Guest columnist John M. Connolly: ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogan is profoundly American

  • A protester looks up at a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter” in Marseille, southern France, Saturday, June 6, during a protest against the recent death of George Floyd. AP

Published: 6/10/2020 3:56:06 PM
Modified: 6/10/2020 3:55:56 PM

 

Why chant “Black Lives Matter!”? Don’t ALL lives matter?

That has been the reaction of many (especially white) people to the currently omnipresent slogan at demonstrations protesting the killing of George Floyd and other egregious acts of racism. Let me say a few things about the mantra, in hopes of showing how profoundly American it is, and how worthy of our respect in precisely the wording it has.

First, I believe the phrase is meant to be provocative, with the provocation aimed at us white Americans. Thus the reaction against it by many of those same Americans is not necessarily a bad thing. The phrase provokes us, makes us think, makes us — if we are lucky — reconsider our comfortable and settled opinions.

The cry, “Votes for Women!”, was once considered scandalous in polite society, for it was challenging the settled constitutional order in the U.S. and elsewhere. A good thing, too. But that change, whose centennial we have just celebrated, would not have come about without a profound alteration in the opinions and prejudices of male Americans, whose complacency (aren’t those in power always complacent?) had to be provoked before it could be overcome, to the benefit of all of us. So we shouldn’t reject provocation, per se.

Second, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” should remind us of one of the deepest tenets of the American creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Life, the first of the “unalienable Rights” of “all men.” Did the founders, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, mean to include black people among “all men”? Well, sadly no, at least not in the same sense. Roughly three-quarters of them owned slaves; the enslaved were of great economic profit to their owners, but of course their Liberty was completely denied.

Another founding phrase linking Life and Liberty was “Give me liberty or give me death!”, but Patrick Henry and those who rallied to his cry were clearly not thinking of the enslaved, whom they wanted alive, but not free.

So the motto “Black Lives Matter” calls on us to make good on those founding sentiments, to apply them finally to all Americans, to honor equally black lives, black liberty, and — yes — black pursuit of happiness. And let us be frank: we as a nation have not yet done this, these promises we have not kept.

If you were to be born into an average black family today, your prospects would be far worse than if you were born into the average white family, because your family’s wealth would be 90% less. And that enormous wealth gap, which keeps so many doors shut tight, is the result of systematic policies that stretch back to colonial days. Among the more insidious of those policies are those that have prevented black families from building their wealth via home ownership in good neighborhoods, the classic road to prosperity for so many white families.

Yes, “Black Lives Matter”: it may come as a surprise that as Americans we are in fact committed to that proposition. But as the founders remind us, the slogan calls on us to do more, much more, than to protect black people from just the worst forms of police violence. For those lives are constricted, deprived of dignity, and often made miserable by our collective denial of black liberty and our steadfast refusal to allow black people equal access to the pursuit of happiness.

Among the most current and glaring indications of this is the fact that the COVID-19 death rate among black Americans is roughly 2½ times higher than among white Americans.

A third and final thought. A Harvard-Harris survey found that only 18% of Trump supporters have a favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is something we should all take seriously (think again of how crucial it was to win over men to “Votes for Women!”). I suspect that one motivating factor is the view that the unspoken implication of the slogan is that white lives do not matter, or not as much. And that factor resonates with the widespread view among working class and poorer whites that in the globalized, digital age, America dishonors them.

In particular the Democratic Party, they feel, once the champion of the working class, has become the party of blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, feminism, etc.: of everyone, that is, except us white folk who are getting left behind.

And so they turn to Trump, the ultimate carnival barker, and vent their anger on blacks, among others. Only by building a political movement that can embrace the legitimate aspirations of Americans of all colors and races — and thus undermine the allure of Trumpian racism — can we as a nation succeed in making the promises of the Declaration of Independence a reality for black Americans.

The current situation is intolerable, but we cannot deny that fixing the structures in our society and our psyches will not be easy, and will not come cheap.

Are we up to this task of reconciliation?

John M. Co nnolly, of Haydenville, is a retired professor from  Smith College.


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