Responses to Black Lives Matter: Why “all lives matter” and “I don’t see color” miss the point.

Comments of WOB Board member, Donna J. Blevins, J.D., MPA

I really don’t get the extreme, overwhelmingly negative reaction by so many in the white community to the simple phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

When I see it, I think “yes, they do!” And I am not alone. But there is a large contingency of Americans out there that has a very different and quite visceral reaction. It kind of drives them crazy. I’m trying to understand why.

I think mainly they just see words around the phrase “Black Lives Matter” that simply aren’t there. It is not preceded by the word “only” and it is not followed by the word “more”. It is a complete, stand-alone sentence comprised of three simple words. And to come back with an angry “All Lives Matter” is a silencing response. It’s just “shut up” in more neutral language. How dare you make such a statement!

There are also some who see it as a divisive phrase, stirring the boiling cauldron of racism. They will sometimes say that if we just quit talking about racism it will go away. Sadly, there is nothing in our country’s history that leads me to believe this is true. That’s akin to saying that if we just stop doing mammograms breast cancer will disappear. Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away and, in fact, the more we bring it into the light the more we might be able to find a cure.And there are those well-intentioned folks who respond with some version of “I don’t see color,” as though erasing a person’s skin color doesn’t bleach out their identity and life experience as well. In his “I Have a Dream Speech” Martin Luther King said he dreamed of a nation where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin”. 

Two sentences later, he dreamed of a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” That isn’t being color-blind; that’s specifically recognizing each other’s skin color and treating each other as equals anyway. He isn’t saying don’t see the color of their skin – he is saying just don’t judge them by it. 

Granted, I’ve only been on this planet 63 years, and I’m white, but I’ve read newspapers and news magazines all my life, listened to radio and television, too. Read books and studied current events, politics, and history. And I have witnessed the world around me and watched history unfold. It is obvious to me that the entire time I’ve been alive (and for years before I came on the scene), black lives have never mattered in this country as much as white lives have. 

In fact, I told my spouse, Elvia Rosales Arriola, as I was putting this essay together, that the only exception I can think of might be when white Americans passed The Fugitive Slave Act (making it illegal to harbor runaway slaves). And that was only because they considered those black lives to be stolen property that they wanted returned to them.

To believe this nation has ever given black lives the same value, respect, protection, or support given white lives, is to ignore all of our history and everything that has ever been written, filmed, recorded, or said about it.

True, there have been moments of progress and success, but it has never been easy, and this country has always expected black people to be patient and to endure incredible hardship to attain civil rights that white people have enjoyed since birth.
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Examples:

The 15th Amendment to the US Constitution gave black males the right to vote in 1870, but it didn’t really have teeth until the Voting Rights Act was passed 95 years later in 1965. For 95 years white America threw up roadblock after roadblock to black voting. And it still does, especially now that the US Supreme Court’s conservative majority gutted the Voting Rights Act’s provisions.

Brown vs. Board of Education, ending school segregation, was handed down in 1954. It was still being litigated in the 1980s and, to this day, the Court’s mandate that schools be fully integrated “with all deliberate speed” has never been met. “With all deliberate speed” in white America meant never and led to white flight instead. White flight meant new suburbs, new schools, new housing, with no blacks allowed (and very few people of color at all). All the studies you will find anywhere today point to the reality that our schools are more segregated now than they were in 1954.

Old Sundown ordinances (making it illegal for black people to be within certain city limits after dark), the Jim Crow segregation laws, red-lining of entire neighborhoods by banks (thereby refusing to loan money to blacks to buy houses or businesses), and similar policies have just been replaced by newer, equally discriminatory ones, such as those justified by our absurd “War on Drugs,” where crack was treated far more harshly than cocaine and the crack epidemic in largely black communities was essentially ignored while, in contrast, white America today wrings its hands over the opioid epidemic affecting primarily white communities. The conversation around the crack epidemic was about law enforcement, incarceration & punishment. The conversation around the opioid crisis is about treatment and rehabilitation and stopping doctors from over-prescribing.

I remember when blacks stealing from stores in New Orleans after Katrina were labeled “looters”, while whites doing the same thing were “scavenging” for food and clothing.

And we’ve seen it play out in the COVID-19 pandemic, where people with a lifetime of inferior medical care are far more susceptible to the scourge of the disease because they don’t start at the same place as those who have had health insurance and access to quality medical care do.
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So, of course all lives matter. But you don’t have to say all white lives matter, because in this country that’s a given. It’s not so obvious that all black lives do, especially when there isn’t much outrage in response to black lives being murdered by police or by white vigilantes who think they have a right to interrupt a black person’s afternoon run, give him “simple commands”, and kill him if he doesn’t follow them (which is what the prosecutor said was part of the reasoning as to why Ahmaud Arbery’s killers weren’t initially charged by law enforcement officers with anything).

You don’t have to read much civil rights history to know that law enforcement has always been a mechanism to oppress people of color. I am from the South, and I know that law enforcement was often THE tool employed to keep black people in subservience and away from the polls, where they might vote people into office who could change their situation. It was a simple and well-oiled part of the anti-civil rights machinery: convicted felons can’t vote, so arrest as many black people as you can; charge them with felonies, even though it would be a misdemeanor if committed by a white person; make sure they are convicted; and abracadabra — more black people purged from the voter registration rolls (assuming you hadn’t already made it near impossible — or a near-death experience — to try to register in the first place). It is a formula still in use in various ways today, boosted by a whole lot of other more subtle voter suppression policies like, for example, making sure that even if they can vote, there isn’t any polling place for them to get to easily. And it has never been just a southern thing. It’s just generally been a little more open in the South than in the North.

The tragic death of George Floyd (Minnesota), coming on the heels of white prosecutors initially refusing to file charges in the Ahmaud Arbery (Georgia) murder, or the Breonna Taylor (Kentucky) slaughter, might have been the straw that broke the camels back at last, but there have been many, many straws building over decades, if not centuries, in the United States. The list of black death at the hands of law enforcement now goes coast-to-coast and border-to-border. 

But in truth, non-white lives have never mattered as much as white lives in the United States of America, even beyond the context of law enforcement. The arc of “less than” history is long for Native American, Latinx, Asian, and all blends of non-white folks; I won’t get into all that now because I really want to talk about the Black Lives Matter message, but I am not ignoring it.

If we want to unite as a nation, maybe we would be better off to stop being offended by the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and start listening instead. We cannot solve a problem that we refuse to admit even exists. And in America there is a problem with our treatment of and lack of respect for black lives.

If you believe that all lives matter, then take the time to listen to those who feel that theirs don’t, and work hard to change how our country treats all of us going forward.

About ELVIA

Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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