I understand people like presidential candidate Governor Mike Huckabee who object to the use of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” I am a straight white U.S. American male. I grew up an upper middle-class family, child of a male who had a professional career outside of the home and a female who had a domestic career within it. I was taught that our differences don’t matter, that it’s the ways we’re the same that matter. No matter what your race color or creed, we’re all Americans first. And since our differences don’t matter, we don’t talk about them. Highlighting our differences is the first step to racism. How can we treat everyone the same if were thinking about the ways we're different?
What Gov. Huckabee had to say in a recent interview on The Situation Room is perfectly aligned with what I learned about race growing up: "When I hear people scream, 'black lives matter,' I think, 'Of course they do.' But all lives matter. It's not that any life matters more than another. That's the whole message that Dr. King tried to present, and I think he'd be appalled by the notion that we're elevating some lives above others.”
The continuing process by which I came to hold the racial beliefs that I currently do, ones very different from the one’s I was raised with, is not only too long and complex for these pages, but is also, in many ways, not available to my conscious mind. It involves study with powerful practitioners in the multiculturalism field. It involves having meaningful relationships with people who are not only of other races but exceptionally warm, open, and patient with me. It involves crippling bouts of foot-in-mouth disease, attacks of which I have on a regular basis. It involves much, much more.
One of the most important things I have learned as a white person who is committed to racial equity is to listen to non-whites in the knowledge that they are capable of analyzing their experience much more accurately than I am. This doesn’t mean I must uncritically believe anything that anyone who isn’t white says, but I do have to respect others’ perspectives. Based on what many people of color are saying in general, and the specific feedback I get from the people of color in my life, I feel as if my understanding of the phrase Black Lives Matter is informed by the experience of my brothers and sisters of color. One of the reasons people of color are using the phrase Black Lives Matter is not because they think that black lives matter more than other lives. It is because they have the experience that many individuals and our society as a whole do not behave as if black lives actually matter as much as white ones. Most people I know hold to the belief that one should care about one’s fellow human beings. Certainly Gov. (and Reverend) Huckabee does. When someone we care about says, “the behavior that you are engaging in makes me feel as if I do not matter to you,” what is an appropriate response? Should we be offended? Should we tell them that their perception of reality is wrong? Should we ignore the data that they present to us upon which their belief is founded? Should we value their silence and our comfort over their perception of what is in their best interest?
Sometimes it feels like we whites are purposefully shutting out the experiences of people of color. Those of us who see the marginalization, and in many cases murder, of people of color can feel frustrated to the point of outrage. Gov. Huckabee’s statement is an excellent example of this. Reduced to its face value the statement that Dr. King would be appalled at the notion that some lives matter more than others is probably true. I hesitate to put any words into the mouth of any person of color, let alone the great Dr. King’s. But the context of the statement goes deeper.
One context is the actual reducing of the statement to its face value. Reductionism is a value within white culture that has led to much success. I’m not saying that no one other than whites engage in reductionism, and I’m not saying that all whites do all the time, but I am saying that breaking concepts down to smaller parts so that we can study and understand them is central to the white mindset. (I’m also not saying that I don’t expect the comment section of this blog post to fill up with the appalled protestations of my white brothers and sisters who read this post and out of its entirety perceive only the statement: ”Only white people reduce and they reduce everything always!” On the contrary, I do.)
Another context, which is less reductionist, is historical. Dr. King was born a few months before my still living father. If he were alive today he could quite possibly be a robust 86 years old and we very likely would’ve been able to hear Dr. King’s opinion about the Black Lives Matter movement directly from the man himself. Unfortunately, Dr. King was murdered by a white man, one who very likely held the opinion that black lives do not matter as much as white ones. For Gov. Huckabee to invoke the example of murdered, black Martin Luther King Jr. to rally against a movement that identifies itself as Black Lives Matter is at its simplest thoughtlessness to the point of dangerousness. How are we to trust the governor’s motives when his actions lack such basic historical perspective? How can we be surprised when we act similarly and our brothers and sisters of color do not trust us? Do good intentions trump negative impact? Not when the impact is on you.
Since April 4, 1968 our world has been without Dr. King; without his insights and inspiration; without his passion for justice; without his skill as an organizer. His children have been without their father, his wife without her husband. What might the people of the Black Lives Matter movement be doing right now if Dr. King’s life had mattered more than it did to James Earl Ray?