Black Lives Matter’s Big Mistake

The movement rebuffed a statement of support from the Democrats. Yeah, the DNC is the man. But this was an olive branch. Take it.

09.02.15 5:01 AM ET

To the surprise of many within the Democratic establishment, the Black Lives Matter movement rebuffed the Democratic National Committee’s resolution in support of the movement via a terse message posted to the group’s official Facebook page on Monday.

“A resolution signaling the Democratic National Committee’s endorsement that Black lives matter, in no way implies an endorsement of the DNC by the Black Lives Matter Network, nor was it done in consultation with us. We do not now, nor have we ever, endorsed or affiliated with the Democratic Party, or with any party,” read the first two sentences of BLM’s response to the DNC’s resolution.

Despite BLM’s best attempt at clarity, this response raises far more questions than it answers, and it should make the casual observer wonder why there appears to be so much animus between BLM and the Democratic Party. Surely, BLM could have expressed how it is a separate, independent entity with differing motives than the DNC, while also expressing appreciation for the fact the DNC values the spirit and goals of the movement, right? Regardless of whether BLM wants to form an alliance or announce a truce accepting an olive branch and opening a dialogue with the DNC, the party’s gesture should be considered a positive development. Yet BLM appears to view it as something else.

BLM’s response continues: “The Democratic Party, like the Republican and all political parties, have historically attempted to control or contain Black people’s efforts to liberate ourselves. True change requires real struggle, and that struggle will be in the streets and led by the people, not by a political party.”

The remaining 100 words of the response make it appear that the movement steadfastly desires to remain apolitical. Yet, mobilizing millions of young, engaged, and passionate eligible voters during a presidential election season and opting to remain apart from the political fray seems like a missed opportunity. This potential mistake only becomes more glaring when you consider Democratic candidates’ recent acquiescing to BLM’s demands, and the knowledge that President Barack Obama rode a wave of unprecedented African-American turnout levels and support during both of his successful presidential bids. Black voices and votes have arguably never had greater agency and influence in American society; so aspiring to disengage from the political process is emphatically a step in the wrong direction.

This response may appear bewildering and frustrating for those on America’s political left, but it actually speaks to one of the most deep-seated and rarely discussed realities of black American life. Every day black Americans decide to engage, live, learn how to thrive, and excel within social structures that we know are built around our oppression. During this constant struggle there are countless days where black Americans wish that they could be apart from it all.

Black parents wish that they did not have to give their children “the talk” about how to best interact with the police so as to avoid a family gathering at a mortuary. Countless black Americans wish that they could be relieved of the unrelenting pressure of having to appear to be nice, safe, and amiable to white America, so that they can improve their station in life. My parents have had these discussions with me and my sister, and I still remember waking up early for elementary school to starch and iron my clothes so that I looked presentable and could be accepted. But I still experienced discrimination and was regularly disinvited from birthday parties because of my race. There always was just not enough room for me at sleepover.

Not even a month ago, my parents called me up to have a polite intervention regarding my growing facial hair because they feared that it may make me look threatening, and impede my burgeoning career or safety. The concern was not about how comfortable I felt within my own skin or encouraging my own individual expression, but with how my individual expression and humanity could be perceived by a social structure that has historically been oppressive and dangerous to black Americans.

Black life in America consists of an unrelenting struggle between weighing our humanity with the need for social and financial survival in an increasingly competitive world nearly devoid of safety nets and structured against encouraging black ascension.

BLM has always been an emotive response to America’s racially oppressive structures. It has allowed black Americans to congregate and express their frustrations in a relatively safe environment, while hoping for positive change. During previous eras, the barbershop and the church served this purpose because they were beyond the gaze of white oppression. In the 1960s, countless black and white Americans took to the streets demanding civil rights for black Americans, but we all knew that these peaceful protests could be life-threatening for those who participated. The fact that cross sections of Americans of every race, age, and income level feel comfortable participating in a BLM protest without feeling that their life may be in danger is a sign of progress and revolutionary.

Yet BLM has to be more than merely an emotive congregation—even though this structure is desperately needed—and the frustrating reality of this movement, and by extension black American life, is that we cannot completely extricate ourselves from the oppressive structures that govern us. We have to engage with these structures because progress cannot occur from disengaging from the world around us. Aspiring for a black libertarian utopia is not what is needed right now regardless of how idyllic it might sound.

Detractors might proclaim that black Americans should “Go Back to Africa” if we do not like America, and black Americans might even encourage back-to-Africa movements. But we all know that the true reality, which we are all afraid to discuss, is that black Americans are as American as apple pie, and with that acceptance must come the acknowledgement of the systemic racism and cultural trauma that is ingrained within our society.

The emotional rage and frustration that BLM has provided a platform for expressing is incredibly valuable and this response to the DNC’s olive branch spoke to this sentiment. Yet as the movement grows it must embrace the struggle of engaging with an environment that might not welcome it, and it needs to be able to differentiate between an open hand of friendship and a threatening, controlling fist of oppression. Misinterpreting the DNC’s resolution as the latter instead of the former was a mistake.