A cursory view of American headlines in the past three weeks reveal a deep sickness in the way we relate to and value each other. The spotlight on the unjust treatment of people of color has unfortunately led to an increase in the societal divide we experience in our view of race. When Obama was elected, celebratory cries of a post-racial society were heard. When Trayvon Martin’s death kicked off a spree of monthly spotlights on the killing of men of color by white civilians and police officers, thoughts of a post-racial society were arrested. At times I feel like we are experiencing a time warp, as if this pattern of openly hating or killing members of our society must be viewed as an admission that men of color (and women, like Heather Heyer, who stand with them) are seen as criminals at worst and as expendable, or not valuable, at best. For many, the 2016 election and recent conflicts in Charlottesville confirm that some Americans do not value others who are not white and Christian. In other moments, when I remember the long view, the historically slow path resistance and change must take, I am encouraged that at least such routine and rampant injustice is finally being broadcast. Exposing the status quo as unsustainable must happen before resisting the status quo can take root. Surely these reports, and the public outcry and angst they cause, are a good thing.
Just as one can view the last 40 months as depressing or as a step toward health and healing, the dominant responses to these patterned killings are disparate, and seem to feed off of different realities. For many, the sequential headlines force us to acknowledge our systems and structures of power place an unjust burden of suspicion and criminality upon people of color. For some, these deaths are deserved—a result of criminal behavior and disrespect for noble and selfless authority figures. For others, the fact that these deaths are now headlines is evidence of a biased, liberal-leaning media. For a few, like many of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, the unrest is due to an unfair world that values new minorities and punishes old majorities. These responses, and the passion with which they are held, belie a stubborn commitment to hold our views tightly, refusing to consider new information or the perspective of another. Rather than engaging those around us with curiosity, we often resort to shouting our own experience, unaware of our particular bias. If a person does not struggle under the particular curse of being born into poverty or with darkly hued skin, she can live freely in a world in which she expects to be helped in stores, respected by strangers, and kept safe by law enforcement officers. However, a poor or black or Hispanic person has no such luxury. Their experiences of life—not liberal bias or manipulated optics—teaches them that strangers treat them with suspicion and the police are sometimes not allies, but a hindrance to their flourishing. Until we learn to engage each other’s stories, listening with interest instead of attacking out of a posture of defense, we cannot hope to understand what half of our country believes about the images and reports of the last few months.
The response to Trayvon Martin’s death gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). The movement, fluid and evolving, orients itself around a few guiding principles: “Lead with love. Low ego, high impact. Move at the speed of trust” (Jane Kramer, Oct. 19, 2016, New Yorker). Although this movement has often been characterized as full of angry and irrational people with chips on their shoulders, these principles suggest a value system built on humility, and therefore highly resonate with Christian perspectives. Didn’t Christ also demonstrate a foundational belief in the community’s worth instead of a self-centered orientation? The guiding principles of BLM, if not always demonstrated in action, suggest a way of moving that requires consideration of another’s perspective, rather than boldly moving forward in “rightness”, or even justice. These principles suggest that change is possible, and can even be achieved, with civility. Despite the higher calling here, this movement, because of its actively-resisting-oppression name, gave birth to exasperated counter claims that “All lives matter!”
Of course all lives matter. That is the point! What if, as a society, and particularly as people following Christ, we started to listen to one another? What if we decided to recognize that each of us has an experience and a bias, and perhaps we should claim those truths about our selves even as we also listen to the—by definition, different—perspectives of an other? What if we decided to eliminate defensiveness as an option of a response? The All Lives Matter (ALM) reaction and claim suggest that their adherents are correcting BLM so that it can be more inclusive. Not so. The cry of ALM is more often a stubborn endorsement of the status quo. It refuses to acknowledge that in this country, many of our laws, educational systems, housing plans, stereotypes, law enforcement officers, financial systems and neighborhoods, black lives do NOT, in fact, matter. Black lives are underestimated, feared, rejected, suspected and criminalized as a matter of course. This movement is, foundationally if not always in action, a humble but persistent plea for people to agree on this most basic of assumptions: that all lives matter. It is also a damning indictment that ALL lives cannot matter until black lives matter.
This easy jump to “all” without acknowledging the “black” has a long history in our country. Tane-hisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, helpfully reminds us that in this very country our mainstream version of history simply erases the contributions of people of color. If anything, we celebrate any teacher or curriculum that offers a level of robust explanation about what slavery is and how it worked. We are thrilled when these questions are answered. And yet, this easy satisfaction ignores the fact that these very same slaves created the wealth, infrastructure and buildings of the Southern United States, paying off the country’s debt from the Revolution in the process. No, slaves were not just victims; they were craftsmen, artisans, child-rearing experts, chefs, physicians, builders, farmers and administrators. Just as our history has denied the fact that our country was built by—not just on the bodies, but with the help of and under the leadership of—African American slaves, so the “all lives matter” cry seeks to ignore and overlook the needed assertion that black lives do matter. The legacy of our claimed history is that black lives were maybe one day abused, but now they matter just like the rest of us. Until we proclaim all the ways in which black lives have contributed to our country, despite living through centuries of terror and pain, we cannot admit the many ways that black lives continue to be viewed as expendable, despite their great worth.
Next week, thoughts on Labor Day.