Black Lives Matter, or My Fellow Whitemericans

4 10 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot about Black Lives Matter over the past couple of months, because I am alive and have at least two functioning brain cells to rub together. It’s kind of unavoidable. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve wanted to write something, but I kept thinking that as a white person, I’m an outsider, and there’s just not much I can add to the discussion. Still, my brain kept rumbling around the issue, framing it and reframing it, and I finally realized that there is something I can add, albeit not something particularly unique. As a white person, I can hopefully speak to other white people who are struggling with recent events, as well as those who have a negative view of the activists and issues of the movement. So I’m going to try to do that here.

First, it’s important to get some things straight.

  1. The recent acts of violence against police are wrong. The people behind the sniper killings of police in Dallas deserve to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, as do others who have shot and shot at police as a response to the killings of black people by police. Further, if someone shoots at a police officer, that police officer and any others near him or her are entirely justified in shooting back.
  2. I do not believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is advocating for violence against police. There are reports of protesters affiliated with the movement chanting slogans and holding signs that do advocate such violence, but any movement involving enough people will always include fringe elements that go way beyond what the core of the movement believes and advocates. In the aftermath of anti-police violence, the leaders of the movement (to the extent that a decentralized movement like Black Lives Matter can be said to have “leaders”) have uniformly condemned and disavowed violence in no uncertain terms. They know as well as anyone that such violence hurts their cause, and I take them at their word.

Got it? Good.

My fellow Whitemericans, a lot of you seem to misunderstand what is meant by the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Either through misunderstanding or willful misinterpretation, you’ve taken it as an exclusive declaration, a statement that only black lives matter. Lots of you have taken up the “All Lives Matter” rejoinder, and on its face, I understand. All lives do matter, and anyone saying that some lives matter more than others are just wrong. Thing is, that’s not at all what “Black Lives Matter” means. It is not a statement of exclusive worth. It is, rather, a cry of pain against a consistent stream of examples that, to society as a whole, black lives simply do not matter, or at the very least matter a whole lot less than other lives.

The phrase and the movement were born after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Here was a case where a seventeen year old black boy walking somewhere he had every right to be was shot to death by an overzealous neighborhood watch participant. Martin was walking through Zimmerman’s neighborhood, and Zimmerman followed him. It’s important to remember that it was also Martin’s neighborhood, as he was staying with his father at his father’s girlfriend’s home there.

Zimmerman didn’t know that. He saw a kid walking through his neighborhood and decided to tail him. To him, Trayvon Martin couldn’t possibly have a valid reason to be there. Eventually, he and Martin would come into contact, and, depending on which version of events you believe, they either scuffled and Martin was shot by Zimmerman in self defense, or Zimmerman simply executed Martin. Either way, the central fact of the matter is not in dispute – George Zimmerman fired the gunshot that ended Trayvon Martin’s life.

Zimmerman argued that he did so in self defense. Martin attacked him, so he did what he had to do to ensure his safety. The difficulty for me, and for many other people, including the woman who first used the phrase “black lives matter” and sparked the movement, is that accepting Zimmerman’s defense inherently devalues Martin’s rights, and by extension, his life. Zimmerman does not dispute that he followed Martin, even when told by a police dispatcher that doing so was unnecessary. After he followed Martin for a while, something happened, and Zimmerman shot Martin to death. None of that is disputed by anyone involved. So if you accept that Zimmerman had a right to self defense, what about Martin? Did he have a right to perceive some strange guy following him around as a threat, and to defend himself against that threat? If he did attack Zimmerman, doesn’t his perception of the situation matter? What about his right to be in that neighborhood and his right to safety? Did he have a right to “stand his ground” against some weird guy following him through a neighborhood he had every right to be in?

If you accept Zimmerman’s defense, you tacitly accept that George Zimmerman’s life mattered more than Trayvon Martin’s. You have to accept that Zimmerman’s right to be in the neighborhood was greater than Martin’s, that Zimmerman’s had a right to pursue Martin, and finally that Zimmerman’s right to defend himself was so much greater than Martin’s that it justified taking Martin’s life. In that equation, the black life simply didn’t matter as much. Not to George Zimmerman and not to the jury that acquitted him.

To a black person watching the progress of the case from the beginning, it was a parade of instances where a black life was constantly found to matter less than Zimmerman’s. From the very beginning, a black boy was dead and everyone knew who had killed him, but the killer was not even arrested. It took six weeks for him to be charged with a crime. Martin had done nothing to warrant Zimmerman’s attention – he was a kid walking home.

In the media circus surrounding the killing, photos of Martin from Facebook emerged, along with school records, that many used to paint a picture of Martin as a “thug,” which is a word that’s very often used to undercut the value of a black male. In truth, though, how many of us didn’t go through a rebellious phase in adolescence, one that involved tough posturing and problems at school? How many of us didn’t try to look like some kind of badass in photos? How often was that conception of “badass” shaped by idealized portrayals of criminals, like mobsters in all manner of movies?

There’s evidence that Martin smoked weed. How many of you smoked a little – or a lot – of weed in high school? How many of you smoke it now? How many of you are high right now? Does that make you a thug? Does macho posturing and disciplinary action at school make you dangerous? Do those things mean some guy who decides you don’t look like you belong should follow you around, and that if you confront him he should be allowed to shoot you to death with no repercussions?

If you answered no but thought Zimmerman deserved to be acquitted, aren’t you tacitly admitting that Trayvon Martin’s black life did not matter as much as yours?

Thing is, it’s not just Trayvon Martin. It’s not even the numerous unarmed and legally armed black men who have died at the hands of police since Martin was killed. The wound is much older, much deeper than those things. To be certain, those keep the wound rubbed raw, but they are far from the first things to do even that.

Now we’re going to get into the history that black people are frequently told they need to let go. “It was so long ago – why do you cling to that old stuff?” Try asking that to someone displaying the Confederate flag some time. They certainly aren’t too keen on letting that history go, and so much of the history that black people have to carry with them, so many of the constant reminders that their lives matter less are so much more recent than the civil war. I’d bet that almost every single black person living in America right now can cite an example of discrimination they’ve suffered in their lives. Most of them probably wouldn’t have to cast their memory back very far at all, and if you somehow found a person who couldn’t think of anything, it’s extremely unlikely that one or both of their parents would have the same difficulty if they lived in the United States for any length of time.

The experience of black people in the United States has always told them that their lives matter less than the lives of others. They were brought here against their will because someone decided that they possessed less humanity and therefore mattered less. You may point out that other Africans enslaved them first, and that is true, but when white people were given the opportunity to get into the slave trade, they didn’t recoil in horror and say “What the hell is wrong with you? Those are people! You can’t sell people!” They said something like “Yeah, okay – how much?” If they had any concept of those black lives mattering as much as their own, that transaction never could have taken place.

Slavery in the colonies and America lasted almost 400 years, during which time the idea that those black lives mattered less than others wasn’t considered something to be denied or hidden. That lesser value was made explicit, the infamous idea that a slave was equal to 3/5ths of a person for the purposes of counting the population. Even 3/5ths was more than they were really worth, because that counting was necessary to establish levels of representation, but slaves certainly didn’t matter enough to get even a 3/5ths vote as to who should represent them. They mattered so little that they could be worked to death, beaten, raped, and kept in bondage without the society at large batting an eye. Slaves’ familial relationships didn’t matter – families were routinely broken up by owners looking to maximize their investment. Owners tore children from parents and parents from each other with as little hesitation as a day trader feels when unloading shares.

When the colonies rose up against Great Britain, asserting that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they consciously decided that those “unalienable” rights of “all men” didn’t apply to black people – once again, even in the grand flourishes of Enlightenment-derived rhetoric, black lives mattered less.

It would be almost another century before voices saying that slavery was wrong (but, notably, rarely saying that black lives were just as worthy and important as white lives) became loud enough to force the issue, and so many took exception to even that half-notion that the country was torn apart by it. Even now, many people try to rewrite history to explain “the War of Northern Aggression.” They swear up and down that it wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights – even against the exact language of declarations of secession that said “It’s about states’ rights – the right of states to keep black people as slaves.” They can’t even allow that black lives mattered enough to fight over. Sure, they’re probably trying to convince themselves that their attachment to the Confederacy isn’t racist, but in doing so, they sweep the entire issue of black rights under the rug.

After the country came back from the brink of dissolution and slavery ended, things may not have gotten worse for black people, but they definitely didn’t get as much better as many people like to believe. The government made some attempts to ensure the transition from slavery to freedom was as smooth as possible, but that was an enormous task, and undertaking it at all grated against those who found themselves unwillingly citizens of the United States rather than of the Confederacy. It was decided that in order for national reconciliation to occur, governmental efforts to guarantee equal rights and opportunities for recently freed slaves must end. National unity mattered more than black lives. This would become all too literal as the Ku Klux Klan and other domestic terrorists used violence and murder to keep blacks disenfranchised and subservient.

It was after the civil war that one of the most stark examples of how little black lives mattered came into vogue – lynching. From Reconstruction through the 1960s, thousands of black people were seized by mobs and hanged. Sometimes they were accused of crimes, sometimes they weren’t, and even when they were, the crimes were very often complete fictions. Members of polite white society would see a lynching as a pleasant backdrop for an afternoon outing, and would take pictures and even body parts of the hanged person as souvenirs. Those black lives mattered so little that their grisly, unwarranted end wasn’t disturbing in the slightest – it was considered entertaining. Through this, other acts of intimidation and violence, and even explicit laws, black people were continually reminded that their rights were not so unalienable, if they even existed at all. Their rights didn’t matter. Their lives didn’t matter.

Eventually, against all of this opposition and oppression, blacks began to eke out places for themselves in the United States, and events of the world made their continued marginalization ever more unacceptable. Black men fought valiantly against the Nazis, helping to defeat an unimaginable racist menace – and they found that their service meant nothing to the racists back home. Confronted by so many who said that black people were inherently incapable of doing all manner of things, they went ahead and did all of those things, and did them extremely well, but that didn’t change anything. They still had to use separate, sub-par facilities everywhere they went. They still found themselves barred from businesses. They still had to show deference to white people in countless ways or risk violence even unto death. Their lives mattered less, in many cases less than convenience.

Real estate has consistently been the surest means of growing wealth and perpetuating it down generations in America. When black people managed to push back against the massive weight of discrimination and degradation that had been heaped on them since their ancestors’ first steps onto this continent, they often tried to make that success more permanent by entering the real estate market. Their money was just as green as anyone else’s, but it was the color of their skin that mattered. As Ta-Nehisi Coates painstakingly details, the housing market has been deliberately and mercilessly slanted against black people for generations, with new examples of the same old song showing up in the news every few years (and don’t kid yourself that the gaps between exposures are blissful periods of innocence – those are just the time it takes for each new scheme to get found out).

It didn’t matter if a black home buyer could pay double the asking price in cold hard cash immediately – racial covenants kept them out. If the buyer needed to finance the purchase, as most people do when buying a home, they would find that normal mortgages were largely unavailable to them (on racial grounds, not their inability to pay). Very often, the only options available to them were entirely predatory, like “contract sales.” Coates explains:

In a contract sale, the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full—and, unlike with a normal mortgage, [the black buyer] would acquire no equity in the meantime. If he missed a single payment, he would immediately forfeit his … down payment, all his monthly payments, and the property itself.
The men who peddled contracts in North Lawndale would sell homes at inflated prices and then evict families who could not pay—taking their down payment and their monthly installments as profit. Then they’d bring in another black family, rinse, and repeat. “He loads them up with payments they can’t meet,” an office secretary told The Chicago Daily News of her boss, the speculator Lou Fushanis, in 1963. “Then he takes the property away from them. He’s sold some of the buildings three or four times.”

Instead of its usual promise of slow, steady improvement in value, value which could then be passed to future generations, real estate became just another mechanism to separate black people from their statutory rights and their hard-earned wealth. Their money mattered only so much as it could be taken from them without anything being given in return. Their families, their futures, their lives – those mattered far less.

Popular movements began to form around the controversial notion that black people deserved the same rights as everyone else, a notion that had supposedly become the law of the land when the 14th and 15th Amendments were added to the Constitution in the aftermath of the Civil War. These nascent movements weren’t asking for extra rights or special rights, just the rights that the defining document of our union had said were theirs for nearly a century. They weren’t saying “You should have fewer rights than me.” They were saying “There is no reason that I should have fewer rights than you.” The only right that anyone would be asked to forfeit was the extralegal, indefensible right to discriminate. Even so, these movements were met with fierce opposition. The opposition quoted the Bible and said that desegregation and recognition of the civil rights of black people went against God’s law and religious liberty. Peaceful protesters were beaten and murdered.

In the years since his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been lionized for his efforts to secure equality for black Americans. His name has become such a watchword for progress toward racial harmony that it is easy for many to forget that everything we celebrate about him now was the reason he was unceasingly harassed, repeatedly jailed, and eventually murdered. For actively campaigning for the equal treatment held up as self-evident in the Declaration of Independence and eventually codified as unambiguous law in the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, King and his supporters were mocked, terrorized, and beaten by agents of the government those documents created, from local law enforcement all the way up to the FBI.

Some of King’s contemporaries viewed the situation with less optimism and felt it necessary to arm themselves (to be fair, even some of the closest supporters of King’s message of nonviolence were well armed). They sought to exercise their 2nd Amendment right for one of most frequently cited reasons among supporters of expansive gun rights – to protect themselves, their families, and their communities. Some of the threats they perceived even matched another favored rationale of gun rights supporters – the violent overreach and curtailing of rights by the government. When these notions were coming from black people, they were met with skepticism at best. While black people could more readily cite countless examples of why the need to defend themselves was at least as real and present as anyone’s, their efforts to buy and wield firearms were met with stiff resistance, reaching back to the early days of this country. Today’s renewed attention to open carry rights often neglects to mention black people being shot for carrying toy guns in open-carry states, and many are unaware of the 1967 California anti-open carry law, “a Republican-led bill that was drafted after Black Panthers began hanging around the State Legislature in Sacramento with their guns on display.” It certainly seems that black people’s right to defend themselves against very real threats has historically mattered much less than white people’s and continues to matter less today.

That brings us to about the 1970s, and it’s not as though the pattern has changed any since then. Study after study after study after study has found sharp disparities in arrests, prosecutions, and sentences based on race, with black defendants routinely being treated far more harshly for the same offenses as whites. Clear patterns of racial bias mark the application of the death penalty across the country. Mandatory minimums for possession of powder cocaine (typically used and trafficked by white people) and crack cocaine (typically used and trafficked by black people) were vastly different and were written into law, not hidden in the hearts of bigoted judges and juries. The penalty for possessing 1 unit of crack cocaine was the same as the penalty for 100 units of powder cocaine. This was during the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s – and I don’t mean the 1890s through the 1900s. Even now, a disparity exists, though it’s 18:1 instead of 100:1. Proponents of retaining the disparity say that it’s appropriate due to the higher correlation between crack cocaine offenses and violence, but the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 contains stiffer penalties for aggravating factors (violence, firearms) – why not start at 1:1 and layer on aggravating factors when they’re found? Here, apparently, is something that could be seen to buck the trend – black crimes matter more than white crimes.

Finally, we come to recent highly publicized deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement officers. We’ve also seen lots of examples of seemingly unreasonable but non-lethal force deployed against black people who seemed to pose no threat to the officers. With many of these events, we’ve seen incontrovertible evidence that the behavior of the police in question was far from appropriate, from the planting of a taser near Walter Scott’s body to the use of a banned choke hold on Eric Garner to the entirely falsified official reports in the death of Laquan McDonald, and we’ve seen a continuing pattern of non-prosecution of those responsible for the deaths. With each new incident, it becomes harder to accept the notion of “a few bad apples.” I started writing this post in the aftermath of the death of Philando Castile and the murder of five police in Dallas, but the months since have seen a steady stream of new incidents of often lethal force used against unarmed black men.

In this environment, so many voices seek to demonize those who say nothing more than “Something is wrong here.” We hear that protesters are the real problem, that there’s no racial problem in America but the one that protesters have created. We hear arguments that ignore the constant, unbroken string of racist violence and persecution that has been part of the black experience in America since before there was an America. Finally, a plaintive, desperate cry for peace, justice, and fairness, the kind every kid in school is told is a given, gets labeled as a call to violent separatism, or a proclamation of racial superiority.

No, white America. It just isn’t. Believing that it is is a comfortable fiction that helps you ignore reality. Plenty of people have come up with plenty of funny and pithy comparisons to show that “Black Lives Matter” cannot honestly be taken as a statement of exclusivity. You sit down to dinner with your family. The food goes around and everyone takes some, but you are prevented from getting any. “I’d like some food,” you say, and your dad answers “Everyone would like some food” and goes on as if the matter is settled. Clearly it isn’t, and clearly you didn’t say “I want some food and no one else can have any.” You break your leg and go to the hospital. The doctor looks you over and says there’s nothing wrong. You say “Shouldn’t my leg injury be treated?” The doctor answers “All injuries should be treated” and walks away. And on and on and on.

Those are ridiculous, right? So is trying to quash “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter,” and, let’s be honest, my fellow Whitemericans – you know it is. It’s not “Only Black Lives Matter.” It’s not “Black Lives Matter More than Yours.” If we were to amend it in any way while still retaining its true meaning, we’d end up with something like “Despite 400 Years of Evidence to the Contrary, Black Lives Matter As Much As Other Lives,” and behaving as though that’s not the case makes your “All Lives Matter” sound a lot like “All Lives Matter But Black Lives Matter Less.”

It is not a call for revolution or separation or violence of any kind. It is not a declaration of superiority. It is a statement of stubborn optimism, a whispered plea between sobs, a note of hope despite 400 years of that same hope being beaten and victimized and disenfranchised and left hanging dead from Southern trees. It is a simple request for what has been promised for so long yet remains undelivered, from sharecroppers doing everything to try to stay ahead of a system rigged to cheat them to proud homeowners learning too late that the deal they agreed to is predatory and crooked to a kid walking home from a convenience store with Skittles and iced tea who happens to “fit the profile” to the upstanding businessman/college professor/off-duty cop who is stopped, questioned, frisked, and possibly worse for no reason but the color of his skin.

Acting like its something else demeans you and continues the pattern just a bit longer. So stop. Black lives absolutely do matter. Are you really comfortable admitting you feel otherwise?

Update 8:16pm 10/4/2016: Corrected George Zimmerman’s last name in one spot where it previously read “George Martin.”

 

 

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