“It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years, to get a sense of this: If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America, and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.” – Newt Gingrich, Republican and former speaker of the House (Facebook Live Event with CNN analyst Van Jones)
My friends and I will spend hours debating social issues. Early afternoons and late evenings are spent arguing as we engage each other in emotionally and intellectually honest banter. These conversations usually begin with an unassuming prompt, an innocent remark or question that will cause a little ripple and evolve into a tsunami of debate.
One night, we delved into a conversation about the justice system and the treatment of black people. As headlines of the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a police officer populated our social media timelines, we discussed the African American experience and its uneasy relationship with a justice system that claims to be blind, yet its actions prove otherwise. And like any debate that has happened in the last two years focused on race and the law, we arrived to a conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement, more specifically, a debate about Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter.
I tried to explain the difference to him. I told him, “Of course all lives matter, but it should not distract from what the Black Lives Matter movement is about. To conflate the two is insensitive and dismissive of a very complex, but legitimate, grievance. And if you claim to be an objective, but skeptical observer, the only hope is you make a sincere effort to understand the issues, rather than shrug them off with a three-word catchphrase, like All Lives Matter. To do so adds to the problem and conflict and shows an inability or resistance to understanding something that has historical, statistical, and digitally documented grounds for discussion.”
I attempted to explain and contextualize the history of the African American experience, institutional racism, and the underlying themes that fuel this never-ending tension between the black community and law enforcement. However, my knowledge and expertise in community engagement, diversity, and inclusion programming and initiatives was not enough to move him beyond his skepticism.
So, I did what any other desperate person would do, I asked Google. I pulled up statistics and research from articles and scholarly journals that went back decades, and in rebuttal, he pulled up articles from shady websites and sources that could pass any objective academic sniff test.
As we clicked on different links we felt gave credence to our viewpoints, I came across a Reddit discussion group, and in it was a post that caught my attention. What drew me to this post was the poster’s ability to analogize what the Black Lives Matter movement was all about. I looked at my friend, deciding whether I should read it to him or have him read it to himself. I chose the latter. I handed him my phone and stood in silence as I watched him read and patiently scroll.
THE REDDIT POST
Imagine you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So, you say, “I should get my fair share.” As a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, “Everyone should get their fair share.” Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment; everyone should, and that was kind of your point in the first place: you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share, also. However, Dad’s smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn’t solve the problem; you still haven’t gotten any!
The problem is the statement, “I should get my fair share,” had an implicit “too” at the end: “I should get my fair share, too, just like everyone else.” But your dad’s response treated your statement as though you meant “Only I should get my fair share”, which clearly was not your intention. As a result, his statement, “Everyone should get their fair share,” while true, only ignored the problem you were trying to point out.
That’s the situation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Culture, laws, the arts, religion, and everyone else repeatedly suggest all lives should matter. Clearly, that message already abounds in our society.
The problem is, in practice, the world doesn’t work that way. You see the film Nightcrawler? You know the part where Renee Russo tells Jake Gyllenhal she doesn’t want footage of a black or Latino person dying, she wants news stories about affluent white people being killed? That’s not made up out of whole cloth — there is a news bias toward stories that most of the audience (who are white) can identify with. So, when a young black man gets killed (prior to the recent police shootings), it’s not considered “news”, while a middle-aged white woman being killed is treated as news. And to a large degree, that is accurate — young black men are killed in significantly disproportionate numbers, which is why we don’t treat it as anything new. But the result is, societally, we don’t pay as much attention to certain people’s deaths as we do others. So we don’t treat all lives as though they matter equally.
Just like asking Dad for your fair share, the phrase Black lives matter also has an implicit ‘too’ at the end: it’s saying black lives should also matter. But responding to this by saying ‘all lives matter’ is willfully going back to ignoring the problem. It’s a way of dismissing the statement by falsely suggesting it means ‘only black lives matter,’ when that is obviously not the case. And so, saying ‘all lives matter’ as a direct response to “black lives matter” essentially says we should just go back to ignoring the problem. – THE END
If uber-conservative Newt Gingrich has begun to comprehend and understand the conversation the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to have, why can’t others? Perhaps, as a nation, we could move forward. But in an atmosphere in which there is too much defensiveness, anger, and divisive rhetoric from all (some Black Lives Matter people included), how will we ever progress?
Conversations about race can be difficult, even with people you might assume share your views and values. But as difficult and uncomfortable as they may be, it is something we should all endeavor to do. This dialogue not only provides us with an opportunity to teach and enlighten, but also to learn and be enlightened. Sometimes, it’s about simply attempting to understand another person’s perspective. Doing so does not mean you agree with them nor does it compromise your own convictions. It simply allows you to be more informed and educated on what shapes their opinions and vice versa, an interaction that, when handled maturely, empathetically, and respectfully, can diffuse insecurities, correct misunderstandings, and potentially lead us on the path to solving a lot of society’s problems.
Sincerely, Kwapi Vengesayi
Kwapi Vengesayi is an Amazon bestselling author. To discover and explore his work, you can find his books on Amazon: Click Here or on the Book images below.