The Promise of All Lives Mattering

Given that Unitarian Universalists believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, not just black people, why should we say “black lives matter” rather than “all lives matter”? To answer this question, we must draw a distinction between a faith stance and a description of reality. We need to clarify how we can tell that someone’s life matters. Finally, we have to demonstrate that black lives don’t matter much in the United States today and never have. The question then becomes, what can we do? All along, it’s important to recognize that while we have the best possible intentions, systematic racism has very little to do with intentions and a lot to do with outcomes that are larger than our individual lives but that we can influence individually and collectively.

We first need to understand the difference between an affirmation of faith and a description of reality. When we say “all lives matter,” are we making a statement about what we believe based on, for example, the First Principle, or are we saying that reality demonstrates that all people are treated as though they matter? Clearly, the phrase “all lives matter” represents a belief, a claim, a trust that, contrary to all visible evidence, all lives do matter, or at least that they will matter in the world for which we strive. Faith stances are necessary but not sufficient for that world.

Here’s the problem: there’s something in the claim that all lives matter that smacks of colorblindness. Colorblindness is often well-intentioned, an attempt to see everyone as a human being and therefore as the same without paying too much attention to race and other traits seen as extraneous. We imagine that Dr. King envisioned a color-blind future in his hope that his four children would eventually be judged based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

Colorblindness, however, misses the fullest reality of who we are as people. We are each individuals, with our own life experiences and our own particular ways of making sense of those experiences. We are all human beings, sharing certain common needs and able to offer certain common blessings to each other. So far, so good. Our individuality seems to point back to King’s comment about the content of our character. Our commonality as human beings seems to fit the assumptions of colorblindness, which have a lot to do with all people being the same.

But we are not merely individuals and human beings. We are also, and crucially, members of social groups, groups that get valued differently from one another and treated differently from each other and thus that have group experiences that differ in patterned ways. Men are paid more than women on average for the same work and women are much more likely to be raped than men. Heterosexuals rarely get gaybashed unless they are mistaken for gay. And black people are treated less well than white people in many walks of life, precisely because they are still judged by the color of their skin.

Colorblindness has no way to address the reality that our group identities lead to different treatment. In fact, it’s worse than that. If society is colorblind, then any difficulties someone faces are their own fault since we are all individuals and only individuals. All those women getting raped must have asked for it. All that violence against sexual minorities wouldn’t happen if they didn’t flaunt it. And black people wouldn’t keep getting shot if they weren’t hoodie-wearing thugs. Colorblindness is, among other things, a way to blame the victim. Once we reject colorblindness as an accurate description of society, we can start talking realistically about the evidence that black lives don’t matter much in the U.S. and then respond to that fact.

What does it mean to matter? How do you know you matter? Here are some possibilities: People take you seriously. They believe you when you talk about your experiences. They treat you as the expert on your own life. They expect good things of you. They support your well-being and want you to flourish. You have access to high-quality schools, safe neighborhoods, all the things you need to make a life that matters, that is full of joy, that gives back to others. You know that you are valued by others, and valuable to them.

How do you know that your life matters, that others cherish your very existence and want it to continue? Here are two answers: you have access to all the basic resources you need, and you are not in danger of being physically harmed or killed. You can breathe clean air, drink clean water, and eat healthy food. You have a warm place to live. You have access to good, affordable healthcare. You live in a neighborhood with little or no violent crime. No one will beat you up. People will interact with you in ways that look out for your safety when possible.

Do black people in the U.S. today see evidence that they matter, that their perspective matters, that their flourishing matters? What about their lives mattering? Personal stories and statistical studies suggest that the answers are negative. The situations below may not be universal to absolutely every black person but they are so common as to be well-documented social patterns.

Black people are less likely to be shown apartments and homes in certain neighborhoods than white people, and more likely to be offered the highest-risk, highest-cost type of mortgage. Black people are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods with poorer housing stock, failing schools, inadequate municipal services, lower-quality food in the stores, fewer banks made up for by expensive check-cashing outfits, less information about potential high-paying jobs, more concentrated poverty, and more violence (mostly due to the concentrated poverty). And there’s not much most black people can do to change this. Since their houses are worth less than houses in white suburbs, they are accruing less home equity and the property tax base in their neighborhoods can’t pay for well-funded schools.

Black people hear that Jews are never to forget the Holocaust, that Americans are never to forget Pearl Harbor and 9/11, but that they are playing the race card or acting like victims if they bring up slavery, the failure of Reconstruction, lynching, Jim Crow, the violent repression of voting rights in the South in the 1960s, or today’s mass incarceration of people of color.

If a black person sends in a resume for a job, they are only half as likely as an equally qualified white person to receive a callback or job offer. A white person just released from prison has as good a chance to get a particular job as a black person with no no criminal record. Black people need more education than white people to receive equal consideration for the same job in many cases.

A black person was probably quoted a higher price for the last car they bought than a white person would have been quoted for the same car.

Black people know that certain states are trying to restrict their voting rights and that the Supreme Court is letting those states get away with it.

Black people in Los Angeles may know that South Central LA has one primary care physician for every 13,000 residents; the nearby white town Bel Air has one for every 214 residents. Similarly, southeast Washington, DC has one pediatrician for every 3700 children while nearby white Bethesda has one for every 400. A black person may well be given less pain treatment at the doctor than a white person would be, and a black person experiencing a heart attack is less likely than a white person to receive best-practice care.

Even upper-middle class black men who teach or study at prestigious universities are not afforded protection against police suspicion toward them or mistreatment of them, or against white assumptions that they are criminals. Some years back a television producer was made to sit on the curb, handcuffed, in an expensive suit, because he was bald — and a bald black man had just done something illegal. A black person’s trip to a department store is likely to result in being followed by security, and a trip to an expensive jewelry or clothing store may result in the person’s simply not being let in at all since it’s presumed they can’t afford to shop there.

Black men are more likely than white men to be stopped by the police because they “fit the description” of a criminal, regardless of their behavior. They are more likely to be arrested, charged, and convicted than white men, and if convicted usually face a longer prison sentence for the same crime. Black men born in 2001 have a one-in-three chance of being incarcerated at some point in their lives, up to six times the chance of white men born the same year.

Black people see white people doing all sorts of illegal things, including underage drinking, aggravated assault, felony theft, possession and sale of narcotics, and participating in riots, without paying much or any penalty for it, all the while knowing that black people are killed by police for carrying out petty theft, selling loose cigarettes in the street, or doing absolutely nothing illegal at all. White people can open carry and not get shot, point guns at police officers and not get shot, and shoot up a movie theater, killing twelve and wounding seventy others, and somehow be taken alive. In contrast, a twelve-year-old black boy holding a toy gun in a park is shot to death by police within two seconds of their arrival. And the police are virtually never held accountable for these killings.

Black people recall Civil Rights activist Ella Baker’s comment that the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, is not as important to white society as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons. Since this is still true, black parents teach their children, especially boys, exactly how to behave in case of an encounter with the police, who are more likely to shoot them than they would be to shoot white boys. Black parents must tell their children they can’t assume that the police are on their side. Doing this is utterly heartbreaking but the alternative is worse. A young black man who spends any time on the highway or in white areas will almost certainly eventually have a run-in with the police no matter how innocent, well-dressed, or wealthy he is, and black parents can only hope that their sons will survive with no physical injuries.

Black men shot to death by police officers for any reason or no reason at all will be described more negatively in the media than they would be if they were white mass murderers such as James Holmes, Ted Bundy, and Elliott Rodger.

Those of us who are white in America mostly have the luxury of ignoring these realities, but black people don’t. Over and over, the message is hammered into their heads: You don’t matter. Your well-being doesn’t matter. Your life doesn’t matter. We white people don’t really care how well you do in life or even whether you live. And until we who are white acknowledge these realities our effectiveness as change agents is limited.

What can white UUs do? First, we must be willing to be uncomfortable. Then we have to make a commitment to this particular arena of justice, not to the exclusion of other justice struggles but as an important place to live on the side of love. Once we know that blacks are treated as though their lives don’t matter as much as white lives, we can focus on changing the equation. We can be part of the struggle to make black lives matter more, though we can never be at its center.

Here are some specific things we can do: we can educate ourselves about black history and present-day reality through reading and other forms of learning. We can be in solidarity with people of color and believe them when they tell us what their lives are like. We can donate money to organizations that support black flourishing. We can write letters to the editor that get people thinking. We can vote for politicians who acknowledge racial inequality and are committed to doing something about it. We can join organizations that address these issues, and we can develop church projects along these lines. We can educate other white people about the realities of racism and the opportunities of justice. Anything we do that invites more whites to be part of the solution is an act of living on the side of love.

If you are already doing this work, may you be blessed in it. If you are ready to do it, may patience and courage be yours. And may we all be part of the building of a future in which, when we say all lives matter, we are describing reality and not just making a faith statement. Amen and blessed be.

Black lives matter bandana at Portland GA rally.
A sea of young adults (of color) at a Black Lives Matter rally marching from the White House to the Capitol, July 14, 2016.