By Jean Hastings Ardell
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, like many Americans I took a deeper look at the racism that plagues our country. Watching the demonstrations on TV, I found it inspiring that so many young white and Latinx were marching and that they were showing up not only at the usual local sites, like Main Beach in Laguna, but also in such centers of comfortable privilege like Corona del Mar and Fashion Island. The multitude of hand-lettered signs supporting Black Lives Matter was part of the story, and I researched the organization’s website. Their mission statement begins, “To eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes” and affirms such values as inclusion, empathy, and humanity. I grew up a skinny little kid of Anglo-Saxon heritage in New York City, in a home where prejudice was not tolerated. Traveling all around town via the subway system, I saw New York’s vast diversity and came to believe that it was normal and good. I now found nothing in BLM’s stated mission to disagree with.
On July 9, I joined a Zoom debate entitled: “Resolved: America should embrace radical systemic change to address racism.” The event was hosted by Braver Angels, a national bi-partisan organization—the board is 50% Republican and 50% Democrat—founded in 2016 to foster the endangered idea of civil discourse. The great thing about Braver Angels is that all sides have a voice in the discussion—and no yelling or swearing at each other. How refreshing is that? The debate attracted more than 700 listeners from all over the country, who were divided into four concurrent sessions. The speakers included a white man retired from the FBI, a Black businessman who was the 15th of 17th children, and several pastors, Black and white. One pro in favor of the resolution pointed out that 401 years was far too long a time to define the current call for change as “radical.” Good point. One con speaker agreed racism existed but argued that we must do no harm by rushed changes that could result in unanticipated consequences. Good point. And so it went, back and forth, with civility.
During the Q&A a woman warned that BLM was “Marxist.” However, a quick Google of their charter revealed no such reference. When challenged the woman said there were people in BLM who are Marxists. Perhaps she meant the organization’s co-founder Patrisse Cullers, who along with co-founder Alicia Garza, has been reported in right-wing media as “trained Marxists.” I was unable to confirm the accuracy of the quote, nor did Cullers respond to my request for an interview. But the comment reminded me of the Civil Rights Era, when J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI considered Martin Luther King a radical and investigated him for possible communist ties. Why? King was using non-violent demonstrations in the cause of alleviating poverty and racial injustice. Hardly radical.
Besides, let’s remember that BLM, like all political organizations, is made up of people of varying persuasions, including this white, former Republican grandmother. Are there Marxists within BLM? Are there white supremacists within the Republican Party? In our country, everyone gets to have a voice. Don’t make the mistake of discounting BLM as a Marxist plot to destroy American ideals. It grew out of the despair at the killing of an unarmed 17-year-old Black named Trayvon Martin. But if you resist consorting with possible Marxists, consider that Black lives matter — lower case “l,” lower case “m.” I don’t find that arguable. Yet a common rejoinder to the movement is often, “All lives matter.” The historic truth is that Black lives haven’t mattered nearly so much as white lives have. That dates back to 1619, when the first Africans were brought to the New World as free labor. Four centuries would seem a sufficient amount of time to level the field so that all lives matter equally, but our vaunted democracy has failed to do that time and again.
I believe that systemic racism is a national issue, but it plays out locally. Here in our beach town, let each of us learn to listen to one another with respect, whether our politics are left, center, or right. Braver Angels is a rare means to this end – check it out at braverangels.com. Meanwhile I’ve taken to wearing a Black Lives Matter wristband—a small gesture, sure; but if it gives even one Black person encouragement that they’re not alone in this then maybe it counts for something: Solidarity in the pursuit of a better life for Black Americans.
Jean works as a writer, editor, and teacher in Laguna Beach.