The least disputable measure of a bad week is any seven-day period that requires a body count at the end of it. More common than the deaths of Dallas police officers are the unwarranted killings by police of two black men, Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. I’d like to think that events like this would get all Americans on the same page. But this has consistently failed to be the case.
A dear friend of mine, Lizzie Rochester, marched the streets of London in a peaceful protest to support the Black Lives Matter movement last week. Her Facebook status following the protest read, in part, “Just because we are lucky enough to not have the same problems as the US doesn’t mean people aren’t angry. It doesn’t mean people aren’t hurt. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a stand and respect those who have been shot for the colour of their skin.”
I say: In America, black lives don’t matter.
Following the bold statement Lizzie gives, I say: In America, black lives don’t matter. You say: That is false. I respond: Just look at the rate at which blacks are killed by the police and the rate at which police officers are exculpated. You respond with a number of points: the justice system in America works, blacks kill one another at tragic rates, the people killed sometimes had questionable backgrounds, if the officer pulled his weapon (for it is almost always a man who does the shooting), he had a reason related to enforcing the law, and we must respect that. After I claim that black lives don’t matter in America and you respond with any of the above, one idea becomes clear: We are no longer talking about the same thing. At this point I realize the mistake I’ve made.
When I claim that black lives don’t matter in America, I mean to say something that to my mind is abundantly clear. Here’s how it works. In the UK we live in a liberal democracy, as do America, that is founded on the sanctity of liberty. This implies that fairness is essential – indeed, that proposition is often explicitly at the heart of many democratic debates. The very idea of democracy reaches back to ancient Greece and is the foundation for our deepest principles concerning human rights. We believe that democracies are superior to other systems of government largely because they intrinsically respect the rights of the men and women who live in them.
I must then take into account the history of racial dominance in America— the centuries of slavery, the decades of Jim Crow, the continuation of systemic racial inequality in wealth, jobs, education and public services. Then there are the deaths — the body count at the hands of the police that ticks these days almost as regularly as a national clock. I take all of these basic observations together and my considered position is that the claim that black lives don’t matter in America corresponds to the facts.
I offer you this claim. But then it all goes wrong. You say I am not right, that I am not speaking the truth.
Here’s one way of making sense of the misfire between those in America. You are following me when I am making my general comments about America’s foundational aspects. You are likely still with me on the observations about slavery. You may begin to edge away from our shared space of critical judgment somewhere around Jim Crow, but the horrors of lynching may persuade you to stay. The place, or the time rather, where I am most likely to lose you is 1964. In your mind, our celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. made the world right in helping to usher in the era of formal equality when he cornered Lyndon B. Johnson into pushing for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In your mind, that moment introduced a new world order in which blacks could no longer be victims. The law had set them free and listed the bad things that people could no longer do. Moreover, it said that those people would be held responsible for the bad things they did. Thus, even if bad things happened to black people, the law would settle all accounts; therefore, no one could ever claim again that blacks were at the special mercy of racism. You, at this point, are sure that my proposition cannot be true since it fails to correspond.
The direction I was looking toward was the internal life of a black person in America. The very real anxieties and fears they have in whether their ambitions are as secure as any other American’s. Whether their opportunities are equal. Whether their health care is of sufficient quality. Whether their college degrees are of equal worth. Whether their spouses will make it home from the grocery store. Whether their children will one-day counsel a parent that everything will be ok while someone is slumped over in the car seat in front of her, bleeding to death after being shot by a police officer.
Dear average white citizen of America: Though you bought a house in an entirely segregated neighborhood, it’s not your fault the schools are better where you live. Though you have only one black friend, it’s not your fault because your friends are your co-workers and your company or university is doing poorly on diversity. Though it’s a shame that this black man or woman died (pick one, anyone), it’s not your fault that the police officer you pay with your tax dollars and who is sworn to protect you did so at the expense of an unnecessary killing.
And none of these are your fault because that day in 1964 made it all right – the law said what could not happen, and thus, it must not be happening. Your sense of America is predicated on the assumption of a reliable and stable democratic system. We cannot possibly speak about the same thing given these conditions.
That is a problem. And no, I may not be American and anyone can tell me that I have no right to narrate the assumptions of some (not all) American citizens. However, it does not take an American to know that they disagree on all kinds of issues. This one, black lives matter, is genuinely special and momentous. We have the facts: systemic racial inequality and rampant police-perpetrated killings. Then we have the observation of those facts seen from our distinct perspectives. Everything depends on the Americans agreeing in their judgment.
We’ve seen the videos and we know the past.
The terrible events in Dallas, where five police officers were slain by a sniper at a rally to protest police shootings, has complicated things still more, as do the charged and sometimes violent protests still arising in cities around America. From where I stand — and maybe here we can stand together — I see once again that violence tragically begets violence, and that if America had faced its history of racial violence many decades ago, maybe even a few years ago when Eric Garner was seen by millions of Americans being strangled by a police officer on YouTube, we’d all be better for it today. If America had decided that black lives do matter when it had the chance, the cycle of violence that has robbed them and threatens to continue to rob them of precious lives could have been broken.
I do not speak to my open minded, non-discriminatory fellow students but to those who don’t understand such injustice. We’ve seen the videos and we know the past. The difference in opinion isn’t a matter of error, but of will.