Larry Goodman, Ph.D.
Head of School
2020 has been a very jarring year for me. It began with the spread of the coronavirus that grew into a full-blown global pandemic - one we continue to struggle with today. The virus is at once ravaging - having killed more than 880,000 people worldwide already - and beguilingly mild - medical experts estimate that somewhere around 40% of infected people have no symptoms whatsoever. Here in America that has meant that there has been a persistent difference of opinion as to whether we should protect ourselves from the serious and deadly potential of the virus - or go on with our lives without much fanfare since the consequences for the vast majority of people are mild at worse. And as we Americans love to do, we politicized this difference of opinion. So in addition to not really KNOWING what to do, we added the pressure of political rhetoric to shame the people doing the “wrong” thing.
Fortunately, the coronavirus is a biological phenomenon and so science has, over time, helped us to know how to behave and what to think. While the political nonsense continues, rational people know that we should wear masks when indoors, maintain 6 feet distance between us, etc. I was very confused about what to do in March and April - but every month since then I have felt less “at sea” about what to do. While I am aware that we are sailing through “uncharted waters” by remaining open during a pandemic, I feel like science has given me a compass of sorts - a way of knowing what is true, what is not true, and what remains unknown at the moment.
If COVID-19 were the only jarring event in 2020, I suppose I would be giving a very different talk today. But a few months after we had to close school and shift to remote learning, a second event shook America. On May 29th, the police in Minneapolis murdered a black man named George Floyd. This was by no means the first time such a tragedy had occurred - a black person being killed by the police. It hadn’t even occurred that long after another black person, Breonna Taylor, was killed by the police in Louisville, Kentucky. In fact, it was really only the most recent instance of such tragedy in a long and ugly line of black people suffering from - perhaps even dying from - police brutality.
But for a variety of reasons, George Floyd’s murder behaved like a fuse to a bomb. And after that fuse was lit, the outrage, sadness, anger, frustration, and disillusionment of an entire nation exploded. The Black Lives Matter movement, which began as a hashtag following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, sprang to the forefront of the American Consciousness, as millions of Americans rallied together to insist that this trail of abuse and death had to end. In our Student Union you will see a display students put up in the name of just a few of the victims of police abuse.
And, as your Physics teacher will tell you, every action gives rise to a reaction. As one large part of America was rallying around the Black Lives Matter movement, which certainly placed blame for the abuse and deaths on America’s system of policing and on police officers and police departments, another part of America rallied around those very police officers and departments and the system of policing. You may hear people supporting this point of view countering the Black Lives Matter movement with the phrase “Blue Lives Matter” (blue being the color most closely associated with police uniforms). Still others choose the rejoinder, “All Lives Matter.”
The problem with both of these responses to Black Lives Matter is that they seem to be motivated by a misunderstanding of the message. The phrase is “Black Lives Matter” - NOT “Only Black Lives Matter.” Black people comprise roughly 13% of the population in the USA and about 12% of the police force. And so All Lives and Blue Lives can’t matter UNLESS Black Lives (also) matter. The Black Lives Matter movement is not saying “Black Lives Matter more” - it is, instead, a reaction to centuries of Black Lives NOT mattering as much as White Lives. Much as we may not want to acknowledge that fact, even the most basic history of America certainly shows that Black Lives have not mattered as much as White Lives. Hundreds of years of enslaving black people, followed by decades of outright efforts to deny Black People equal rights, which not surprisingly led to racially unfair practices in large institutions like banking, education, and employment, have ensured that Black Lives mattered less than White Lives. Trust me, I am not saying anything that is debatable in any way shape or form.
But that is what is most jarring. After George Floyd’s death and the ensuing months of protesting, no rational person can make the case that Black people have been treated fairly in the United States overall.
Unfortunately, whereas science has provided a compass of sorts for helping us figure out how to contend with COVID-19, there is no such compass here. Once we acknowledge this fact - that Black Lives have not mattered as much and that we have to change that immediately and ensure that our society considers Black Lives to matter as much as White Lives - what is the correct course of action? We can’t simply say “do over,” and decide to live a life in which Black Lives matter as much as White Lives - there has been too much damage to simply start over. If I were to get caught lying to my parents, repeatedly, I expect that their expectation of my future actions would be tainted by my past actions. I know that I would need to earn their trust back. What’s more, if I had become accustomed to lying to them to get what I want, I might also find it is difficult to change my ways - when I get caught in a sticky situation, I would probably be tempted to lie again. Learning to tell the truth may well be more difficult than simply saying I will tell the truth from now on.
And that is where we find ourselves as a society today in America. For hundreds of years Black Lives have mattered less. We know that is wrong. Some are trying to simply deny accountability by saying that others have done this and so only they are responsible. But because the ways American society has treated Black people for so long has become “baked into” our systems of power - like the police departments - this point of view does little more than ensure that Black Lives will continue to matter less.
Well, then, what IS the correct response? I wish I could answer that question. I cannot. With the coronavirus, I have found science has given me a dependable partner for knowing how to act. But with respect to the embedded racism that I know has infected our society, I have not yet found that reliable partner. As a white man in a position of power, I know that I have a responsibility for figuring this out. I know that this is an inflection point - a point at which things must change - and I must be part of that change. But what does that mean? What does that look like?
I was born in 1965 and grew up during an era in which it seemed - to white America - that race relations were improving. I was convinced - as so many of my white peers were - that there was a straight line from Rosa Parks, a black woman, refusing to give up her seat to a white man in 1955, thereby igniting a powerful wave of Civil Rights advocacy, to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. harnessing that wave to declare that all people must be treated equally in the 1960’s, which played a large role in getting the government to establish the Civil Rights Act in 1964, to the election of a black man, Barack Obama, to two terms as president, from 2008 - 2016. I knew - and know - that America is flawed. But I believed that we were making steady progress toward a society in which Black Lives mattered as much as White Lives.
But the tumultuous protesting following George Floyd’s murder and the recounting of all of the ways in which Black Lives continue to matter less in America TODAY has compelled me to see that I was wrong. There may be fewer instances of blatant person-to-person racism (though some would disagree even with that statement), but the ways that racism has become embedded in our systems of power has ensured that Black Lives continue to matter less.
As I said earlier - I am very uncertain about what this means for me, personally. But another term that we are hearing more and more about - “anti-racism” - is helping me start to find my way. I recently watched a short video that explains this anti-racism in a simple and straightforward manner:
Over the summer I wrote to the AOA community and pledged to make it one of our top goals for AOA to work toward becoming an anti-racist school. I know this will be difficult. I realize that this will require a great deal of hard work by everyone in the AOA community. And I accept that the road will be bumpy. No doubt I will make mistakes along the way, as will everyone else. But I do not believe that we have any choice. Until Black Lives matter just as much as White Lives, we can’t truthfully say “All Lives Matter.” And that is the goal - to behave in such a way that we get to the point where we can truthfully say “All Lives Matter.”
I believe Black Lives matter because I believe All Lives Matter. But - and this is crucial - I now recognize that in America Black Lives are not valued as highly as White Lives. I DO believe that many, many people are with me in aspiring to a world in which All Lives Matter - but we have a lot of work to do before we get there.