I write this letter to the man I met this past Sunday in front of my Unitarian church while I was holding a homemade sign that read “Black Lives Matter.”
I was on the sidewalk in front of my Unitarian church, when you drove up in your pickup truck, stopped suddenly and rolled down your window to yell profanities at me. In between insults, you said you believed that more white people are killed by police than blacks. A friend who was with me tried to calmly explain that blacks represent only 12 percent of the population but are between two and three times more likely to be killed by police than whites.
In response, you exited your vehicle and approached me to continue your verbal abuse. You then spat on my “Black Lives Matter” sign. After observing the results of your defacement ― and apparently deciding it was insufficient ― you drew up a larger piece of phlegm and spat on my sign again. You then returned to your vehicle and drove off in the same reckless fashion as you drove up.
You were not alone that day in spewing venom at me. Several people, all of them white males, yelled profanities at me from their vehicles in passing, though you were the only one to turn that ire into a physical assault.
I understand that the issue of racial justice is one fraught with emotion. Tempers can flare and words can become heated. This has happened even among members of my church as we have wrestled with how to support the fight for racial equality. But when words cross the line into (admittedly minor but nevertheless disgusting) physical assault, then you have entered new territory. By all accounts, I would have been within my rights to file a police report, and indeed I was urged to do so by one of my fellow churchgoers who photographed your license plate. Instead, I ask you to consider your actions.
Consider how your behavior reflects on your position. Certainly, these are not the actions of someone speaking from a place of moral superiority. In fact, your actions are remarkably similar, in kind if not in degree, to those of opponents to the civil rights movement of decades past. Your actions do not put you in good company.
You did not ask, but allow me to explain the reason why I was standing on the sidewalk with a Black Lives Matter sign this past Sunday. I believe that all lives matter. And it is for that reason that I was holding that “Black Lives Matter” sign. It is because I believe that all lives matter that I am compelled to declare that black lives matter. While we may say that all lives matter, we as a society are not acting like all lives matter. In many ways, our society acts like black lives do not matter―from police violence to mass incarceration, to the coded racist language used by politicians to justify these policies, to the de facto segregation of people of color, to communities that are economically and environmentally devastated, to the racist justifications that white people offer to explain these inequities.
There is not space here to detail the myriad ways in which systemic racism is manifest in our society. But you really need look no further than your own actions this past Sunday. Why should the statement that black lives matter provoke such rage and violence in you? Are you similarly enraged by the statement “Blue Lives Matter” because it does not acknowledge firemen, EMTs and paramedics? Of course you aren’t. “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean that white lives (and all other lives) don’t matter, any more than “Blue Lives Matter” is meant to say that non-police lives don’t matter. “Black Lives Matter” is an acknowledgement that, even though we speak the language of colorblindness, we still live in a very racist society. One need look no further than the vile reactions of whites like yourself to Black Lives Matter signs to see the truth of this.
I don’t know you. And it would be easy to dismiss your actions as simple ignorant racism. But I suspect there is something more complex and profound going on. I suspect that your anger is born of a deep-seated assumption about the world. An assumption that all of our social relations are necessarily competitive, which results in a zero-sum game in which more for someone else means less for you. And so you feel threatened by the demand for justice for people of color, because justice seems like a finite resource.
There are those in power who want you to believe this lie. They benefit from your believing it. They are the 1 percent, and they have a vested interest in keeping whites and black, especially working class and poor whites and working class and poor blacks, from recognizing their solidarity with one another. So long as whites and blacks are busy fighting for the scraps from the “master’s” table, no one bothers to question the real source of inequality in our society, the fact that the top 20 percent controls 85 percent of the country’s wealth and the bottom 80 percent of the population owns just 15 percent.
And so the economic elites sow the seeds of racism and white supremacy, in order to keep us divided and, hence, powerless. The history of this strategy goes back to the times of slavery, Jim Crow, and the opposition to the civil rights movement. At the turn of the 20th century, the populist politician Tom Watson told mixed groups of white and black farmers:
“You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”
The same is true today, as people of color demand for racial justice and are resisted by whites who believe that equality for blacks means a smaller slice of the pie for them. Your anger allows you to be made a tool of the 1 percent. It keeps you from turning your eye on the economic elites and demanding real economic justice—for everyone.
Allow me to suggest an alternative paradigm, an alternative to the view of the world in which we are all in competition with one another. In the world I see, you and I and our black and brown brothers and sisters are interconnected as members of the human species and co-inhabitants of Planet Earth. Recognition of those connections dictates that we fight for the rights of each other. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
And so it is for everyone―even people like yourself―that I stand on that sidewalk with a Black Lives Matter sign.
In the world I see, the desire for justice for some demands that we seek justice for all. In the world I see, justice is not a finite resource, and a rising tide of equality raises all of our boats. In the world I see, all lives do matter. And this requires me to recognize the unique plight of people of color. It requires me to say “black lives matter.” It requires me to stand with a sign in front of my church and endure the abuse of White men like yourself.
But it is my hope though that you will come to see that your hopes and dreams are inextricably intertwined with the hopes and dreams of people of color. It is my hope that, recognizing this, you might one day join me on that sidewalk and declare that black lives matter.