I often find myself wondering why the phrase “Black Lives Matter” inspires such fear and anger in so many white people.
The obvious answer, of course, is that it’s because those people are racists.
As racists, they’re angry about the very idea that Black people ought to be treated like human beings, let alone that we might try to better our collective situation.
As racists, they’re afraid of a world where racial oppression no longer exists, because in that world they are no longer the ones in charge.
As racists, they probably still buy into that old boogeyman of “Black Savagery,” and may even expect racial equality to begin a slippery slope into a Django-esque Black Revenge Fantasy. (And by the way, should we get to that point, I’m calling dibs on the name Righteous Indignation for my kill squad.)
If you’re a racist, it’s completely obvious why you’re filled with disgust and hatred when you hear someone say, “Black Lives Matter.”
And maybe I could end the thought experiment there. Why do so many white people have a problem with the concept that “Black Lives Matter”? Why, because they have a problem with Black people. What did you think the answer was going to be?
But I don’t want to just write off every instance of “white person gets upset about the phrase Black Lives Matter” as simple racism.
You can call me an idiot for throwing Occam’s Razor out of my toolkit, and you’re probably fair in doing so. But in order for me to retain a solitary shred of faith in humanity, I need to believe that there could be something else going on.
I just can’t figure out what it is.
Well, not unless I assume that every non-racist white person to take issue with the statement “Black Lives Matter” actually just has a tenuous-at-best understanding of the English language. And I don’t even like to present that as a serious option, because to my ear it’s incredibly insulting.
But perhaps I’m now just hastily throwing Hanlon’s Razor out of my toolkit. Could it really be so simple as a lack of reading comprehension making everyone look like a racist?
It’s a place to start, so start we shall. Allow me to explain “Black Lives Matter,” under the optimistic assumption that maybe that’s all anyone needed to do.
When I say “Black Lives Matter,” I am not making a statement of Black Supremacy. (This is legitimately a real argument that I’ve heard someone make, and I’m going to address it as though it wasn’t made in bad faith.) To say “Black Lives Matter” is categorically not to say that “Only Black Lives Matter.” To hear it as such, while perhaps grammatically viable, is also incorrect to the point of being ludicrous. The statement “Black Lives Matter” means only that the lives of Black people have intrinsic value. That’s it.
Now, why do I make a point of saying so? Why do I specifically reiterate the idea that “Black Lives Matter” instead of saying, to borrow an example that I often hear touted by white people as a more acceptable phrasing, that “All Lives Matter”?
Well, this is where context is important. Because I’m saying “Black Lives Matter” as a direct rebuttal to the implicit statement that Black lives don’t matter.
Anyone who knows American history knows that this statement has always been a part of the framework of the United States. I could write an entire essay about all the ways that the Black population has been mistreated in the United States, and how each of those instances contributes to the overall message that Black lives don’t matter.
But at this moment, the statement is being made in the form of unchecked and predominantly unpunished police brutality against Black citizens. When yet another law enforcement officer skates by without being held accountable for murdering a Black person, that sends the message that Black lives don’t matter. And as a response, I state my rebuttal: “Black Lives Matter.”
Now, this is not to say that Black people are the only victims of police brutality, nor is it to say that we should only care about police brutality when it’s perpetrated against Black people.
But right now, as the result of recent events that have brought the issue to the forefront of everyone’s minds, we’re specifically discussing the issue of police brutality against Black people. Saying that “All Lives Matter” in that conversation is like saying that “All Biomes Matter” in a discussion about saving the rainforest. It’s not incorrect and it’s not unimportant, but it’s quite obnoxiously missing the point we’re trying to convey.
When you hear me say “Black Lives Matter,” all you should be hearing is me pointing out that, contrary to the way that certain law enforcement agencies see fit to conduct themselves, it matters when a Black person is wrongfully killed by a police officer.
Not a difficult concept to understand once you hear it all laid out, right?
“Black Lives Matter,” and there’s no good reason for that statement to upset you.
The Defense rests.
I’d like to imagine that anyone who got reflexively angry upon reading the title of this article is now realizing that they had nothing to get upset about. I want to believe that my optimistic outlook was correct, and the whole thing was just a misunderstanding since cleared up by my explanation of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” None of you were racists after all; you were just confused, and now you get it.
I’d love to believe in that world, or even that just one of those people exists in the world.
I would also like the men who killed Breonna Taylor to be charged with her murder, while I’m currently listing things that I want but am not quite naïve enough to expect.
What I want is for the phrase “Black Lives Matter” to make people care about the issue of racially-motivated police brutality in the United States.
But what I have come to expect, as it has been the case nearly every time I’ve used it, is for that phrase to continue to inspire a cascade of vitriol, abuse, racist insults, and straight-up hate speech.
Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong. Or maybe I’ll be unfortunately unsurprised to learn that I was correct in the first place, and there’s no amount of polite explanation that can silence a racist.