Black Lives Matter

Since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, this phrase (which first appeared as a Twitter hashtag) has been adopted by a growing number of Americans concerned that American law enforcement and criminal justice are selectively biased against African Americans.

For others, this same phrase “black lives matter” insinuates a kind of reverse discrimination - with disproportionate attention being given to African-Americans.  This group sometimes uses the tagline "all lives matter” in response. Other observers of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have expressed concern that the anger and indignation galvanized by the movement have led (in the aftermath of some police shootings) to a mindset in which BLM supporters seem to care more about insisting on the truth of the movement’s concerns than waiting to hear out the (potentially inconvenient) details and context of a particular case. Many conservatives have thus come to see the term as exclusionary, with (pseudo-conservative) Donald Trump calling it “a very, very divisive term.”

To members and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, this kind of anger fundamentally misunderstands the point of the effort. On this point, President Obama recently noted, “The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African-Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter; it’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability.”The different interpretations could be summed up as “Black Lives (Also) Matter” vs. “Black Lives (Only) Matter.”

Whether this vulnerability exists - and if so, where it is coming from - are also points of sharp disagreement (see equity, inequity and racial inequity). Some have denied that any such vulnerability and bias exist, while others insist that such bias is virtually everywhere. This kind of a zero-sum battle between absolute views (no-bias-whatsoever and all-pervasive bias) can make public conversation difficult and unproductive. Perhaps that is why contradictory voices on the right and left have been powerful. For instance, to many conservatives who are skeptical of (any) claims of unfair, disproportionate force, an acknowledgment by Republican Senator Tim Scott of unfair treatment by law enforcement (he had been stopped seven times in a year), was compelling. Likewise, according to statistical analyses done by Roland G. Fryer, an African-American economics professor at Harvard University, despite consistent evidence of more non-lethal force used against African Americans, the rate of lethal force appears to be equivalent across racial difference.

While it’s not unusual for the “true statistics” to be contested across American conflicts, it is unusual for voices like Fryer & Scott to “betray” their respective communities’ views - and invite more nuance into the conversation.  

Even when vulnerabilities are acknowledged, where they come from also remains sharply contested. Progressives point to what they see as broad structural inequalities wherein African-Americans still find themselves having to struggle disproportionately with lack of access to education, employment, health care, healthy food, and unbiased policing. Many conservatives don’t deny that inequalities exist in terms of outcomes, but tend to attribute the outcomes to various problems within the African American communities and feel baffled that these communities seem to take so little responsibility for its own group members’ contributions to these continuing differences. From this perspective, it’s not only not helpful to attribute racial inequities solely to outside patterns (e.g., poorly funded schools, historical disadvantage, police bias), but actually counterproductive, because they cannot ever be rooted out without some level of self-ownership. For example, in the context of the BLM movement, conservatives are often frustrated by what they see as Black communities failing to acknowledge and mobilize against “black on black” violence, which they note results in vastly more African American deaths than do police shootings. 


-Do you see Black Lives Matter as crucial and valuable – or unnecessary and problematic? Why do you think Americans are coming to such differing conclusions about this movement?

-If you consider yourself a supporter of BLM, is there anything about this movement you don’t like – and think needs to change?

-If you consider yourself a critic of BLM, is there anything positive about this movement – that you think may be helpful on some level?

-Why do you think African Americans are mobilizing much more against police violence relative to “Black on Black” violence?



Jacob Hess, Mikhail Lyubansky, John Backman

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