On the subject of police brutality specifically, I think the misconception of (and therefore the oft-used rebuttal to) the movement is that this whole Black Lives Matter thing is about white members of law enforcement shooting and killing black people. That limited view of the movement prompts even more limited perspectives when tragedies like the killing of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina occur. For the next few days, you’ll often hear folks either say, with an almost sick sense of satisfaction, “So now what? Ain’t got a lot to say now when it’s a black officer” or, if they’re more restrained in their end zone celebrations, in a more measured tone, “See, its not a race issue. It’s just a police training issue.” We heard a lot of that last year during the Republican presidential nominating race. (See: WALKER, SCOTT)
When I hear those responses, the ignorance is as blatant as it is offensive.
When it comes to the criminal justice system, specifically regarding the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, our cause is absolutely centered around race, but it’s not a simple characterization of white officers or white people killing black people. It’s about a system that has, through laws and the execution of them (or, in some cases, lack thereof), either legalized the murder of African-Americans or, at best, placed a presumption of degenerate on any African-American who is shot or killed, a presumption they, their families and, by extension, the black community as a collective, must overcome just to get SYMPATHY, not to mention relevance and justice. During the Trayvon Martin trial, 3/4ths of the battle was simply getting America to stop trying to justify the death of a kid. And 80% of THAT battle was getting America to see Trayvon Martin, 17, as in fact 17. But that public relations battle was simply an exaggeration of the systemic obstacles that existed in the actual legal proceedings of that case. George Zimmerman was exonerated largely because the law recognized his increased suspicion and fear of a black kid simply because he was black as reasonable and therefore a justified defense of the use of deadly force. Think about that: simply because my skin is darker, it’s reasonable for you to be more afraid of me and therefore there are more conceivable instances where you could kill me and get away with it. Is that a simplification of a complex issue? Sure, but if you strip the need to soften the language for comfort, what’s incorrect about that characterization?
So, in other words, this movement is about the fact that the system has effectively given a green light to the notion that black lives DON’T matter. And when you have a system that has a lower threshold for empathy and legal treatment of a class of people, ANYONE in a position of power, regardless of color or background, is susceptible to abusing it at the most vulnerable people’s expense.
But, you might ask, even if the system has a racial blind spot, why would other black people perpetuate it? Isn’t that against their own self-interest? Sure, but those that perpetuate it don’t see solidarity in their blackness. American society historically has been dominated by “white” culture. That’s not a knock or “shade,” it’s just the truth. Of course, elements of other cultures have blended into our supposed gumbo of American diversity like hip hop and #ByeFelicia, but by and large, society is shaped by the culture of the majority. And the society that bred over the course of American history was one of rich, white, male dominance. That created a society that through every medium–entertainment, politics, religion–celebrated the virtues of being white, rich, and male at the expense of every other group. And when society as a whole accepts the idea that black lives (or any other lives, for that matter) are less valuable and therefore expendable, that permeates across racial lines. Black parents for generations have had to passionately instill in their kids a sense of pride in their own color and history because every message they were receiving outside of their home and church was tangentially opposite. I’ve seen firsthand mothers imploring their little girls not to be embarrassed about how their hair grew or heard, sadly, men I’ve considered friends categorically reject the idea of dating women of a certain complexion. It’s all prejudice and it’s all race-based. But it comes back to the fact that as a society, one in which black folks are just as much a part of as any other people, we have accepted that being black is a bad thing. And that to be successful (or, these days, just to stay alive) is going to have to happen in SPITE of being black. When that’s the only thing being served over generations, everyone eats the dog food eventually.
In the black community, we’ve long known that some of the most violent and racially-motivated treatment from law enforcement came not from white officers, but from black officers. There’s a really well-known scene in the 1996 movie cult classic “Don’t Be A Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood” (or, as most of us simply call it “Don’t Be A Menace”) where a seemingly confused black police officer, played by the late great Bernie Mac, is depicted viciously manhandling and intimidating the two black protagonists, played by Shawn and Marlon Wayans.
Sure, it was funny scene and one of the most frequent lines you’ll hear repeated from the movie comes directly from that scene, where Bernie Mac itemizes his reasons for hating black people with an infamous reference to Whoopi Goldberg. But just as Robin Williams used to say, comedy is more often than not rooted in tragedy and truth. That scene was so funny to black people because it was so familiar. For years, we’ve known that there was no solace to be taken in the fact that an officer looked like you. That dates all the back to slavery when often slaves were overseeing slaves, enforcing the slave owner’s rules often harsher than the slave owner or any white overseer would. This narrative isn’t new for us.
In this ongoing and inspiring battle for racial equity, one of the nagging myths that must be obliterated is this idea that the movement is about white people vs. black people. It’s not and never has been. Specific to the issue of police brutality, this is about a system that makes it easier to kill black people than any other group. It doesn’t matter if the officer’s name is Betty Shelby or Brentley Vinson, right now if “Officer” is in front of their name, we’ve created a system that uniformly affords them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to interactions with black people and the black community. When people can begin to understand that, I think they’ll start to understand the movement more broadly.