All lives should matter equally. That is not only the ideal but a truly worthy goal to rally around and work together toward. In that sense, I appreciate people who boldly proclaim that “all lives matter.” Let’s make it happen! Unfortunately, we have a long way to go before that statement accurately reflects the way things really are.
Let’s be clear: White lives matter. That has never been, nor is it now, in question. The problem is that Black lives have, from the start, never really mattered much at all to the white people responsible for developing, implementing, and overseeing this country’s critical systems, structures, and institutions. Starting with centuries of chattel slavery was, of course, particularly problematic, especially since that was followed by generations of “Black Codes,” share-cropping, convict leasing, racial terror lynching, Jim Crow, discrimination, and mass incarceration as examples of sustained inequality, inequity, and injustice.
In addition to having no voice whatsoever in how America was formed — despite the first Africans arriving here before the Mayflower, people who are Black have been, by law and custom, systematically, intentionally, even methodically denied rights and opportunities routinely afforded to people who are white.
Accordingly, special attention to Black lives is required to address and eliminate the ongoing, wide-spread, multi-dimensional disparities between Black lives and white lives. It is in response to that need that the concept of “Black lives matter” emerges, as an assertion of fact if nothing else. Despite over 400 years of it not being the case, the long-overdue statement unequivocally declares that Black lives matter, too.
Claims that all lives currently matter become implausible based even on casual observations made from our current vantage points; by virtue of simply living in the world, we can see that Black people and white people encounter substantially different levels of opportunity and challenge.
Indeed, a key part of the work of anti-racism is being honest about what is already in front of us in plain sight, acknowledging what we have too easily tuned out or taken for granted, about the world — and about ourselves. The evidence of systemic racism is ample, even overwhelming, if we open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts.
We can choose, of course, to not open anything, and there are any number of ways we might try to justify that choice.
We could, for example, either consciously or unconsciously assume right off the top that Black lives aren’t included in the total of “all” lives. In that case, rather than saying “all lives matter,” it would be clearer to say something like “all lives matter — but Black lives don’t count.” Or maybe they count for less, like three-fifths. Such attempts at justification would be entirely consistent with what has been done throughout American history.
And then there is the trusty old blame-the-victim argument that goes something like, “Well, sure there are differences and it sucks to be them. But it’s their own fault.” We can remind ourselves here what attribution theory says about people being inclined to view the problems in other’s lives as personal failures and deficiencies while thinking about problems in our own lives as resulting from factors outside of ourselves and beyond our control. Being able to name that natural inclination does not make it right. Besides, it is simply misguided to hold the people victimized by systemic racism accountable for its effects.
Alternatively, we can stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that disparities and injustices exist at all. That kind of outright, bald-faced denial is also a tried-and-true way to approach the matter.
As Americans, we might aspire to create a “more perfect union” made up of people who are all “created equal.” Those who identify with an Abrahamic faith tradition might highlight the foundational belief that every person is created “in the image of God,” and Christians might choose to follow Jesus' commands to “love thy neighbor” and “let the oppressed go free.” People who tend toward secular humanism might be guided by a belief in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
All of those are noble ideals that compel movement toward justice for all. Yet some will undoubtedly continue to become apoplectic as a result of knee-jerk, politically-charged resistance to the phrase “Black lives matter” and, by so doing, defer opportunities to make America great or give principled beliefs the priority they warrant.
The Rev. Dr. Marty Kuchma, the senior pastor of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, writes from Westminster.
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