In this letter to the editor, senior English major Drew White of Williamsburg, Virginia rallies against the notion that “All Lives Matter.”
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Recently, I have heard the argument that All Lives Matter. It seems obvious at first, of course All Lives Matter. Why would All Lives not Matter? But it is difficult to reconcile All Lives Mattering with recent events in our country. It is difficult to understand the rhetoric of All Lives Matter when Black, Native American and Hispanic men spend their lives in prison at rates that are disproportionate to the population. It is difficult to agree that All Lives Matter when I watch videos of police officers extinguishing the lives of Black men and women without regard for due process. In fact, if we analyze our nation’s history it is impossible to conclude that All Lives Matter.
Let us start with an assumption: every life is important. Working from that assumption, we can agree that there would be a world in which every single person is important and everybody agrees that everyone else’s importance is equal to their own. In this system, we would expect that there would be equal healthcare, education, employment, due process, political power, speech, freedom of assembly, every right guaranteed under the constitution. But we do not live in a world of equal importance and for the inequality informed by racism there is one glaring reason why: slavery.
The institution of slavery was created from a fundamental belief that one group was inherently less than another. Europeans, Americans and Africans used this ideology to justify participation in the slave trade and the commodification of other humans. Thus, the type of white supremacy White America used to justify the slave trade became the foundation upon which they founded the culture of slavery.
What commodification does is reduce the empathy inducing qualities of something in favor of its economic value. This is not an issue when you commodify inorganic things but reducing one’s ability to empathize with other humans is incredibly dangerous. By viewing African slaves as property, white Americans participated in a system of marginalization and white supremacy that created a culture of racism in our country.
This is pure and simple racism, belief in the inferiority of a group of people because of their race or ethnicity. Although some may try to justify or apologize for our slave-owning ancestors, it is important to note that there were Americans at the time who were actively against slavery and believed in absolute equality. This means that pre-emancipation Americans always had the ability and capacity to empathize with their slaves but refused to do so, either out of perceived economic benefit or staunch white supremacy.
With hindsight, we can argue that the institution of slavery was not economically feasible and indeed other markets based on slavery were weak and restrictive for all those who participated. Even founding father and slave owner Thomas Jefferson equated slavery to having “[T]he wolf by the ear and feel[ing] the danger of either holding him or letting him loose.” This quote in and of itself illustrates how precarious the institution was and how reliant on white supremacy, as opposed to sound economic decision-making, the slaveholders were. Eventually this led to the establishment of a status quo whereby the norm became slavery.
We can clearly see the institutionalization of antebellum, white supremacist values throughout the history of our country, even after emancipation. White Americans created laws specifically designed to keep people of color from living in white communities. Post-reconstruction legislation disenfranchised black voters with grandfather clauses, literacy poll tests, intimidation and gerrymandering of voting districts. Reconstruction and Jim Crow law enforcement was comprised of white supremacists who turned their back on, and in some cases actively participated in, lynching, rape, robbery, beating, false imprisonment and intimidation of people of color across the south.
It is important to note here that I say White America because Black America had no part in creating legislation until abolitionism became popular in the mid-19th century. Even after emancipation, Black America had little to no representation in local, state and federal government. It was White America who created the institutions and who wrote the laws of our country.
How is a group of people supposed to live and thrive in a nation when it needs services, protection, help and education from institutions that refuse to work with that group? How is a group of people supposed to trust a government that enslaved them for 244 years, held their citizenship and humanity from them for 100 years, and has since subjected them to imprisonment at three times the rate of white citizens? How are a people supposed to be citizens in a nation that has shown them nothing less than senseless violence and disrespect?
In the first half of 2016, 24% of those killed by police officers were black. Black people make up 13.3% of the U.S. population. There is a disparity between the 13.3% percent of the population and the 24% of those killed by police officers. Black people make up 37.8% of those incarcerated in prisons. There is a disparity between the 13.3% of the U.S. population and the 37.8% of our nation’s prison population.
If Black Lives Mattered then we would not see black people disproportionately killed and imprisoned by our nation. We would not see active disenfranchisement of predominantly Black communities across the nation in 2016, 52 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act. We would not see the desperate and destructive effects of a White majority making yet another grab, with a weakening hand, for the power that it has held through slavery, murder, rape, segregation, disenfranchisement and disproportionate imprisonment for almost 400 years.
There is little difference between the murders of Emmett Till in 1955 and Trayvon Martin in 2012. Two cases of extrajudicial “justice” served against a black child in the form of outright murder. There is little difference in the exonerations of those guilty of lynching and those police officers guilty of choking a man to death while he pleads for breath. There is little difference in the disenfranchisement of a former slave because of his illiteracy, an illiteracy forced upon him by the threat of death or whipping by his White owner, and the disenfranchisement of a Black man who has committed a nonviolent crime and served the time handed down to him as punishment.
This is why we need to know that Black Lives Matter. Those who accept and love it put the weight of our nation across their shoulders and push us into a century in which Black America will have the full respect and power accorded to citizens of this nation by the constitution.
Those who say, “wait,” and, “find a better way to protest,” make the same mistake every generation of White moderates in America’s history has made when they refused to acknowledge the pain and darkness our country holds those without power under.
Those who deny and resist the Black Lives Matter Movement with, “All Lives Matter,” either forget or are ignorant of the disparities between the experience of Black America and White America in our history. Not All Lives were yoked in the bondage of slavery for 244 years. Not All Lives were raped by their white owners in order to give birth to more slaves that could be worked or sold for profit. Not All Lives were beaten, hanged and castrated in front of smiling and cheering crowds. Not All Lives were involuntarily sterilized, or experimented on by state and federal governments. Not All Lives were hosed in the streets, attacked by dogs and beaten by those enforcing the law just because they had the audacity to demand the same rights and liberties given to their fellow citizens.
When we say, “All Lives Matter,” we tell black America to, “wait just a little longer.” The same “wait” delivered to slaves by their white owners when they asked for their freedom. It is the same “wait” asked of Martin Luther King when he demanded civil rights and desegregation in Birmingham in 1963. We cannot wait. White America has waited too long to relinquish the privilege and power it has wielded since the conception of this nation. Black America has waited too long for the rights promised to all citizens of this nation in the Bill of Rights. Black America has waited too long for the recognition by White America of the nightmare suffered by Black America since White America “earned” its independence.
It is only through acknowledgement of Black Lives, acknowledgement of the reality of what it means to be a Black citizen in America, that we will have the justification to say that, “All Lives Matter.” Until Black Lives truly Matter to our nation we can never aspire to assume that All Lives Matter, for as long as Black America is still imprisoned, killed, disenfranchised, disrespected and ignored All Lives will not Matter.
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