Since it became a national movement, Black Lives Matter has been met with antagonism for its name alone. The phrase “black lives matter” is seen by some as divisive, confrontational and perhaps even racist. It reveals a great deal about the struggle black Americans face that controversy arises when they assert the value of their lives.
But there’s an important reason why the name shouldn’t be changed: In our criminal justice system, black lives are not treated like they matter. The name is therefore both an expression of what we wish reality to be and an exposé of what reality isn’t.
All Lives Matter is the most commonly suggested alternative. And of course all lives do matter. Saying “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean other kinds of life don’t matter. But there is no urgency to assert the importance of white lives because they aren’t under attack in the way black lives are.
Any time there is organization around the needs of a minority, not far behind will be a group of white men offended by it. But attempting to coopt BLM with a name change is pure entitlement. It’s continuing much of white America’s refusal to listen to the grievances black Americans face without becoming defensive or assuming they want a race war.
Paranoia like this is behind the notion that the group’s name and message fuels violence against police officers. Such a view has a certain internal logic, but is unsupported by outside reality. If there was a war and you were keeping score, so far this year you’d have 741 to 27 shooting deaths – not taking into account variables like justification or political provocation, which would likely skew the score even further. In reality, 2015 is shaping up to be one of the safest years for police officers in decades, both in terms of fatalities and assaults.
Meanwhile, it’s extraordinarily risky to be black. Despite accounting for only around 13 percent of the U.S. population, blacks make up about 44 percent of the inmate population. Approximately one in six black men have been incarcerated at some point. Unarmed blacks are twice as likely to be killed by police as unarmed whites or Hispanics. Certainly much of this is due to the lure of crime in socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods, but much of it is flat-out racism. And these enormous disparities persist down the line, however the data is examined.
This is why of all the suggested alternatives to Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter is the most frightening. The movement to reform police departments and make them less violent has elicited an extraordinarily hostile reaction from law enforcement. Police departments are treating Black Lives Matter as a serious threat to their physical well-being and are training new deputies accordingly. Despite the total absence of a war on police in actual fact, warlike language is being used to indoctrinate new cadets and departments across the nation are continuing their trend of militarization.
At present, Black Lives Matter is drawing criticism for a planned disruption of a marathon scheduled for October 4 in St. Paul, Minnesota. In response to the criticism, organizer Rashad Turner sent the Minneapolis Star Tribune a text quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The Negro’s great stumbling block to freedom…is the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice…who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’”
Racers should be embracing Black Lives Matter. No doubt thousands of people worked very hard to train for the marathon, but real life doesn’t start and stop for their convenience. Saying, “We’ll listen to you another time” is telling black Americans that, actually, their lives don’t matter. The disruption of such a highly visible local event could make history. The runners must choose which side of that history they’d like to be on.
State violence is crushing the lives of millions of black Americans – gunning them down in the street, beating them when they’re already restrained, and farming others out to private contractors for legal slavery. Such atrocities aren’t limited to black America, but they’re happening to them at a disproportional rate.
If there is a war on, it’s this nation waging it against the descendants of the slaves who built it. White people must learn to listen to black America, not become defensive and feel threatened every time they assert themselves. This is why it’s so important to insist, and to continue to insist until it becomes reality, that black lives matter. Because right now, this country doesn’t act like they do.