June 16th, 2020
A few years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement first arose, it was not uncommon to hear a rebuttal – “but don’t all lives matter?”
Most of those who responded that way were simply being dismissive [that is the most generous way to put it.]. However, some folks I respected really needed an explanation. They had been on the right side of activism and associations, and the last thing they could imagine about themselves is that they were participating in or affirming racism. Their genuine views were built on the concept that a society needs to be built around a vision that all are equal, have equal access, and equal opportunity. Their well-meaning but naïve response was neither malicious nor mal-intended.
Most of these folks got it after it was explained to them why the phrase mattered and, regrettably, needed affirmation from all of us.
It is now several years later, and the BLM movement has expanded – for terrible reasons. There are lots of articles and analyses about why now but suffice it to say that it isn’t hard to understand why we who are White once again need to affirm the message. Nowadays, when we hear the same rebuttal about “all lives matter” it might mean that one is genuinely clueless and doesn’t accept the truth of endemic racism in America. Worse, some don’t really believe that all lives do matter – that only White ones should. I have very little patience for either of those perspectives.
I was, though, caught short in hearing two people comment about how it made them feel. One was a First Nation/Native American and one was the child of Holocaust survivors. In each case, they wondered why their historic anguish wasn’t being recognized or, they felt, was being implicitly dismissed. Neither in any way tried to belittle the legitimacy of the BLM Movement, nor deny that it was way overdue. Their point was that they looked at their own history of delegitimization, of legal and illegal discrimination, of the death sentence that too often accompanied their ancestors, even their own personal experiences, and how easy it still seems for much of the US to not take their histories as seriously as they now seem to be taking the travails of Blacks. Their concern, separately articulated, was that as America confronts its shocking and shameful history of anti-Black racism and racist behavior, that their own narratives will be lost, and America’s empathy quotient will be used up.
Now – so that no one, absolutely no one, misreads what I am writing here – let me be explicit: this is the time for the message of BLM – it should not be diluted, delayed, or discounted. American accountability is long overdue and practices and policies that have allowed racism should be changed – yesterday. No one needs to make excuses for the profoundly effective and moving protests seen around the world, and no one needs to apologize for saying that this is the time.
If one looks at history, though, the concerns of these two are not misplaced. America’s shameful past toward First Nation/Native Americans must never be allowed to be ignored. And the resurgence of anti-Semitic acts in the USA accompanied by a frightening skepticism that there were really 6 million Jewish victims of Nazism demonstrates that the work is far from done. How does one honor those very legitimate concerns – especially as we look to what we want in the future?
When I lived in Chicago in the 80’s and early 90’s, I had the honor of being involved in a Foundation funded by the Chicago Community Trust charged with addressing intergroup understanding. One of my volunteer/leadership roles was to co-facilitate these interactions among young adults from many different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. The experiences were instructive: when groups first got together, their first instinct was to view their own group’s histories in competitive terms: How many were enslaved? How many were displaced? How many were massacred? How prevalent is bigotry toward…?
That approach proved untenable as a way forward. Is there really a hierarchy of bigotry and suffering? Is that a viable or even an ethical way to have an intergroup conversation?
After a while, we developed an alternative approach: what experiences made each group and each individual feel vulnerable, fearful, or misunderstood? No one was dismissive of those feelings since they were so clearly genuine. They weren’t quantifiable. Sharing why they felt those fears led to both empathy and understanding.
However, something happened during those conversations that anticipated today in remarkably and sadly prescient ways. In every conversation, by the end, the sense was that the most vulnerable group was young adult black men. In group after group, we heard black males tell of walking down the street and watching people quickly cross the street to avoid them; we heard of being stopped by police for no reason, or being tailed by clerks in stores, or seeing people clutch their purses or briefcases on busses – or choose less desirable seats to avoid sitting next to them. Every single person who was not a young black male nodded in recognition – in every single session.
I confess I have no recollection whatsoever if we then had the data to confirm what we all now know to be statistically true: the inordinate number of deaths and incarcerations among this population. The real-life experience of being a young black male, of any young black male, is only confirmed by that data, but it was evident even then.
Those sessions led to profoundly greater mutual understanding and empathy. Once we shifted the conversation from “my pain is greater than your pain” to “let’s acknowledge that we all have reason to feel vulnerable” both the character of the sessions changed, and the mutuality of respect grew palpably.
However, what didn’t change was the facts. All of those legitimate vulnerabilities continue today, and given the current ethos and political environment fostered by the Administration, other groups can easily be added to those who met in Chicago 30+ years ago, and make a case for their own victimization and vulnerability. But young black males are still being targeted, victimized, incarcerated, brutalized, and murdered.
We learned in those gathering that one can transfer fear of the other to empathy. As we [hopefully] construct a more just society going forward, that message must prevail. And of course, it must apply to all who feel vulnerable. But even then the message was loud, clear, and poignant even if we didn’t yet have these words to tell us: Black Lives Matter.