It has been over five years since the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and black lives still do not seem to matter to America.
Last week, in a continuation of predictable, unnecessary and fatal use of force against black people, 26-year old security guard Jemel Roberson was killed by police after himself stopping a shooting in a bar. What is as clockwork as the killings themselves was the attempt to obfuscate the details in order to relieve the officers of responsibility.
It is troubling that stories like Roberson’s are par for the course, commonplace incidents. White society, generally believing itself to be innocent or off the hook in race conversations, has developed strategies and defense mechanisms to keep itself from reckoning with the constant terror against our lives.
When even a more progressive white person is challenged about systemic or individual racism, the commonplace response is usually to capsize into fragility, protecting the intentions of white people over the impact on people of color.
“We have yet to find the limit of mistreatment and violence that will cause the country at large to collectively acknowledge the value of our lives.”
What has become clear in this shooting and every other shooting since the initiation of the movement in 2013 is that no amount of death changes the collective (majority white) view of black people as disposable objects. Over the years of this civil rights movement, we have yet to find the level of mistreatment and violence that will cause white people, law enforcement and the country at large to collectively acknowledge the value of our lives.
People of color and white folks have almost entirely divergent ideas about how race and racism play out. A quick look at the voting trends from the midterm elections solidifies the gap in political priorities. People of color, seeing and calling out patterns of racial violence, particularly over the last five years, are refining a sense of the systemic and institutional nature of oppression. In contrast, many white people remain confident that racism is an unfortunate psychological disposition or antiquated ideological bias, something from the past that doesn’t affect any of us now.
Every day, white people see themselves as free of prejudice while simultaneously supporting and benefiting from systems that negatively impact people of color. If one isn’t explicitly racist, it is not racism, with white people continuing to value their intentions or feelings over the lived experiences of people of color. The constant stream of explicitly racist violence against black bodies sheds a light on how wrong they are about modern race relations, but they refuse to see it or else they respond callously and call it compassion.
Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the people,” but in 21st-century U.S. culture, compassion fatigue is. The violence against black people, particularly in the form of police brutality, has become so commonplace that not only are activists losing the capacity to resist well but it seems even the most liberal of white Americans are losing the ability to care. After black people die or are systematically killed and their killers acquitted, people post “thoughts and prayers” sentiments and seem down for the cause, as though their platitudes can actually create social change.
The frequency of violence and the failure of the justice system to show up on behalf of black people create the context for this normalization and subsequent hopelessness.
“Black lives mattering to black people is important but it is only one part of the journey toward liberation and equality.”
Even with the murder of Botham Jean, the Dallas Police Department has turned the case into an issue of police being overworked rather than holding the officer accountable. White people in positions of power feel forced to defend themselves and sacred institutions (church, police state, military, etc.) instead of seeing the flawed systems. They take criticism individualistically and defensively, and they watch each case as though it is one of experience rather than a pattern of learned racial bias and terror.
Couching conversations about black lives in white “victimhood” means that even when white people do atrocious things, as in the case of Jean or even “Cornerstore Caroline,” the response can often equate to “why ruin someone’s life over an honest mistake?” when the question ought to be “how can we bring an end to racialized practices that create this precedent and situation in the first place?”
At the end of the day, in this landscape, to be black is to live in a constant state of trauma and oppression. No one has to say that black lives do not matter for systems (and many individuals) to demonize and end our lives. We simply have to normalize the culture of violence around us, stay silent in the midst of others’ oppression, and assume the innocence of whiteness at all costs.
For white people, believing and living as though black lives matter requires being moved with empathy toward action that interrupts internalized, institutional and interpersonal manifestations of racism. It requires getting educated, naming double standards, checking gut-level defensiveness and moving through fragility into activism alongside people of color who have lost our lives in movement after movement so that you would care enough to change and check some of your privilege at the door or voting booth.
Since the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement, white supremacy has found more subversive ways of perpetuating violence and oppression against black bodies ― and it is not limited to events like the white nationalist march in Charlottesville or explicitly racialized language and incidents.
Black lives mattering to black people is important but it is only one part of the journey toward liberation and equality. Black lives have to matter to white people in order to see systemic change and an end to white supremacy.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.