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Fine Wine and Caviar: #BlackLives vs. #AllLives

August 23rd, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments


I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this whole “#BlackLivesMatter” vs. “#AllLivesMatter” thing. I actually believe both. I was somewhat perplexed when Black Lives Matter Activists disrupted a Democratic Party event in Arizona. When Martin O’Malley responded to the disruption by saying “All lives matter” he was scolded by the activists at the time and others afterwards. Are the #BlackLivesMatter folks suggesting that all lives don’t matter?

I actually don’t know who created the cartoon above but I think its intent was to reflect the focus of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. The purpose of the campaign is to bring attention to the fact that black lives don’t seem to matter as much as other lives, particularly when it comes to police stereotyping and the criminal justice system. Although there are many who continue to either willfully or through ignorance deny the statistical evidence that points to the inequality, and there are many others who assign the discrepancy to “culture” (i.e., “black people are more prone to criminal behavior,” nothing racist about that), I am not in that number. I am lucky to have bright and inquisitive students who have presented valid evidence to convince me.

So I agree that there is a lingering institutionalized racism in the United States we have yet to overcome. And I agree that we will never overcome it as long as we refuse to acknowledge it. The question is does asserting that #AllLivesMatter deflect away from that goal? I can see how it might. If you are already of a mind to deny the reality of the racial inequality, #AllLivesMatter can serve to lull you back into apathy. But I don’t think the most effective response to a well-intentioned #AllLivesMatter is anger and counter-denial. Many, like me, who believe both that blacks are treated disproportionately worse than whites and that all lives do matter are left scratching our heads. How can we support our black brothers and sisters?

I have pointed out in this space (here and here, and elsewhere) that the problem of racism in this country is not really one of race but rather economic inequality. The problems that plague the poor black community are essentially the same as those that affect the poor white community. Race consciousness, going back as far as the seventeenth century, is employed as a means of pitting the poor against each other so they are distracted from their real adversaries: those who exploit and profit from their misfortune. But racial distinctions, and race itself, are social constructions, not biological realities, as almost any scholar today will attest. The inevitable consequence of focusing on race is to perpetuate racism, ironically even when the purpose of the focus is to overcome racism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Affirmative Action programs, which determine inclusion on the basis of race (a social construction) rather than economics (a social reality). What is the outcome? Poor whites who are little (if at all) better off than poor blacks are excluded and resentful. This is not a recipe for social harmony.

So then, back to the issue at hand, if the purpose of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is to draw attention to problems arising out of institutionalized racism, perpetuating division based on race is doomed to fail. The problem with the cartoon above is that it too assumes the reality of the division. But there aren’t two houses, there is only one. And as long as those locked in the basement are at each other’s’ throats, those on the upper floors will continue to enjoy fine wine and caviar.

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