This Is What Black Lives Matter Is All About

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tags: racism, Ferguson, Black lives matter

Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School.

"Black Lives Matter protest" by The All-Nite Images - https://www.flickr.com/photos/otto-yamamoto/15305646874/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

            W. E. B. DuBois wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” and the Black Lives Matter movement deserves credit for reminding Americans that the election of the nation’s first black president did not usher in a post racial United States.  What the often aggressive tactics of Black Lives Matter activists force us to confront is that the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Grey, and Eric Garner must be placed within the historical and cultural context of a nation in which black lives and bodies have consistently been subjected to exploitation and violence.  The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans also draws attention to the interaction between race and class as poor black residents were unable to escape the city and find shelter from the storm.  In addition to reforming the criminal justice system and changing the culture of American policing, the fact that institutionalized racism has fostered economic inequality must be addressed.  As the Kerner Commission reported following the urban unrest of the 1960s, racial conflict will continue to flare as long as the nation is divided along racial lines into two Americas.  While the rhetoric of insurgents such as Bernie Sanders tends to focus upon threats to a predominantly white middle class, it is important to note that the economic reality of the color line and poverty described by the Kerner Commission remains a fact of American life in the twenty-first century.

            Some politicians such as Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee tend to take offense at the Black Lives Matter activism, asserting that all lives matter, and especially those of the unborn in reference to the abortion issue.  What this perception tends to ignore and what the Black Lives Matter movement specifically emphasizes is the tragic story of violence against black lives throughout American history.  The compromise that provided for creation of the Constitution defined enslaved blacks as three-fifths of a person; recognizing the institution of slavery in which black men felt the lash upon their bare bodies, black women were raped by their masters, and black children were snatched from their parents’ arms.  The threat of this violent institution to spread into the west eventually culminated in the bloody Civil War.  That conflict, may have settled the issue of slavery: however, it did not determine the status of the freed slaves.  The promise of Reconstruction was unfulfilled due to the violence of terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan as well as the abandonment of the freedmen in the pursuit of economic development in the New South.  Meanwhile, black lives remained the targets of Jim Crow, while a prison system emerged to economically exploit black labor in addition to controlling the black population just as slavery had done during the early history of America.  Lynching and race riots also provide evidence that black lives were of little significance to many Americans.  Culturally, films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and, somewhat less graphically, Gone With the Wind (1939), perpetuated myths of black desire for white women—providing a racist rationalization for the violence directed against black men.

            As black Americans fought against the racism of Nazi Germany during the Second World War, many decided that they would no longer accept racial degradation in their native land.  The Civil Rights Movement was met with considerable violence ranging from the murder of four black girls attending church in Birmingham to the assassination of Medgar Evers to the beating of Fannie Lou Hamer for registering to vote and the assault upon peaceful protestors on Bloody Sunday in Alabama.  While white allies were also subject to attack and murder, it is worth remembering that the Civil Rights Movement was primarily a grass roots movement of black Americans in the South who faced threats upon their lives for attempting to exercise their Constitutional rights. 

            The Civil Rights Movement deserves credit for addressing legally-mandated discrimination by pushing for legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  This challenge to American apartheid, however, failed to confront issues of economic inequality fostered by continuing de facto segregation  Thus, whites and blacks may have joined together to assure racial integration of a restaurant, but this alliance all too often neglected to consider whether blacks could then afford to patronize the integrated eating establishment—although the issues of economic inequality and justice were emerging as major concerns for Martin Luther King Jr. before his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

            De facto segregation, however, is hardly limited to the South.  In fact, the institutionalized racism of lending institutions, real estate industry, and government at the state, local, and national levels implemented policies of racial segregation that made it possible for working-class whites to own their own homes and accrue much needed equity.  On the other hand, working-class black Americans were forced into high-rise government housing where they were unable to acquire the home equity that would provide a path to the middle class.  This economic polarization is reinforced by a policing system which seems primarily focused upon perpetuating these divisions.  With few jobs available in the inner city, there is often a turn toward illegal activities such as drug dealing—although there is no evidence to suggest that the black community is more inclined toward drug use than whites.  Yet, far more black than whites are incarcerated for drug offenses with fewer police patrolling for illegal drug activities in the white suburbs.  The police, who are often predominantly white and make little effort to become integrated into the black community, are perceived as an occupying force to control the black population.  Tied into racial subjugation is the stereotypical fear of the black male, with white police officers often testifying that they assumed their lives were in danger when unarmed black men advanced toward the officers. 

            Accusations of police brutality are certainly not new, and the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us of this.  For example, the Black Panthers in the late 1960s and early 1970s armed themselves to defend black neighborhoods from the police.  The Panthers offered a radical critique of American capitalism as globally exploiting people of color; combining calls for revolution with health clinics and breakfast programs for school children.  J. Edgar Hoover termed the Panthers the greatest domestic threat to the American government.  In response to the Panther threat, the FBI and local authorities sought to destroy the Black Panther Party: murdering leaders such as Fred Hampton in Chicago, harassing local chapters, and sowing division among the Panthers through illegal surveillance.  The Panthers were neutralized, although fears of gun-toting, beret-wearing, and revolutionary blacks continue to resonate with many whites.  Similar concerns about an aggressive Black Lives Matters campaign influence whites today, and the response to protest marches is all too often a militarized police force—tactics that tend to exacerbate the confrontation.

            Black Lives Matter evokes a history that many whites would prefer to ignore or forget.  Simply replying that all lives matters is an effort to negate this history and overlook the existence of white privilege.  I was born into poverty in rural West Texas, and my first real introduction to black people was working with black students in a Lyndon Johnson War on Poverty jobs program.  I was poor, but white.  No one followed me around the store when we shopped, assuming I would steal something.  But my white boss was disappointed with me.  Our job was working in the cemetery, digging graves and maintaining the landscape.  The rule was that only whites were to operate the machinery, but I had no mechanical aptitude.  Blacks were never to operate the lawn mowers, but I could never get mine started.  So I exchanged places with Robert Alexander who would run the lawn mower, while I was happily able to manipulate a hoe or shovel, until the return of the boss.  But then we had to again assume the position of white privilege and black subordination. 

Many whites today seem to believe that Black Lives Matter is some form of black privilege.  These are the people who believe that all the good jobs are going to black or Hispanic Americans who are also being favored in the college admissions game.  These are the kinds of fears that Ronald Reagan exploited with his description of welfare queens, and that the film Rocky (1976) exploited with the threat posed by Apollo Creed to white fighters such as the “Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa.  While anecdotal evidence seems to abound, there is simply no substance to the fiction that black Americans are occupying some type of privileged position in America.  In times of economic stagnation, however, such fears tend to gain credence.  Thus, we see the discomfort of many whites with the Black Lives Matter movement.  Rather than fear or anger that Black Lives Matter activists are disrupting the political process, it would be far healthier for Americans of all backgrounds to recognize the history of racial discrimination as DuBois suggested and seek to find the intersection between race and class that would prevent future catastrophes such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the cycle of unrest found in the economic inequality denounced by the Kerner Commission.    

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