The concept of equality is as important to America's self-conception as it is confusing. What sort of equality?
Do black lives really matter in America? Indeed, have they ever mattered, in our sordid racial history? And what, if anything, can we do to make sure that black lives matter today? These are just some of the questions we address on this week’s episode that we are calling “Race Matters.”
Now as a black man, I have to say I find it depressing that here we are, pretty deep into the 21st century, and there’s still a question about whether black lives really matter. I admit that it’s not all bad news. We've eliminated formal discrimination in housing. We’ve removed many of the old barriers to voting. Sure, our schools and neighborhoods may still be segregated in fact, but at least they are not segregated by law. We’ve come a long way since whites could openly and brazenly band together to use the coercive powers of the state, first to enslave black people, then after the Civil War in their collective rage, anger, and nostalgia over lost empire, to all but re-impose slavery by another name and to effectively nullify the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments of the US Constitution.
That is real progress, for sure. Anybody who can’t see that we are a different country from the nightmarish apartheid country we once were, is living with blinders on. Still, the progress toward a paradise of racial harmony and justice has not been nearly enough. Think of the racial inequality in our so-called criminal justice system. Take the way cops can gun down young black men with impunity. Or the fact that we stuff brown and black bodies into our prisons. Most people aren’t aware that there are more young black men in prison than there are in college.
Of course, independently of race, the prison system is a moral disaster. And not only for black people. It's a disaster for poor white people too. The rate at which we incarcerate young white men seems tolerable and reasonable to us only in comparison with the rate at which we incarcerate brown and black men. We incarcerate more people, for more crimes, for longer period of times, and under worse conditions, than any other advanced, democratic, wealthy country in the world. This suggests that that perhaps one way to get white people on board with fixing racially problematic institutions, like our broken criminal justice system, is to show them that it’s their problem too... and not just a problem for black people.
One problem with this approach, though, is that it seems to suggest that instead of insisting that “black lives matter” in response to the moral disaster that is our criminal justice system, it would be better to say that “all lives matter.” But many black people will hear such a suggestion as a demand that blacks must kowtow to white sensibilities to get the racial justice they deserve, because whites are just so tired of dealing with black grievance!
But you don’t really have to see it as black people kowtowing. You can see it as a matter of getting all people—black, white, brown—to recognize that we’re all in this together and that these are common problems. That may sound suspiciously like trying to adopt color blind solutions to problems that are deeply colored by race. No doubt the ideal of color blindness is a grand ideal. I mean, who could deny that race shouldn’t matter nearly as much as it does? But unfortunately, color blind solutions don’t have a great track record for solving our racial problems.
But despite that fact, it would be a mistake to dismiss the strategy of focusing on common problems as some head-in-the-sand form of color blindness. Tactically and strategically speaking, focusing on shared problems is probably the only realistic way forward. For example, suppose that you concede that the criminal justice system disproportionately affects the lives of black people. Suppose you go even farther and allow that it may have been explicitly designed to work that way, as many believe. That still doesn’t mean that the best way forward is to frame criminal justice reform as an explicitly racial issue. You just make a case for replacing the current system—which, again, is a nightmare for everyone—root and branch, with something more just, more equitable and more effective. And not just for black people, but for all people. And once we do that, you know what will happen? Black people will disproportionately benefit, since they are disproportionately harmed by the current system.
So, what’s keeping us from adopting such a strategy, from doing an end run around our racial divisions and focusing on what unites us, rather than what divides us? One problem is that if we go the Kumbaya-we’re-all-in-this-together route, we may end up ignoring the urgent and peculiar problems that black people face. History has amply proven that America needs a constant reminder that black lives matter. But history also teaches that when we Americans frame our problems in explicitly racial terms, we end up pitting one racial group against another. And when that happens, we all lose.
Now saying that black lives matter isn’t saying that other lives don’t matter. The Black Lives Matter movement isn't necessarily about excluding others. It can be about finally and fully including black people in the collective “we,” in which we all matter to each other. What we really need to fully realize the true nature our problem is a way to combine passionate pleas for focused racial justice with a full-throated acknowledgement of the simultaneous importance of justice for all. But a twofold challenge stands in the way of our achieving that combination.
Given how racially divided Americans are, emphasizing race is a risky strategy. But avoiding race is a risky strategy too, because getting black people on board with a broad-based multiracial strategy requires that they hear themselves included in the refrain “All lives matter.” But given that that refrain is too often insincere and uttered as a retort to the claim that black lives matter, that’s a hard slog. One question we might ask is whether the Black Lives Matter movement be the vanguard of a social justice movement for all, or is it just about black people.