Several years ago, I participated in a Clinton Foundation meeting in New York. During the meeting, I sat by a woman from the United Nations assigned to the genocide issue in Darfur. At that time hundreds of thousands of blacks were being killed or displaced in southern Sudan, but those trying to relieve the suffering could not get significant media attention. This diplomat asked me why she was having such a hard time getting people to care about the suffering people of Darfur. I told her that in our Christian faith everyone is equally important, but in this fallen world, some matter more than others. As our conversation continued, I told her that the people of southern Sudan did not matter to most people in the current geo-political dynamic. Genocide in that region has continued to this day with little attention. It would appear that these black lives don’t matter much.
Ebola broke out in West Africa in 2013. I learned about it on my BBC app, and when I mentioned it to our congregation, few had heard about it. Why? Because it was not a major story in the American media until white Americans who were providing medical care to African victims were infected.
Here in America, blacks kill thousands of black people every year. I have never heard their names, but I do know the names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray. Why? Because they have become symbols for a specific, popular cause. Symbols are important. Every cause has symbols that move the cause forward.
We just saw a perfect example of this with the dentist who went to Africa to shoot a trophy lion and is now known world-wide as a symbol of every malicious animal killer on the planet. He is a symbol now. If he tries to prove he was hunting legally, he will sound absurd. In the eyes of the general public, the factual details of his hunt are irrelevant now. He has become the poster child of a cause.
The same idea is evident with the “Black Lives Matter” symbols. Some care about the nefarious character, disrespectful attitudes, or previous offenses of those who have been killed, believing their errors mitigate, or even justify, their deaths. But once people become symbols, those facts no longer inform the primary public message.
The “Black Lives Matter” movement is highlighting the issue that abuse by authorities, especially white authorities, against African-Americans continues. This would explain why the thousands killed by black on black violence don’t seem to matter as much. That strikes me as unfair because all black lives matter, not just the ones that are lost at the hands of authorities. The black deaths, which occur at the hands of other blacks, are just as important. But, because they are not illustrative of the issue being highlighted by the media and the activists, they seem to not matter as much. Black on black victims are not symbols of a popular cause, so to talk about them in the same sentence as Freddie Gray seems unrelated.
Because black on black murders are virtually ignored by activists, the issue here might NOT be that “Black Lives Matter,” but maybe that racism matters. Or since uniformed officers who take black lives are the newsmakers, maybe it’s NOT that “Black Lives Matter,” but that abuse of government power matters. Based on media coverage and speeches given by the more prominent African-American leaders, black lives lost at the hands of the white police officers matter the most.
Maybe this is why the press wanted George Zimmerman to be white. That’s better imagery. It illustrates a political point better if he is white. The media reluctantly admitted he was half-Hispanic because George Zimmerman kept identifying himself as Hispanic. But even after his personal racial identification was made public, the media still often referred to him as white. If he was Hispanic, it might not have illustrated the political point as well.
Some might argue that the “Black Lives Matter” movement makes racism become the lens through which we see everything. Could there be a reason why George Zimmerman needed to be white and not Hispanic, and that President Obama is not half-white, half-black, or mixed race, but black? The symbolic value is increased when he’s our first black president, no doubt.
Probably the best current illustration of this complex issue is the highly publicized Rolling Stone feature article about the sexual assaults at the University of Virginia. Those assaults drew global attention until someone tried to find anyone who had been assaulted. There were none. What was reported didn’t happen. Several women’s organizations came out after the article was exposed as fraudulent and said that the fact that the sexual assaults did not happen is irrelevant. What was relevant to them was that the story brought public attention to their cause.
Causes are often birthed as a result of injustices. Wrongs need to be made right. But they must be based in truth so we can move forward with clarity to find solutions. If the issue is really that black lives matter, then black lives need to matter, even in the black community. But if the subject is really racism or the abuse of power by the authorities, then those are the issues we all should be correcting.
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