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With or Without White People, Black Lives Matter

Here are the brute facts:

* The African American male lives 5 years less than the average white American male.

* 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.

* Unarmed black people were killed at 6x the rate of unarmed whites in 2015.

* For every level of educational attainment, black Americans have unemployment rates that are similar to or higher than those of less educated white Americans.

What do these facts mean? Do they mean what they say or do they mean something else? Is an African American male’s life really 5 years less deserving than a white American male? Is there something about the color of one’s skin that signifies that they are less deserving of freedom or a good paying job? Are black people 6x more worthy of death for committing crimes than whites?

According to Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza, these numbers reflect the reality of life for most black people living in America today. “When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is acknowledgement that Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgement that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country-one half of all people in prisons or jails-is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgement that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence.”

As I see it, to believe that skin color has anything to do with someone’s inherent right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is not only spiritually depraved but fundamentally unconstitutional. White people (men especially) need to step up and acknowledge that these “statistics” have names. In many instances they have the names of innocent children. They need to acknowledge that “Black Lives Matter” is not just a rallying cry for a new civil rights movement, it is a mantra for the growth of a new consciousness which makes social justice a global movement in the hearts and minds of whites and blacks alike.

With that said, replacing the words “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” misses the point entirely. Sadly, white people have a long and undistinguished history of stealing from African American culture. From the Delta Blues to Hip Hop and from Cajun cooking to urban fashion, it is evident that many African American cultural traditions have been co-opted by whites for personal entertainment, commercial enterprise, and religious euphoria. Cecil Emeke once said, “Generally speaking, I think we live in a world that enjoys black culture and dislikes black people.”  What if America did love black people as much as black culture? How would we know?

To take the words “Black Lives Matter” and replace them with “All Lives Matter” is to participate in a terrible history of cultural theft which has its most evil apparition in the industrialized slavery of the 19th century.  Likewise, to erase the words from Facebook posts, op-eds, and office whiteboards today (like the infamous case at Facebook’s headquarters) is to physically and symbolically say to a person of color, “you don’t matter.”  What you just said does not matter. Your self expression does not matter. The pain and suffering behind those  “statistics” does not matter. It is a subtle yet pernicious form of white supremacy that ultimately leads- left if unchecked- to the worst displays of hateful intolerance.

I often wonder what it will take to get white people to understand that the words “Black Lives Matter” in no way implies that white lives matter less. If I may speak out of place, I think the term was coined to show that just acknowledging one’s presence is a major part of the healing and progress needed to address centuries of denigration, abuse and enslavement. The words “Black Lives Matter” means see us. Don’t try to silence our voices or erase our feelings. We matter with or without you. See us for who we are.  Garza says that “to take blackness out of the equation is simply inappropriate.” Even President Obama, who has been a Conservative on race issues, remarked in a speech, “there is a specific problem that is happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities.”

The President is right: it’s called getting 5 years of your life ripped off just because you got the painted ping pong ball. It’s called getting locked up at a rate that quadruples other races because the system likes black bodies better than white ones. It’s called dying unarmed in the scope of a police officer’s rifle because they have an unwritten license to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s called injustice.

In the end, why does anyone need permission to chant a phrase? What is truly behind the need to change these words into something they are not? Why can’t someone say what they want to say, especially if they are not engaging in violent hate speech or treasonous discourse? Why can’t “Black Lives Matter” be accepted as a form of constructive self empowerment, civil political action, and creative social purpose? Why does it have to be a threat or an insult to whites?

These are the questions that I continue to wrestle with as a white American male living in the illusion of a post-racial democracy. I must admit that I do not have many answers. But I do know that we need to have this conversation out in the open. Only then can we come to the realization as a human community that what matters more than color is communication.

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George Payne is Director of Gandhi Earth Keepers International and Philosophy Instructor at Finger Lakes Community College.

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