wonderful—and true poetic justice—if the death of George Floyd turned out to be the catalyst that finally moved America to live according to the ideals that we’ve been proclaiming for almost 250 years? I’d be thrilled to live in a country that guaranteed all of its citizens a good education, fair wages and meaningful jobs, comprehensive health care, and a safe environment in which to live and raise a family. What a way to prove we mean it when we say “Black Lives Matter”—as does every other life.    

George Stern is an ordained rabbi, Mt. Airy resident and was for many years the Executive Director of Neighborhood Interfaith Movement.

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