Since its first appearance in 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter has become a highly-controversial statement for a nation reluctant to confront its ongoing history of racial injustice. The movement began as a “call to action in response to state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism,” with a focus on how such violence disproportionately affects not only Black communities, but Queer Black communities (for example, Black transgender women make up the majority of victims in hate-crimes against all trans and gender non-confirming individuals).
Following its rise to prominence – specifically in the protests following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO – #BlackLivesMatter has been increasingly problematized, by both the media and the public at large. The response by critics is a largely reactionary one, prompting backlash in the form of such counter hashtags as #AllLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, and even #WhiteLivesMatter. The primary issue with the way in which Black Lives Matter and its supporters have been so incredibly misrepresented in these criticisms is the faulty way in which we view things like ethnic pride in communities of color. The month of February usually sees the continued resurgence of the question “Why is there no white history month?” Notable mouthpiece for the Alt-Right Richard Spencer has spoken at length about the desire for a “white ethno-state on the American continent,” co-opting online positivity movements started by People of Color for an angrier, white audience.
The misunderstanding of Black Lives Matter and other movements like it – whether it is truly a misunderstanding or a blatant refusal to see understand the greater issue at hand – is rooted in the social view of ethnocentrism. One of the most recognizable ethnocentric movements in the United States is the White Pride movement, a general body of white supremacy that encompasses a number of hate groups (i.e. the KKK, the National Socialist Movement, etc.). The portrayal of these groups has been rooted in two basic caricatures; the portrait of an angry young skinhead (i.e. American History X), and the quintessential hooded Klan member, typically unmasked and revealed as a backwards Southerner. Regardless of the iteration, white pride is rooted in violence against communities deemed undesirable by its proponents. In hoping to achieve the white ethno-state, these undesirables (people of color, Jewish communities, queer folks, etc.) must be phased out. While the image of the modern White Nationalist is sleeker – the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville saw that shaved heads and combat boots have been traded in for polo shirts and khakis – the focus on segregation and, as Spencer calls it, “a peaceful ethnic cleansing” in order to protect the European identity.
However, to assume that the goals of Black Lives Matter or other such movements are created in the same desire for ethnic supremacy is to ignore the systemic oppression of people of color by the American police state. Further, Black Lives Matter has seen opposition in the most insidious form of protest. This being the counter movement “Blue Lives Matter,” blue lives meaning police lives. Aside from the glaring issue of “blue lives” being an oppressed class, this movement is perhaps one of the most insulting to come out of the conversation. One
While a negative public opinion no doubt influences the reach and effectiveness of any movement, the backlash against Black Lives Matter is in-line with an even greater-reaching question of what it means to be “soft on crime.” The infamous 1988 Revolving Door ad run by the George H. W. Bush campaign made an example of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and his supposed soft stance on crime. Further, though it was never explicitly mention in the ad, the cited case of Willie Horton created the lasting boogeyman of the Black, male, rapist (and specifically one targeting white women). The racialization of the discussion of crime and criminal justice is by no means new, but it becomes even more dangerous when used to silence the very-real claims of systemic police brutality. Not only that, but the portrayal of victims as “thugs” (a term that has become so steeped racially-coded language that it might as well be a slur) only reinforces the idea that the only good criminal is a dead one, and as long as you play into respectability politics, you have nothing to worry about.
The issue with this way of thinking is that it does nothing to address the use of excessive force by police officers. The blind admiration and unquestioning obedience to such authority figures comes at the cost of actual American lives (lives that should be encompassed by the “all” in All Lives Matter). However, even in passing laws that supposedly seek to monitor police in the field through the use of body cameras, politicians have found it more than difficult to toe the line between being “tough on crime” and making meaningful institutional changes. Massachusetts, for example, is considering a bill that would, among its 161 amendments, create mandatory minimum sentences for striking a police officer. Delaware’s House of Representatives, following lobbying from law enforcement organizations, voted to reinstate the death penalty after a ruling declared it unconstitutional only a year earlier. Governor John Carney took the conversation one step further when, during a debate, he suggested that he would not rule out a loophole that would extend the death penalty only to someone who had killed a member of law enforcement.
The passage of regressive legislation for the sake of coddling law enforcement officers from any type of accountability for the use of excessive force only serves to protect the wrong class of people. Rather than acknowledge that the American police state is suffering from a race problem predating social media movements and trending hashtags, the wagers of the War on Crime only continue to disenfranchise dissenters, defining the already stark power imbalance that exists in this country. The continued silencing of the oppressed only begs the question: is democracy still at work?
Featured Photo Credit: Black Lives Matter protest against St. Paul police brutality by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr (license)
Racial tensions have certainly evolved in the United States and to such a degree that it is quite impossible to measure any progress made. The manifestations of racial prejudices have utterly transformed into more palatable illusions, which succeed in convincing some of its dissipation and in turn preserves it. Undoubtedly, the societal constraints of morally acceptable behavior are narrowing, and many political observers like Michelle Alexander believe that the execution of racism has adjusted to conform to these tangible standards, but has nevertheless persisted.
In your post, you identify some of these trends, noting astutely the transformed face of white bigotry from that of a backwards and narrow-minded country dweller to that of a young, debonair man who only wishes to preserve his Anglo-American ancestry. Similarly, the disenfranchisement of American blacks is now supported, not by literacy tests and poll taxes, but by mass incarceration and police brutality.
Importantly, black resistance has taken the space it has been given, increasingly emboldened to address oppression, and evolved in the opposite direction. While demonstrations remain necessarily nonviolent for the most part, society has emblazoned the image of the “angry black (wo)man” into the minds of those who are unaware that racial tensions persist in this manner. The response must seem disproportionate to many.