These days seem to be characterized by tragedy after tragedy: the deaths of Walter Scott, the Emanuel Nine, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Trayvon Martin and far, far too many others.
There are a lot of articles circulating around the internet that discuss the technicalities of these recent cases of national torment, citing statistics and quotations from Black Lives Matter activists. I don’t want this to become another drop in the bucket of back-and-forth opinions because I think we can all make some fundamental agreement on the idea that innocent people are being killed by those whose duty it is to uphold the law. It’s disgusting. Confusing. I think we can agree that there are good cops and bad cops. Some cops have macho-power trip issues. Some cops are undeniably racist. Some cops act irrationally out of fear for their own lives.
This is, first and foremost, an editorial about the Black Lives Matter movement, which was born out of the recent media maelstrom of police brutality against, namely, unarmed black men. Unwarranted police violence would be an inexcusable problem in any country, but the trend in the United States toward disproportionate levels of violence against one racial group is particularly inexcusable — and also a symptom of a much larger problem in this country.
There’s a lot that the Black Lives Matter movement calls for — defunding law enforcement, putting police through awareness programs, demilitarizing their equipment, making them wear body cameras, etc. — and while these measures will (probably) reduce the number of innocent people killed, I really don’t think they would affect the real issue that leads to unwarranted murders by police officers.
I think that issue is too culturally pervasive to be solved by governmental policy.
Systemic racism is a problem in this country. No one can or should deny that. To me, the phrase “black lives matter” is an outcry for the recognition of the fact that our culture seems to place more value on white lives than it does on black lives and wants a demand for its discontinuation.
A lot of people use the phrase “All Lives Matter” as a sort of rebuttal to the movement, including, unfortunately, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. It’s a huge cop out to say “All Lives Matter,” because it misses the point: “Black Lives Matter,” at its core, is not a statement that calls for black lives to matter more than any other lives.
Rather, it calls for an avowal and a change. Those who use “All Lives Matter” — or those who feel the need for a rebuttal in the first place — seem to want to brush the issue back under the rug where it can gather dust and become a non-issue. And “Black Lives Matter” isn’t something we can afford to deny.
There is nothing inherent to human beings that should give any group a particular advantage over another; black lives, white lives, Asian lives, Latino lives and every other categorization of a life deserves to be treated the same. Yet in the United States, the black versus white issue finds its way into everything from neighborhoods to employment to friendships to college admissions. In an article on CNN iReport, Shane Fast wrote: “In every corner of our world, racism is present … it would be hard to contend that any man has lived his entire life free from any form of racism. It might not be on the surface, but it’s there. In mindsets passed down from generation to generation, in experiences that form a worldview and in countless other ways, racism is present, and as humans we cannot be unaffected by the culture we live in.”
This is exactly why our country’s current race issues are so hard to handle, especially for politicians (Sanders) who are put on the spot. There’s no policy action that erases something we’ve acquired culturally. Racism isn’t something we’re born with; we learn it from society, our parents, friends, TV shows, music, experiences. Black versus white is so deeply embedded in the way people in America live that we can’t expect the government to create policies — like the defunding and demilitarization of cops — that will miraculously turn the situation around. That’s the equivalent of trying to solve a calculus problem solely with algebra.
The current manifestation of the Black Lives Matter movement (which I think is different than the core implication of the statement) has called for not attacking the problem at its source, but rather has called upon the government to take responsibility for creating a solution for a problem that’s not solely governmental.
The real solution is in our hands — all of our hands.
In the car one evening, I was struck by an NPR interview with musician Lianne La Havas. I had never heard of her before, and at first I noticed the way her voice intermingled with Audie Cornish’s: they had the same tone and pacing, barely differentiable outside of the fact that one voice was inflected with an American accent (Audie) and the other British (Liane). I was sucked into the soulfully melodic clips of La Havas’ music that had been woven in under pre-recorded audio, and then I noticed what she was saying:
“Exactly … ,” she said, responding to one of Audie’s questions, “the first time I ever was called ‘black’ was when I went to America. It was completely unusual, like, in London it was just always the norm that all kids from everywhere all hung out. It wasn’t a thing, basically, just: you are ‘Lianne.’ And I feel very lucky that the album came out the way it did — you know, how it sounds — because that’s all I really want to be judged on.”
I’ve since forgotten most everything else that happened on that early August day, but Lianne La Havas’ words have stuck with me — deeply.
The fact that coming to America was the first time she was forced to consider herself as “black” says something unfortunate about the place we call home — in this country, race is forced to matter. The contrast against her experience growing up in London, where “it was just always the norm that all kids from everywhere all hung out,” makes it even more unfortunate. And while we can’t assume this to be the case everywhere in London, it’s beautiful that it does exist. It should demonstrate to us that a similar beauty can exist here too — if we want it bad enough. I’m even further struck by her statement that the quality of her music is “all [she] really want[s] to be judged on.” She doesn’t want blackness versus whiteness to be a part of the impressions people have about her.
Read my name: I’m white. I’m not going to try to deny it, and everything that I’ve said in this article can be qualified as some white girl’s response to a problem that she doesn’t understand. Sure, in some ways that’s 100 percent true, but I think that kind of response only indicates the bigger problem: we don’t seem to want to unify. This is the singular point at which I take issue with Black Lives Matter — the point at which, instead of promoting peace and equality of treatment, it begins to manifest itself as a movement aimed to gain impassioned retribution and circulate hate against white people.
I’m not going to try to say that the cops who kill innocent, unarmed people don’t deserve to be the objects of the hate that their actions incur, and I’m also not going to attempt to convince anyone that our criminal justice system is “unbiased” and “colorblind.”
But generalized hate toward all cops or white people and the call for defunding of law enforcement systems isn’t the answer to the problem.
Hate only breeds more hate; it doesn’t create a system that’s color blind, which is what I think the core of the statement “black lives matter,” and not necessarily the movement, calls for.
I was always a little surprised to see race play out in the high school cafeteria. White people sat with white people. Black people with black people. Indians with Indians. Koreans with Koreans.
It’s like that here at Emory too — if you look around at the Dobbs University Center (DUC) or any other place where people are forced to make conscious decisions about who to talk and associate with, we seem to self-segregate. In my dance class, each of us talks to the people that look like us. No matter how good of friends we could be based on our thoughts and dreams or how uncomfortable we feel in skin-tight leotards, it seems like I’ll only ever be an arm’s-length-friend with the girl whose skin is not the same color as my own.
People seem to be magnetized to people like themselves. We behave as if we innately recognize that birds of a feather flock together.
It takes me back to what Lianne La Havas said on the radio: “Basically, just: you are ‘Lianne.’ And I feel very lucky that the album came out the way it did — you know, how it sounds — because that’s all I really want to be judged on.”
I think we’ll always have the same problems in America until we all decide that who we are inside is all we “really want to be judged on,” and — as unnatural as it sounds — when race ceases to be a defining aspect of how we see ourselves and our individual places within the social landscape that surrounds us. That’s the nation I want to live in — “a nation where [we] will not be judged by the color of [our] skin but by the content of [our] character.”
Olivia Shuler is a College freshman from Atlanta, Georgia.