Do black lives matter? Indeed, they matter. Then given something so self-evident, what underlies so much of the controversy around Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) as an organization? The recent death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, and the resulting waves of protest, have once again brought this matter to the fore. As a result of its close association with BLM as an organization, some have expressed concerns about the black lives matter movement as a response to this recent event.
It should be clear that aligning with the pure idea that black lives matter appears self-evidently incumbent on all people of goodwill. Making such a statement does not deny that all lives matter, since by definition the idea of black lives mattering is contained within that broader truth. Those who in a disingenuous way intend to deny the stand-alone proposition are playing unnecessary games with language. If we intend to build a just society, we must indeed be able to say that “black lives matter” and decry acts of apparent—and even perceived—violence or oppression against such lives. The foundation and stability of a free and liberal civil society rests upon the ground of just laws fairly applied to all citizens—where race or class plays no role in outcomes.
The rub is always in the application. The enforcement of the law is sometimes hijacked by racism, greed, hatred, fear, inexperience, and all manner of human foibles. Law enforcement can be subject to prejudice and abuse, and experience tends to show that it attracts a certain percentage of people with a tendency to react, rather than to think. In the case of George Floyd, the popular sentiment is that this act was a racist act by a racist police officer, and one which is representative of many other similar acts. And in this current context, the political environment in America is such that black activists are often seen to be the only pragmatic vehicle to press society for change.
Considering this, I will now turn to the specific question of BLM as such an organization, and whether it is the right vehicle for this cause.
BLM was established by three self-identified “Black queers” (Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza) in response to the perceived injustice in the Trayvon Martin case. The philosophical framework underlying BLM consists of ideas that are far from the mainstream. These include claims that black poverty is systematized state violence, with the wilful intention of erasing black people from America. They also claim that blacks require full liberty from all institutions and systems (and “white law” is clearly implied), and argue for the elimination of jails. BLM further states that the Western-prescribed nuclear family is counterproductive and harmful, and must be replaced in favour of a collective village.
Articles in the public domain from these founders and their cohorts also contain a number of shocking assertions. When one of the founders became pregnant, she claimed that white people looked at her as if to deny her very right to exist. She appears to see in whites a systematic rage and hatred for all black people. This deeply pathological framework might stem from some particular personal experience which she has now weaponized as a work of counter-hatred—all in the name of claiming that hatred of her own race is evil. BLM narratives in the public domain are built on an assertion that the very existence of white Europeans (especially Christian) is incompatible with the thriving of blacks in America. Their philosophy is clearly built on a counter-racism of its own kind.
(See Guiding Principles at Black Lives Matter.)
Are the stated principles of BLM something on which a functioning multi-cultural society can be built? It appears highly doubtful, given that the BLM narrative is exclusivist when properly understood. Rather than building bridges for progress, it appears to desire to burn bridges, and can become a sustained argument that partition or separation is the only possible path forward.
Taken as they stand, virtually all Americans would deny that these assertions reflect the kind of society that the nation hopes to become. So—with all of this extremist baggage associated with BLM—how might those of us concerned about racial justice for blacks untangle this Gordian knot? Can people of all races and of goodwill support BLM?
Perhaps wisdom will require us to maintain two distinct polarities. The first polarity adheres to the bigger and more generic idea that (for example) using the hashtag #blacklivesmatter need not imply that you support BLM as an organization. It can readily be argued that the pure idea that black lives indeed matter has floated free from the organization which birthed it as a moniker in 2013. The broader public has rightly lifted the desire from its tainted roots and redeemed it to capture a broader hope without the necessity of accepting the rhetoric of hate towards non-blacks by BLM. Evidence of this fact is that the majority of the black community would not be able to sign up for the principles and narrative of BLM, but still support the broader cause. When this distinction is remembered, it will allow us to shout Amen along with those of goodwill who also demand that we support the move to eliminate injustice in policing.
The second polarity relates to ensuring that we maintain some contrast and difference with BLM as an organization, when opportunity requires. This reality calls us to maintain a note of dissonance with the more radical fringes of the movement who support BLM fully. Doing so is not tantamount to endorsing racism, nor should we allow ourselves to be accused of such. Rather, we maintain that our belief that black lives matter as a philosophy for justice in the world is more rightly expressed in ideas that are actually antithetical to those of BLM itself (for example, by supporting Black nuclear families rather than working to undermine them).
Finally, wisdom is called for by each individual who desires to show solidarity with the idea of justice for black people, while maintaining distance with BLM, and doing all of this with grace in a white-hot emotional moment. Those of us who want to lend the right kind of support need to be careful to not lead our rhetoric with critiques of BLM. Doing so risks our being misunderstood. The current events have again brought the topic of black justice in America to the fore, and it is not helpful to insist on singing what is technically the right note, but at the wrong moment in time, and to the wrong effect for those we are trying to help.
It now seems right to focus on ensuring that our black sisters and brothers see that we indeed share their pain and frustration; and, in whatever way we can, to lend support to the idea of racial justice—not of the kind called for by BLM—but called for by a long philosophical and political tradition in the free world.
But we must indeed stop short of selling our soul to the radical ideals of BLM.
See the extensive White Supremacy and Racism section in our Archives 2017-19 and Archives 2020.
Richard Bauly holds a BA in Economics from the University of Toronto and an MTS from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. He recently founded Sequitur, an independent publishing startup which describes itself as operating “in the ‘deep outreach’ space as an intellectual outpost to those who have left the church, or who have never been affiliated with a church…to move seekers forward toward clarity and help them sort through their thinking, while gently defending ‘beautiful orthodox Christianity’ in an increasingly hostile culture.” He is a longtime Baptist who now attends a Catholic church, and lives in Bath, England with his wife and two sons.