Dear White Friends,
Over the years I have watched as more and more of you express fear and concern over the growing movement so aptly named “Black Lives Matter.” I have seen your posts and comments rebutting the movement with the words “All Lives Matter” or “Police Lives Matter.” Most everyone who knows me knows that I stand in solidarity with the BLM movement, so I want to take a few minutes and hopefully clear up some of the misconceptions I see as best I can.
This is a letter that has been brewing in my mind for a long time, but to be honest I have been hesitant to write it. You see, this is a big risk for me. I don’t want to overstep or run the risk of saying something really stupid and exposing just how ignorant I am when it comes to talking about the feelings of others. At the same time I can no longer stay silent; not for my sake, nor for your sake, because if no one is willing to speak up, then nothing changes. And friends, there are a whole lot of things that simply have to change. There are members in our human family who are hurting, and we do have the power to change that, but it is going to require a change of heart.
I would like to start with the words “Black Lives Matter” because for some reason many hear in those words a contradiction of our common understanding that All Lives Matter. Of course all lives matter; no one disputes that and everyone who is alive will testify to that effect. But despite that understanding, the value of some lives is not upheld as being equal to that of other lives, which places these lives in jeopardy. And now, after centuries of being oppressed into silence, these lives, these black lives, are speaking out and saying: “we matter.” These black lives are drawing attention to their peril; they are trying to open our eyes and make us aware that our indifference is killing them. Why should that be so offensive and threatening? The only reason I can think of is that some of us don’t wish to be jolted; and if that is the case, then the question is why?
Typically, when one of us is in trouble, we try to get someone’s attention so that we can get some help. If I were drowning, I would wave and yell for someone to throw me a life line because I believe that my life matters and that it is worth saving. What I would not expect is for someone to tell me that I am not really drowning and that all lives are worth saving. That wouldn’t make any sense would it? It would be a devaluation of my humanity, and the message would be that all lives are worth saving except for mine. Well right now Black lives are in trouble, and the words “Black Lives Matter ” are an attempt to get our attention. It is no different than my drowning scenario. So if we respond by saying “all lives matter,” what are we doing? Essentially we are devaluing black lives and sending the message that all lives matter except for black lives. If we cannot bring ourselves to accept that Black Lives Matter, then we don’t really believe that All Lives Matter; because if all lives matter then black lives matter.
Nor do the words “Black Lives Matter” contradict our common understanding that Police Lives matter. Black Lives Matter is a peaceful movement whose intent is to draw attention to and change, structures and systems that vilify, exploit, and cheapen black lives. One of those structures is law enforcement – at the systemic level. This is something that all lives should be concerned about. The intent behind law enforcement is to make sure that we all follow the laws that exist to keep us safe – not to terrorize and harass any segment of the population. This includes law enforcement officials who need to be held accountable for their unlawful actions both on and off duty. Technology has enabled us to expose certain corrupt acts. It also assists us with quantifying who is being the most affected. Right now black lives are being targeted disproportionately to the rest of the population. This is a fact. The evidence is overwhelming.
Many of you to whom I am speaking should be able to relate to this in some small measure. I went to high school with a lot of you and do you remember what we called the police back then? We called them “pigs.” We all did; whether we want to remember it or not – we all called them “pigs.” And why did we refer to the police as pigs? Well if you will recall, we grew up during an exceedingly tumultuous time. Young people were being targeted all over the country for long hair, rock and roll, tie-dye skirts, and anything else that deviated from the established “norm.” We lived in an Archie Bunker world where anyone with long hair was profiled as a ” long-haired, hippie-type, pinko fag.” Do you remember that? Do you remember being constantly pulled over and searched by the police for any lame excuse they could come up with? I can sure remember it. So what did we do? We called the police “pigs” and we boo/hissed at them all the time. The difference is, that that is usually as far as it went. We were harassed and greatly inconvenienced, but we were not beaten, tasted, or shot. And eventually we had the luxury of growing out of, and moving past that profile.
But black lives are always black and there is no respite from the harassment. The BLM movement is not about looting or violence or taking the lives of police officers. It is about drawing attention to the fact that black lives are being unfairly targeted, punished, and even killed without due process. However, as most movements do, The BLM movement has drawn it’s fair share of fringe lunatics who represent BLM no more so than ISIS represents the Islamic religion, or Westboro Baptist Church represents Christianity. These individuals act on their own. BLM does not advocate their actions, and when we fall into the trap of lumping these rogue warriors in with the movement, we are burying our heads in the sand rather than taking the time to ask questions and attempt to discern the truth. This is very much an Archie Bunker type of response.
Life is precious and when any segment of it is in danger, we are called to respond. When Hurricane Katrina hit, what did we do? We all pitched in and helped out in a myriad of ways. Some even went the extra mile and showed up in New Orleans to offer whatever assistance they could. They didn’t go to Minneapolis and say “well Minneapolis lives matter too;” they went to New Orleans where the help was needed. When a particular species is in danger such as the eagle or the polar bears, what do we do? We go to great lengths to preserve the lives of eagles and the polar bears. We don’t say: “all lives matter” and rush to save the iguanas and the tree frogs; we focus on the species that is being threatened. Why should black lives be any different?
The answer as I see it, is that racism is still a very real and very ugly reality in this country, and we don’t want to believe it much less do the work required to eradicate racism once and for all. I get it; truly I do. I sure didn’t want to deal with it for a long time. I thought we had long since moved past those days, and like a lot of people, I claimed that I didn’t even see color because after all, look how many black friends I have! All I was willing to look at was what was on the surface; I never bothered to look beneath the rug where all of the crumbs of an ugly past had been swept. Which meant that I could not see how I benefited from being a member of a majority that oppressed and mistrusted a minority. I could not see the disparity in opportunity or how I tend to gravitate toward neighborhoods that are “safe.” I could not see how I take for granted certain privileges such as the ability to move throughout my daily life without being targeted, or how I have always known that clean drinking water is available to me whenever I want it. I could never fathom a life where my children and grandchildren might not have access to a decent education, or healthcare, and I sure can’t imagine what it’s like to be worried sick every time my child walks out the door. Yet, these things are an every day reality for blacks, because people like me refuse to open their eyes and ears and pay attention to what is really going on around us.
Today, thanks be to God, I no longer feel that way. Today I am willing to open my eyes and see the ugly truth, painful though it may be. I have an incredibly long way to go in uncovering my own complacency and acquiescence because the roots run deep and can be very stubborn. But I am willing to dig because I care about the fate of our world and all of the lives that inhabit it. Black Lives Matter; black lives are in trouble, and together we need to do something about it.
I hope I have helped in some small way and that you are encouraged to probe into this even further. There are plenty of ways to do this, I recommend starting with the book written by Michelle Alexander entitled “The New Jim Crow.” Another book that I recommend is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between The World And Me.” The subject of racism is probably the most intimidating thing white Americans are faced with today, but we have to confront it. Racism is killing and dehumanizing all of us and we can no longer afford to ignore it or insist that it doesn’t exist. My prayer is that you will consider what I have said and start listening deeply to what is being said.
Blessings and peace to you all…