Black Lives Matter. It is clear that our society operates with the understanding “white lives matter.” As for blue lives, frankly, they don’t exist, as it is a uniform you can shed, unlike Black skin. In reality, both responses are a resistance to the affirmation that needs to be spoken out loud—especially by those with white and “blue” lives—that Black Lives Matter, too. There are far too many instances when white people, we members of the dominant culture, send clear—sometimes intentional and sometimes unconscious—messages that non-white lives don’t count. And not just as individuals, but also in the systems we operate within; as we saw on January 6, the forces who are meant to protect and serve have a different playbook depending on what the opposing side looks like.
Let’s start with the fact that Black History Month is the shortest month of the year, and that we view Black history as something separate. It would make sense for our history to be written chronologically, with white and Black history integrated on the pages. Black history is an extracurricular in most schools, as if it’s an optional chapter of American history, despite the fact that Black people are who built this country beginning as early as 1619, when the first slave ship touched shore.
Did Black lives matter when they were taken from their homes and forced overseas to work, not as laborers, but as pieces of property who were beaten to perform and hunted down if they dared try to run off? Did Black lives matter when slave masters would think nothing of separating families if it would benefit him financially? Did Black lives matter in 1865 when Jim Crow laws dictated that human beings with Black skin were only 3/5 of a person? How about all the times Ku Klux Klan cowards hung innocent Black men in trees to send a message of just how little Black lives mattered? Do you know the KKK still exists today, with estimates of somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 members?
In 1898, Black people in Wilmington, NC worked together to gain some political power through a free and fair election. White people were threatened by this and in 1898, 2,000 white supremacists formed a riot and insurrection of the duly elected government, killing somewhere between 60 and 300 Black people. The Wilmington library has information on this insurrection but is under strict orders not to allow anyone to see it. Did Black lives matter then?
Black people attempted to band together financially in Tulsa, OK. The affluent community was called Black Wall Street. White people saw them as a threat and burned, pillaged and massacred them in 1921; 300 people died and 800 were injured. Police arrested Black folks and placed them in internment camps; not one white person was arrested. Did Black lives matter then?
In 1955, did 14-year-old Emmett Till’s life matter when white men drug him out of his uncle’s house four days after he allegedly had the audacity to whistle at a white woman? A group of white men beat that boy beyond recognition, gouged out his eye, shot him and tied a cotton gin around him and threw him in the river. Later his accuser, Carolyn Bryant, admitted she had lied. His killers went unpunished. And sure, this country has made progress. A common assertion that racism is no longer relevant is that we’ve had a Black president. We are moving forward, but this progress is precisely what sparks such ugliness from white supremacists. This ugliness can be seen in many places: We have seen a modern-day Emmett Till in the horrid murder of 15-year-old Quawan Charles, who was found dead in a field in Louisiana last November. The comparison has been made because, in both cases, the boys’ faces were hardly recognizable after the grisly beatings inflicted upon them.
Black people have been telling us that they are being murdered by law enforcement, and in the age of cell phones, we see how police treat them differently than they do white people with our own eyes. In example after example, it is clear that police see an unarmed Black person as a bigger threat than an armed white person, and they act accordingly. There are many studies that show Black people are economically disadvantaged. They live in substandard housing, have lower-paying jobs, less access to quality healthcare, impoverished school districts, disproportionate arrests and imprisonments, unfair lending practices and the list goes on and on.
When are we going to stop telling Black people they just have a chip on their shoulder and start listening to understand what they experience? We need to use Black History Month to truly educate ourselves, listen to our Black and Brown brothers and sisters and look in the mirror to see how we might be able to help this situation instead of denying its existence. This article is my contribution to the cause today.