Prolonged Gaze: Homeless Homes (A Photo Essay)

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A Crash Course in Aikido: Living a Healthy, Memorable Life with Martial Arts

Most of us don’t start thinking about health and longevity until an unexpected death occurs. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for bad news to make changes. The challenge for most of us is to balance lifestyle, diet and family history with physical ability. A great way to take care of the externals is to join a martial-arts school. It’s easier than you think, and with rewards like new friends and mental and physical agility, Aikido may be perfect for you.

There are some unique benefits to joining a dojo like Aikido SF. Aikido is a good way to reclaim health and flexibility, replenishing stamina and energy for doing things with the people who matter. Training with a robust group of children, adolescents and adults at all levels of Aikido provides community and emotional connection. Plus, most people place a high value on staying independent in their advanced years, when it will really count. Maintaining physical and mental plasticity are important ways to promote long-term resilience.

While you may think it’s impossible to train in martial arts after a certain age, it’s really not the case with some non-competitive forms, such as Aikido. And apart from the benefits of increased physical prowess, evidence that intellectual capacity, social intelligence and positive personality traits are boosted by an athletic lifestyle is mounting. The martial-arts community emphasizes community work, civic engagement, respect, participation, health and meditation as part of the practice.

Opportunities to learn in a dojo vary greatly. An example is the annual Aikido SF Seminar, where I watched skilled teachers and students from SF Bay Area train for a half day. There’s a lot to be gained from the venerable tradition of observation, disciplining the mind to understand physical principles, then applying those skills later.

Need more incentive? There’s ample evidence correlating a lack of exercise and poor diet to increased incidences of early onset dementia like Alzheimer’s. That’s evidence I’m not willing to ignore. Most of us want to call our spouses, friends and grandchildren by name. When the consequences of a sedentary life means risking the loss of precious memories, the idea of Aikido training gets even sweeter. After all, a sharp mind is critical to longevity. And, Aikido’s non-competitive discipline is a great habit to cultivate.

With huge gains to garner, like optimal brain functioning and a smaller waistline, Aikido is a big winner. Add caring instructors and supportive peers, and it’s clear that anyone can learn to take better care of her body in a nurturing environment, where physical and mental training are important aspects of good health. Of course, you don’t need to study martial arts to improve your health A small commitment to walk just 15 minutes a day could turn the tide enough to impact the rest of your life. Do it for you. Do it for your family.

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The Color of Fear: Friends (Diversity Series, Part II)

When friends come over for dinner, does everyone look like you? In an exploration of what it means to make room at the table, I recall the years in the late 90s when one of the most popular shows on television was Friends. From 1994-2004, as many of my coworkers rushed home to see Friends, I had to give the popular program a pass, wondering why none of the pals on Friends looked like me. I was never invited to the party. I didn’t find that not-so-subtle notion amusing. There’s nothing funny about exclusion. My circle of friends didn’t look like the cast, and I wanted more than tunnel vision from my entertainment. Fast-forward a decade and the country is contorted with the searing pain of misunderstanding, mistrust and fear. This shows me the real, everyday value of diversity. If we pick our friends, then the friends we pick matter.

Fifty years after Jim Crow officially and legally ended, there is widespread discomfort and stereotypes about people with dark and non-European phenotypes. It’s possibly a self-perpetuating cycle, wherein racism, discrimination and injustice against people leads to a deep fear of retaliation of the same brutal isolation, disenfranchisement and alienation. It’s still common to hear good people claim color-blindness, a banal lie that undermines honest communication. The commonly held theory is that by the age of 3 or 4, children can already discern racial and ethnic differences. Well, honestly, I can see why some folks continue to rely upon the failed trope of “colorblindness”: The truth requires an awareness regarding individual power, position and the ability to communicate. Only by relinquishing the myth of colorblindness can we breathe new life into our extraordinary society.

The first step is to embrace the nuances of the complex collective history of our dear nation.

Let me say that this is not academic. People are community-minded creatures. We literally need each other to survive and thrive. True, there are the odd cases of those who go it alone, but most of us are looking for our clan—it’s why people easily gravitate to people who look like them. Here’s the challenge. A clan need not solely be based on skin color, socioeconomic class or religion. In a sense, there is a false sense of safety there, when in reality, those groupings merely ensure a baseline of respect. There is the expectation that everyone in that group knows how to behave and can read the covert social cues, allowing them to understand implicit rules that outsiders may miss. But those rules shouldn’t be enough for one group to relegate another group to the margins of acceptability as if they were numbers in some neat binary system.

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Moving toward the middle requires opening to not knowing. Shifting our perspectives into curiosity mode may be the very salvation our society needs.

The answer to some of woes is to make diversity a priority. Visible, discernable differences are part of the natural world. The human species’ varied spectrum of shapes, hues and sizes are spread thinly over virtually identical biological matter, with only small variations of genetic coding to give us our unique external appearance. We are all mammals, capable of sophisticated language and superior intelligence; it’s up to us to end the artifices of separation.

If you want to make a difference, start by acknowledging the realities of whatever is in front of you. Instead of holding on to prefabricated fantasies about people, ask questions. Make a new friend. See the beauty in someone, anyone, who isn’t just like you. So maybe a little discomfort is required, a little awkwardness and just enough vulnerability to invite humility and authenticity, but not so much as to create anxiety. From this opening there can be a dialogue, the invitation to not know and to welcome the time investment needed for the knowledge and friendship to grow. Be willing to possibly feel a little silly to get to know a colleague. Ask about hobbies and favorite foods, and listen. Start small and build on the currency of your good will. Empathy and connection bring people together in friendship. We can solve the crisis of fear by laughing or crying together. Firing off mirror neurons in the company of new acquaintances will humanize both parties. Take the risk. You could just find yourself with a whole new group of friends.

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Belonging and Its Twin Welcome! Diversity Series: Part 1

 

The nation is once again focused on the topic of diversity, specifically inclusion and its counterpart, exclusion. Political rhetoric is high, as imaginary lines are drawn between people of different ethnic groups with solutions to class and socioeconomic problems being reduced to ejecting immigrants to their nations of origin. After some two million deportations, this doesn’t seem to be the fix. And in more stable quarters, Chris Rock has criticized the Academy of Motion Pictures for its pervasive “color blindness,” which translates to excluding anyone with visible skin pigmentation from the possible list of award recipients. Naming the issue is secondary to impact when we account for the people who suffer from the practices of separation.

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Cultivating an atmosphere of spaciousness in our society is vital. America is nothing without its broad spectrum of people. This spaciousness is as necessary in our personal lives as it is in our places of work and government. Close relationships are good for us, and so is a general proximity to people who are not exactly like us. It’s why we read books and educate ourselves: We understand ourselves, and each other, better when we use a wide lens to take in the human experience.

 

There is also the fact that we need physical and emotional support and comfort to thrive. We are meant for one another. I’m no expert here. In truth, retreat comes easy to me, especially when things get complicated. It is my go-to when avoiding and preempting rejection. How do I stay close in the midst of discomfort? It’s hard work. Yet, connection and community, belonging and acceptance are deeply important to all people. A baby must be held and given physical nurturance in order to survive and grow. As adults, we continue to need those things as well. Even proper brain development is contingent upon the quality of relationships. According to Robert Waldinger, a researcher in the longest ever study on happiness, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” (Learn more about the Harvard study here: http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness?utm_campaign=ios-share&utm_medium=social&source=email&utm_source=email%23t-52952) Even without a doctor and a study to say so, it holds true.

 

Love and connection are universal driving forces, motivating people to do almost anything to feel a part of some larger community. Gangs often capitalize on the deep yearning of desperate people, bringing out the worst aspects of human character as they work to forge bonds at a high cost to individuals and society. In contrast, feelings of belonging can lead to joy, nourishment, and overall good health. Acceptance, love and the ensuing elevated self-esteem release agents into the body that heal and revitalize the physical and spiritual self, reducing pain and distress and activating the body’s natural mood-lifting chemicals. Belonging is the essential and vital source of wellness that promotes authentic happiness, which benefits people in all spheres of life and reverberates to all who are fortunate enough to come into contact with these human resources.

 

One way I have found of maintaining impactful connection is opening my home. I have really come to appreciate hospitality more and more. An invitation is an opening for compassion and time together. In an age when emails, Facebook and text messages form large portions of private and work times, where social-media sites dominate in the arena of communication, sitting together at the table is balm for the soul. As humans, we need intimacy, which cannot be replicated via electronic mediums though arguably Skype and FaceTime platforms do seem to offer at least visual reinforcement for times when the distance is too great to easily surmount.

 

The question of when we reach for each other is also important. I’m reminded of an African proverb that counsels, “Build your well before you’re thirsty.” Contemplating this adage, the message yields its lesson. It is very hard to build something sound in a short period of time while under duress. Great need heaped onto a weak support will not hold. We cannot wait until we are in crisis to make a friend. Like a garden, the seeds must be sown well in advance of the harvest.

 

This metaphorical thirst can be translated into a literal earthquake or other emergency, or a death or a loss of position, such as a job change or breakup. When these events happen, and somehow no human being of any color or financial status can escape such pain, people need someone solid to count on and turn toward. This is the power of proximity. If you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by family in the town where your previous generations have grown intertwined, then the turning toward one another may be easier. However, if like many urban dwellers, you come from afar, and your roots yet skim the surface of the earth, you will need your neighbor. I remember when all the phone lines into New York City were down after 9/11 and I could not reach my family members for many days. I sat in the university with my peers. We were all crying and reacting to the events, staying close to each other though we were strangers. Whether or not we had family in New York did not matter. We held on to each other like survivors in a raft.

 

There has to be balance in inclusion; we can’t always reside in the inner circle, nor can anyone dwell in the outer circle for extended periods without suffering. Lack of connection creates great vulnerability. This includes a common form of relational aggression: exclusion. Like all forms of violence, aggression stems from a deep fear of insufficiency. Competition is sparked as people engage in toxic struggles for power or resources or, sadly, love. Equally dangerous whether consciously enacted and recognized or not, such competition has no real value in human society. In the animal kingdom these struggles serve as a means of assuring access to the gene pool by establishing dominance and hierarchy of mating rights. In both realms, the results of aggression on the victim are always the same: a shorter life span, poor health and isolation. Human or not, the impact is measurable; the costs, high.

 

We have to create the spaciousness in our lives for all the members of the community to feel a part of the whole—this is the belonging that people long for. In the human world we inhabit, we permit the exclusion of enormous groups of people for all sorts of carefully justified reasons, even as we see that people are willing to die and kill to belong. So how does this situation get ameliorated? One heart, one mind, one person at a time we look for ways to make room, to invite, to welcome.

 

There’s hope in awareness. There are things we can do to improve life on earth. We get to share our time, our food and our energy; we get to be in community through service and activities. This is our joy and beautiful fellowship gift. We have each other—belong to one another—in a profound way, the longing in us reconciled with sharing the cycles of life as we witness one another. The physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment is complete in the act of companionship, sitting through the difficult and the beautiful, alike. A culture shift needs to happen in our society, where too many people are made to feel as if there’s simple not enough room for them. At home, it may mean taking time to listen—even family members get caught up in roles and stop being present, stop inviting, stop welcoming. In the office, fear manages the hiring process. In the movie industry, it’s stereotyping. There’s always a reason why someone is excluded.

 

At times I have resisted welcoming and belonging, my own receptivity challenged by feeling disconnected and unworthy. That’s work that needs to be done in community as well. In reality, we all need to belong; we all need to feel welcome. We need those affirmations repeated throughout our lives, because belonging never gets old.

 

Gratitude: A New Year’s Resolution

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This year I’ve not made any New Year’s resolutions, something that in the past had often marked the metaphorical turning point in my life, the cyclical chance to begin anew with the start of the calendar year. Even without a resolution, however, I still inhaled deeply in 2016, all too ready for a change and excited to feel a cool bit of crisp newness, a turning away from the past. I haven’t planned to go to the gym or dance or go to church more though those things sound nice. As I thought about ways to say goodbye to a most difficult year, one that included unemployment, health issues, a foot in a cast and the death of my beloved, estranged sister, resolutions seemed trivial. I didn’t want to make myself any promises that I wouldn’t keep. I didn’t want to waste time consumed with myself. What I wanted most was relationship. I wanted to face the portal of time represented in the New Year with love, with the practice of gratitude, to attempt to really see who and what is right in front of me and the blessings offered.

 

I am grateful for my nephew’s first unguarded smile as he leans into me for a picture beneath the Redwoods. Thank you.

 

I feel gratitude over the rain thickly blanketing my garden and the earth after these long many years of drought. Thank you.

 

I close my eyes and hear my niece’s robust laughter and the way she clings to me at bedtime, not wanting to close out a day of sharing. Thank you.

 

I am grateful for my steadfast companion who stands by me through the sadness and joy that life heaps upon us in blizzards as seamless as the seasons. Thank you.

 

I give thanks for the meditation and prayer practices that rebalance me daily. Thank you.

 

And then there is also the open heart and keen intellect to be counted as bounties in times of fleeting health. Thank you.

 

This list goes on and on, counting each friend, naming the lessons and seeing even the tiniest of gifts in difficult situations and the transcendent ones alike.

 

To whom do I give thanks, this contemplative gratitude? Often it is to God in a soft acknowledgement to the sky where a Red-tailed hawk circles above our home surveying her territory. At other times, more directly aware of the richness of my life, I thank people. I thank the children for playing with me. I thank my friends for a visit. I send thank-you notes in acknowledgement of any gifts or small kindnesses. This practice is transformative. Thanking God is a wordless endeavor of the heart; in our hearts words are elegant braille in God’s hands. With people, we have to put the words together. We need to hear it to feel it and match the words with the deeds and awaken to present moment and each other.

 

Gratitude requires skill, practice and technique. When done correctly, our loved ones can feel heard, seen and appreciated. Use her name when you say, “I’m so glad you’re here, Lissa.” Make sure you look him in the eyes when you, “I really liked how you said that, Max.”

 

We all need to feel valued. Showing gratitude is one small but important way to esteem the people who bring us happiness. When we recognize and honor the sources of our blessings, we invite more. That is why in the mornings I greet the birds or the rain with the same enthusiasm as I do loved ones. This is our time. Make it special by appreciating the people all around. Don’t wait. Speak from your heart today.

 

Thank you.

Allies for a New Generation of Conscience

This semester I’ve been taking the time to listen to my students’ stories, the ones they never tell. I’ve been asking them what they’re afraid of and what’s on their minds. And they have started to tell me, because I’m listening. One thing is clear: They’re hurting. They’re burying their friends at alarming rates. They’re terrified that their cars will break down in the wrong neighborhood or that they’ll be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the police are looking for a criminal and they’ll do just fine. They worry their fathers and mothers will be deported. They’re afraid their brothers will not come home and that a teacher will suspend their six-year-old brown child for biting or having a tantrum. They’re scared of being homeless because of the predatory housing situation in San Francisco. Each day they’re bleeding resources, looking for jobs that will allow them to live and care for their families and not merely survive moment to moment.

 

For the past eight years now I’ve been teaching young adults, and this year, something different is shining through the cracks in the veneer youth wear when confronting the scary new places in their lives—into the college and the world it represents. They are paying attention with their hearts to the pulse of these times, and they are answering with conviction, demanding to be heard and seen—demanding the right to live. The galvanizing force of injustice, personalized, is a powerful motivator. Reminiscent of the disenfranchised population of eligible Southern voters demanding their right to register and cast ballots a half century ago, young people are moving again in this country.

 

Once more, deep, prolonged and repeated psychological trauma, sustained within families has erupted into undeniable discomfort. They’re acting up and speaking out, entering the political debate from the margins, uninvited. They will not go quietly. They risk everything, their civil disobedience punishable by death by bombs in the night and bullets in daylight. Dr. Martin Luther King was asked to go quietly and wait for the right time and place to speak, not to make noise and not to agitate and draw attention to the suffering of millions of anonymous people. The time, it seems, is never right. History has repeatedly shown us how our collective silence only makes the oppressor’s work easier. Reflecting on the Jewish Holocaust, I imagine how many well-intentioned Germans sat silently in their living rooms, while their neighbors were hauled away by the train-full to concentration camps.

 

As we grapple with the notion of civic responsibility, who do we become? Our silences are no longer convenient, because if we remain mute and when we absent ourselves from compassionate witnessing, we heap the burden of the work on the youth, who both ready and willing to perform the tasks of resistance, suffer the consequences alone. They need allies in their struggle, voices of support, our intention to be present and defend, the collective memory and wisdom of years to push through the entanglement of business-as-usual. Dr. King was convinced “that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” To me those values must shift to include all the human beings within our borders, whose lives and presence make up of the tapestry of a loving society. People must come first.

 

In August, when Bernie Sanders was interrupted by young activists—ordinary and plain young women with brown skin, the children of the Black Lives Matter revolution, on fire with indignity, the public’s response was familiar if disappointing. Why were people outraged when they interrupted the status quo with their fiery hearts, conjuring up wet streets, soaked with the blood of their brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, their palpable rage appropriately directed to a society blindly looking away from unspeakable violence doled out lavishly in their communities? As the comfortable and affluent sit shaking their heads at their audacity, these girls have shown up on their TV sets, ordained as themselves, speaking for the nameless and voiceless masses, resisting the irresistible urge to comply, to behave and be silent—that age-old mantra girls are still taught to adhere to all their lives—putting their lives on the line while we ask them to sit passively, ask them to be more appropriate, to wait.

 

I’m reminded of the infamous letter written to Dr. King by eight clergymen and printed in the newspaper asking King and the entire African-American community to wait for justice and to which he famously responded with his letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s obvious that those young women are walking in the footsteps of the greats, using their very bodies as the front line of change as their predecessors Fanny Lou Hamer, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Lucy Burns, Cesar Chavez.

 

History seems to have weighed in on Dr. King’s side. Too many of us are all too ready to cry at cartoons depicting the loss of childhood of innocence, only to turn a blind eye to the real pain of people living under the daily strain of grief and oppression. We have to learn to feel the same pain in our guts when people are hurting, regardless of the color of their skin. People of color have become refugees of compassion in this country, ignored by ordinary citizens and pushed up against the corrugated steel borders by politicians.

 

Everything that can be lost to this generation, has already been lost to them: education is compromised; ministered by a jaded justice, prisons swell with their ranks; lynching has all but supplanted policing; people of color are relegated to vast food deserts, where fresh vegetables do not exist. And through it all we ask young people not to riot, not to act up, to wait patiently for jobs, housing, respect, the right to walk down the street alone at night with a hoodie on or to blast a stereo in their own cars. We have grown intolerant of ordinary youth when it is wrapped in hues not labeled “white”. We move these young people into the category of other, while we demand equal opportunity, but we mean only that room should be made at the table for white women to join white men in positions of leadership and power. We continue to delay the imperatives of diversity and plurality in the workplace, school, college and government, moving them down on the agenda when a woman is named CEO of a tech firm. We define this ‘progress,’ even while infant-mortality and unemployment rates for Black and Latino/a families surpass their white counterparts at shocking rates for an industrialized superpower nation such as ours.

 

The question is, how do we support the young people in our communities and encourage them in their uncharted courses toward justice? To start, we must step into the awkward spaces with a voice of dissent, displacing our indifference in the process, and embracing the notion that our lives are intertwined, for better or worse, so we ought to try for the best-possible scenario. It is of vital importance to shield young people from random bullets and comfort the parents of children slaughtered on the way home. We have to place a new bounty on their heads, one that reads “Wanted Alive.” But first, we have to hear what they’re saying. We have to listen. We have to soften our hearts when we see their suffering explode during a political debate, just as we’re willing to tolerate the demeaning and inappropriate presidential candidate who is constantly given the right to speak even as he has earned our censure.

 

The recent political unrest and mass unease around the world has led to both organized and disorganized resistance, protest and strife. The waves of this emotional and psychic upheaval have swept the globe from the Middle East to Europe and Asia. Even the 99% movement has taken us by storm. People are no longer content with their lots in life. The status quo has become passé. The trend has not stopped at our carefully guarded borders, nor has it missed its target in the hearts and minds of Americans, particularly young people, who continue to connect with their own causes and bring them to the attention of the nation. We are called to stand with them, however we are able, as they struggle to create a brave new world.

 

Devastated by my students’ stories, I listen all the same. I’m learning to ask how I can be of service, but I offer something specific: A book, a cup of coffee, a hug or my undivided attention. I acknowledge their pain with a touch and my own regret. I offer condolences and let the heavy words land where they will. I mentor, feed and look at each one. I insist they tell it again and write it down. I share my own story, jagged edges and all. I congratulate them for showing up in distress, broke and physically broken, hungry and grieving. Sometimes, I’m struck dumb with listening-heart pain, but I don’t turn away. They need to know their pain is real and that their lives really matter.

 

Why Should Black Lives Matter? by Ed Stewart

On my way home after church a few weeks ago, I stopped for a snack at the Arizmendi Bakery on Valencia Street in San Francisco. Behind the counter is a small chalkboard that usually displays a handwritten inspirational message, usually aligned with the progressive, left-leaning nature of the Mission District neighborhood. That day the message was: Black Lives Matter. And as an African American, I had to concur. Only a couple of weeks earlier, the nation had been confronted with a video showing the killing of an unarmed African American male who was shot in the back by a police officer in South Carolina, just the latest in the string of incidents that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But others seemed perplexed by the message, to put it kindly. Specifically, two men standing in line behind me were engaged in the following conversation:

– Why should Black lives matter? I mean, of course they do, but why more than anyone else’s?
– I think all lives matter.
– You’re right! I think the sign should say ‘All Lives Matter.’
– Yeah, that’s what I would have said.

I discreetly turned around, pretending to look at the various baked goods on display beside me, but really seeking to find out just who could have been so oblivious to the context behind a phrase that has become its own Twitter hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter.

Behind me stood two young men, both White, in their late 20’s or early 30’s and dressed in hipster fashion (although only one sported the requisite amount of facial hair). In other words, these were exactly the sort of people one might expect to find standing in line for pricy pastries on a sunny afternoon in the Mission.

“A-ha,” I thought, “you’re the target demographic. And as for me, well…I’m just the target.”

I wanted to say something to them, to explain why their words troubled me. But what could I say? After all, I agreed with their assertion that “all lives matter” – and as a Christian, how could I not? Yet at the same time I was angered by the apparent ease with which they could disregard the silenced voices of those who tell us that #BlackLives MatterLess:

Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Walter Scott.

While you may not recognize all of these names (and there are others I could add to the list), chances are at least one will cause you to pause and remember a headline, a video clip, a scene from a protest march in Oakland or elsewhere. But that day at the bakery, I knew that those names resonate with me for reasons that I feel intensely. Yet I couldn’t find the words to articulate my frustration to those two young men who had the luxury of insisting that all lives matter equally. Instead I left the store, wondering what could I say the next time I found myself in a similar situation?

As it happens, I got my answer the next day, courtesy of the New York Times. On April 20 the Times ran a story about a demographic study showing that among African Americans between 25 and 54, there are only 83 black men for every 100 black women. (For whites, by contrast, the ratio is 99:100 – in other words, near parity.) The “missing black men” are either in jail or in the grave, their early deaths often due to preventable disease or gun violence.

Add the numbers up, and 1.5 million men in my age cohort and racial category – a number equivalent to the entire population of Alameda County – have simply “gone missing.” These men were sons, fathers, and brothers. For the men, women, and children who loved them, no doubt their #BlackLivesMattered, until they were taken away from them.

As the Times commented in a subsequent editorial on April 25, this gender imbalance reveals itself in “lower marriage rates, more out-of-wedlock births, a greater risk of poverty…and by extension, less stable communities.” The surge in Black male imprisonment following the never-ending War on Drugs not only contributes the missing man problem, it has “stigmatized blackness itself.” And as Black men and those who love them have learned, that stigma yields consequences ranging from subtle discrimination in their day-to-day lives to death at the hands of the police.

Removing that stigma requires all of us, regardless of color, to confront our own internal racial biases as well as the structural racism that, at its worst, literally costs lives. But until we do, the burden of the stigma will continue to be felt most acutely by African Americans, who collectively remain vulnerable to the evils of racism regardless of any progress we make as individuals. And that, quite frankly, is why we must be reminded that Black Lives Matter.