Black Lives Matter Is Living in the Past

Yes, black lives taken by cops matter. But so do black lives taken by other blacks. BLM won’t win over America until it acknowledges this.

09.28.15 5:03 AM ET

It is considered the height of sophistication to declare that “America doesn’t want to talk about race.”

I say it’s time to retire this phrase. Imagine being from a foreign country and hearing that phrase, watching a room full of earnest people nodding warmly, after just the first eight months of this year. Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sam Dubose, Sandra Bland, the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, the Charleston shootings, Rachel Dolezal, Bill Cosby, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, James Blake, and of course the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a country that “doesn’t talk about race”? Let’s face it—the assertion in itself is splendidly absurd.

It only even begins to make sense if we recast it as “America doesn’t want to talk about racism”—that America doesn’t want to own up to the fact that racism still exists and plays a part in black people’s life trajectories. So why not just say racism? No rational observer could deny that the national conversation about Gray, DuBose, Scott, Blake, Bland, Ferguson, Roof, Dolezal, Cosby, Coates, and Black Lives Matter has richly explored the topic of racism too.

Given that it is so painfully obvious that America is engaged in a fervent year-round discussion of both race and racism, there is only one possible conclusion as to what these people actually mean. When someone says America doesn’t talk about race, they mean something much more specific: that America doesn’t think racism determines black lives to such an extent that the nation needs a vast upending of procedure.

Clearly, to the people so aggrieved, the conversation we have all the time isn’t enough, and in fact conversation isn’t what they really mean. These people don’t want to just “talk.” They want to soften hard-hearted America up for a revolution. In other words, using the word “race” is a euphemism, felt as a necessary prelude to a radical proposition.

Crucially, however, that radical proposition is not truth. It is an idea cherished by a certain intelligentsia and affiliated community of activists in and around Black Lives Matter, and beyond it. Namely, the idea is that the black left and its fellow travelers have moved leftward of what unbiased observers, urgently seeking justice and dignity for black people, regard as politically and even morally convincing. Many of us think America does not need to “talk about” racism in the sense that a certain wing of the intelligentsia thinks we should. It’s not that we don’t know racism exists or shouldn’t be fought where it is the obstacle. Rather, we think that racism alone is no longer the only, or often even the main, problem black people have.

Black Lives Matter has become Exhibit A in this ideological conflict. Make no mistake, I admire Black Lives Matter. I’m just worried about it. I have never seen America getting closer to not just “talking about,” but actually doing something about, the relationship between black men and the cops. If there is one thing I have learned in 15 years of writing about and thinking about race, it is that this problem is the main one keeping America from getting past race. I was not offended by BLM’s conduct toward Bernie Sanders, quite frankly. And I consider the riposte “All Lives Matter” almost willfully uncomprehending of the issues that face us.

However, the way our smart people are covering Black Lives Matter, and some of the assumptions of the group itself, are bubble gum on our shoes. A movement cannot make a real difference in 2015 by pretending that it’s still 1965.

Here’s the problem. The going notion for anyone left of, roughly, the old New Republic is that disapproval of Black Lives Matter must come from “racism.” Charles Blow put this best, recently: “Discomfort with Black Lives Matter is, on some level and to some degree, a discomfort with blackness itself.”

But this, even with the careful hedges, is a hasty, and even lazy, reading of the issue. I imagine there are some people out there who don’t like BLM because it’s black people making noise. But what disturbs a great many—and I highly suspect many more—people about the philosophical underpinnings of BLM is that black people in poor neighborhoods are in vastly more danger of being killed by young black men than by the occasional bad cop.

“Our demand is simple: Stop killing us,” the movement says—while people nationwide look on and see, especially during the summers, tragic epidemics of black-on-black homicides and maimings in one city after another. But America wonders: What about “Let’s stop killing each other”?

This year alone, in Chicago almost 80 percent of the people killed have been black. In Baltimore the figure is 216 black people versus 11 white, in Philadelphia 200 black people versus 44 white. Most by other black people.

Some object that most people of any color are killed by someone of their own race, but it’s the proportions that are important—why do so many more black guys kill each other, numerically and proportionally? This is dismaying—we want to fix it. Yet the good-thinking dialogue on “race” in America has classified it as behind the curve to dwell on this issue. Instead we are to focus on the Darren Wilsons and Michael Slagers as black America’s supposed biggest problem regardless of actual homicide statistics because, because… well, what we get are such rickety defenses. One is the idea that somehow “the state” killing black people is worse than black people killing black people, which is one of the most infantilizing propositions imposed upon black America in its entire history. Blow, again, finesses it with fine language: “the state is representative of the totality of America.” But try telling the black Philadelphians dismayed at their nearest and dearest killed by their peers that their loss is somehow not as “totalic” as if a cop had done it.

Elsewhere another finessing is to call attention to Stop the Violence marches in black communities while turning a blind eye to the fact that indignation about cop murders is so vastly hotter and more sustained. Or, one is to say that racism is why black kids kill other black kids (implication: This will only stop when racism is gone—what a creative prognosis!). But that argument sounds better in one sentence than it does when you actually try to explain it. Does a teen kill because society doesn’t love him or he has trouble finding a job? That’s better as a rap than as a diagnosis. The War on Drugs is closer to the real reason (which is why I support ending it). But say that the drug war is based on racism and history gets in the way: Michael Fortner’s new book The Black Silent Majority nicely shows how black leaders have with good intentions been part of the warp and woof of the drug war.   

All of these defenses are sweaty feints—policings, as it were, of the dialogue aimed at keeping us focused on racism 24/7. And this is not a “conservative” or “right-wing” observation, as is clear from black people of similar sentiment such as here, here, and here. The problem is not an America blind to racism, or even an America that thinks racism is solely the n-word, cross-burnings, and housing covenants. The problem is, I hate to say, a progressive ideology on race that confuses performance with action.

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How did we get to the point, after all, when a Hillary Clinton would have to tell the people who say they speak for black America that they must translate their grievances into a plan for political action? The contrast between the efforts of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership conference and that scene a few weeks ago was chilling. The SCLC had to convince the white establishment to do things; Hillary Clinton had to remind BLM’s representatives that their job was to suggest some things to do, as the activist hectored her about what was or wasn’t in her “heart” about policies her husband supported before people now having sex were even born.

It was good to see BLM actually releasing a platform after that. But I was waiting for the other shoe to drop—and right on time, they disavowed support from or allegiance to the Democratic Party despite its active adoption of the gist of their agenda. Again, is this about getting things done or acting out? As so often, people can forget that the two aren’t the same thing. Expressing your disgust with America’s political order and wishing nobody had an ounce of racism in their “hearts” is fine. But when doing that takes priority over using the levers of power—the only ones that will ever exist—to address black suffering, something is terribly wrong.

At a certain point, a Black Lives Matter movement for the future needs to turn its lens to black-on-black homicide rates as well. Testily objecting that “nobody said we don’t think black-on-black crime matters” isn’t enough. Episodes like Ferguson gangbangers wrangling during the one-year commemoration of Michael Brown’s murder make the basic imbalance in attention too obvious these days to all of the nation watching. One strategy could be that if the police were finally restrained from needless killing of black men, BLM could help forge new relationships between the cops and black communities, such that those communities would feel comfortable assisting cops in finding murderers. That is understandably often not the case under current conditions, and is surely as much a problem for a black person living in such a city than what white cops might pull. A Civil Rights movement for today rather than yesterday can’t focus only on racism. The issues have become too complex.

Black Lives Matter’s mantra means, lip service notwithstanding, Black Lives Matter When Taken by White People. That will always seem, to a great many, performative.The reason for that will not be that this “many” are racists, not even “on some level and to some degree.” The reason will be that they are correct. We must also base our activism on the pure and simple truth that “state violence” notwithstanding, “Black Lives Matter When Taken by Other Black People, Too.”

Imagine if in 1965 when the Selma marchers walked across the Pettus bridge, black boys had been killing each other by the dozens over on the other side all summer, with that considered regrettable but ultimately “beside the point.” Black Lives Matter, I’m afraid, is on the path to making that scenario a reality. It doesn’t have to be that way.