Recently a rash of politicians and pundits from Hilary Clinton to Glen Beck have responded to the #blacklivesmatter movement by serving up the truism that all lives matter. The progressive left was quick, perhaps too quick, to jump all over them. The problem with saying all lives matter, according to progressives, is that it covers over the very real injustice suffered by black Americans at the hands of the American system of justice with an abstract cliché. This is true and the effect it should have on those who would wish to see justice done is cringe-worthy, but it is not the whole story. Another resoundingly worse problem lurks behind the phrase “all lives matter,” namely that it simply isn’t true.
No one in our culture, from the pro-choice left to the pro-war right really believes that all lives matter, period, end-of-discussion. Certainly most of us believe that there is some life that can be justifiably taken, and the law reflects this. Take self-defense for example. Most of us would agree that in a kill or be killed situation, you have the right to defend yourself and our courts do not disagree. But this is problematic, since just a moment’s reflection clearly shows that it’s always just as good of justification for the other party involved and had things turned out the other way, they’d have a legitimate defense for killing you. The fact that police can and do kill unarmed black people without facing the threat of trial or imprisonment should tell you (if you’re one of these unarmed black people) that there is a clear and present danger to your life confronting you in the form of every police officer you come across. Except, (if you’ve been wondering when racism will come up, here it is) it doesn’t get played in that direction.
Ask a jury to see how systemic racism plays a role in the death of a white police officer shot by a black kid and they’re likely to see it as trying to shift responsibility for the actions of a devious individual onto society. Ask them to see how systemic racism plays a role in the death of an unarmed black kid shot by a white cop and they’re likely to see it as holding an individual police officer responsible for our social conditions. The point is they just don’t see systemic racism. For them, racism is a linear idea. A police officer who shoots a black boy walking down the street merely because he thinks it’s fun to kill thugs would very likely go to prison for the rest of his life. We do not tolerate linear racism. Systemic racism, on the other hand, we’re okay with. If a white police officer kills an unarmed black kid it’s because he’s a thug and not because he’s black or because he’s a criminal. If it was because he was black we’d accuse him of linear racism and throw him in jail. And hardly all the victims of police shootings have committed crimes (nor do we permit the summary execution of suspects either, but I digress). No, it’s because he is a thug. Now avoiding a long etymology of the word, or a long discussion about whether or not it’s racist, let’s talk about it functionally. A thug is something one is, not something one does. A thief must steal to be a thief, a murderer must kill to be a murderer, but a thug needn’t do anything to be a thug. A thug is, for lack of a better description, a person with a statistical probability of being dangerous. Mind you, they needn’t actually be dangerous, they just have to have those characteristics that culturally support a statistical probability for being dangerous.
Now, while I shouldn’t have to explain why we shouldn’t kill people based on statistical probability, I’ll do so just to be clear. Let’s use an example. For a black male, the likelihood of being shot by a police officer is statistically greater than it is for a citizen who is not black. So, based on that fact, should we declare that any black man who shoots a cop at first sight is acting in his own defense? I would say no. So, why are we okay with systemic racism? Well, some, perhaps most of us, don’t understand it and so dismiss it. Some of us understand it but don’t know what to do about it and so tolerate it. And a few of us are linear racists and don’t think it’s a problem. Linear racism is, if you’ll permit a pun of such a serious situation, a black and white thing. The distinctions are all very clear. Systemic racism is anything but clear. However, this doesn’t mean it’s not very real and very serious.
The message of black lives matter is not, as Fox News would have it, that only black lives matter or that black lives matter more than, say, police lives matter. Nor is the message, as progressives would have it, simply that since all lives matter, black lives should matter too, and look at how often they don’t. The true message of black lives matter is that systemic racism is real and it hurts everybody it touches. Systemic racism kills unarmed black kids and police officers and a host of other people. It hardens the hearts of citizens toward their fellows and builds a kind of political family feud that is nearly impossible to end. It forms the rules of a game that there is absolutely no chance of “winning.” It corrupts us and we are all made worse off by it. So what do you do about it? How does one take on the Leviathan of systemic racism? You get educated. And that’s not an evasion. Once you stop participating in the system, the system weakens, and if you get enough people to stop, the system dies. But you have to know how not to participate because it’s never a matter of simply changing sides, that’s too linear! It’s complex and takes effort. But if you want to end the violence then what’s a little effort?
Charles Rupert is a graduate student majoring in philosophy. He can be reached at CR840069@wcupa.edu.