Black Lives Matter: Taking Stock of An International Moment

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Black Lives Matter protest in New York City on June 6, 2020. Photo credit: edenpictures via Flickr

On May 25, 2020 former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin detained an African-American civilian named George Floyd for allegedly attempting to use a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Having handcuffed Floyd’s hands behind his back, Chauvin placed the full weight of his body onto his neck. For an agonizing eight minutes and forty-six seconds George Floyd—a grown man of forty-six years—gasped for air and called out for his dead mother while Chauvin squeezed the life out of him. A brave bystander captured the entire interaction on video.

Chauvin’s act of banal brutality was not the first instance of police misconduct against African-American citizens. Far from it. Sadly, the history of such abuse is both long and well-documented. Nor is it the first instance of such brutality being caught on video for the entire world to see, examples of which range from the beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991 to the slaying of Walter Scott, who was shot in the back by former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager in 2015.

Yet Floyd’s slaying by an officer of the law in plain sight of the public is the first to have sparked a sustained and spontaneous international movement against racial injustice in general and police brutality in particular. The video recording of Floyd’s homicide will stand throughout history alongside other pictures—both still and moving—that have laid bare the gap between America’s cherished ideals and its lived reality.

Ethics, or moral philosophy, is a system of concepts for defining, determining, and defending what is right, both for the individual and for society. How do we know, and do, what is “good” both in our personal and collective lives?  On the question of race in America, what we know to be “good” has evolved slowly, painfully, yet dramatically since the first slaves landed at Jamestown in 1619. As we enter into the third decade of the twenty-first century, only the most tortured souls in the deepest recesses of the American body politic would disagree with the proposition that everyone— regardless of race or origin—is, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, that amongst these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Indeed, this is now such a self-evident proposition that it is hard to accept that for the vast majority of our country’s history this powerful profession of the inherent dignity of all humankind lay in direct contrast to polite popular opinion and official government policy toward people of African descent. In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois prophetically wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Well into the twenty-first century, it is a problem that endures.

Even if we know what is right in matters of race, it is doing what is right—or, to be precise, knowing what to do—that is often the challenge. Philosophers would refer to this as a question of either normative or applied ethics; taking a general meta-ethical principle such as the inherent dignity of the individual, and giving it practical effect in a broad field of endeavor (such as law or politics) or a particular situation (such as the use of force in combat or policing). In evaluating the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, the meta-ethical assertion of the inherent and equal value of black people meets a plethora of normative ethical questions around race and society as well as applied ethical considerations from the conduct of policing to the boundaries of legitimate social protest.

“Black Lives Matter.” It is a simple, declarative statement that is at once clear and powerful yet also complex and explosive.

To say that “Black Lives Matter” is another way of saying that people of African descent—who have hopes and dreams, love and fears, work and faith, purpose and meaning—have value and significance, and that their full being deserves a place of priority in our consciousness, which cannot be dismissed without consequence.

All statements must be read in context to understand their full meaning. In 2021, the assertion that “Black Lives Matter”—a statement which should otherwise be unremarkable over half a century since astronauts first walked on the moon—is explosive precisely because the need to say it aloud, or even to shout it from the depths of one’s soul, is elicited by mounting empirical evidence that it is still not fully true.

From disparities in life expectancy to dramatic differences in familial wealth; and from persistent inequities in educational outcomes to ongoing challenges with the criminal justice system, virtually every socio-economic indicator testifies to the ongoing struggles of African Americans relative to every other demographic group in the country more than a century and a half after the abolition of slavery and two generations following the end of de jure segregation. While individual agency is always a factor in explaining personal success or failure, the widespread and continuing differences in median outcomes in virtually every area of life for black people in America well into the twenty-first century demand explanation.

That is the implication of “Black Lives Matter.” It is not only a statement. It is also a movement, calling for the examination of this problem and agitating for change. Just as the statement is worthy of ethical analysis, so is the movement. Founded in 2013 by three self-described “radical Black organizers”—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin—it is a social activist collective meant to give practical effect to the statement “Black Lives Matter” by calling attention to the continued inequities in American society and around the world that are strongly correlated to race, and advocating for public policies to correct these entrenched deficiencies. As their mission statement says:

Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.

It is also a movement that has generated strong opposition. In general, the critiques of the Black Lives Matter movement (or BLM) fall into three categories. The first is the assertion that the movement practices—or at least tolerates—violence against people and property to achieve its aims. The second is that it is inherently exclusionary, both ideologically and racially. And the third is that (at least in the United States) its members are arguably seditious, disloyal to the country whose freedoms make such denunciations possible in the first place. These critiques are addressed here in turn.

The ethical legitimacy of violence as a form of social protest is an old and ongoing debate. Political violence challenges the monopoly of violence by the state, which is the embodiment of the social contract that makes collective life possible: In return for guaranteeing the safety and welfare of its citizens, individuals cede a measure of their autonomy to the state, starting with who may legitimately wield violence. Thus, violence as a form of social protest is a strike at the very agreement that makes society possible. Further, with regard to the sanctity of life that is arguably the foundational meta-ethical principle, it would clearly be problematic for a movement that is dedicated to elevating the lives of some people on a matter of principle to be implicated in harming the lives of others as a means of expediency.

Yet the facts matter in evaluating this claim, and there is no evidence that BLM as a movement formally or knowingly tolerates or advocates violence. To be certain, there have been violent actions and actors that have infiltrated some protests and fomented rioting. They should reasonably and rightly be condemned. A mature democracy simply cannot tolerate the democratization of violence for any cause, no matter how righteous, especially when other avenues of effective protest are available. Further, a social movement such as BLM, a foundational premise of which is that lives have intrinsic value, undermines its cause if it does not clearly and repeatedly denounce actions taken in its name that threaten or harm the lives of others. To their credit, leaders of BLM have made such condemnations in the past. Further, as the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project shows, 93 percent of the over 7,400 BLM protests last summer were nonviolent. Yet the continued presence of violent provocateurs at protests continues to plague the organization in the eyes of some members of the public.

This leads to the second critique—that the BLM movement is ideologically exclusionary. This argument suggests that asserting “Black Lives Matter” inherently implies that other lives do not matter—or, at a minimum, that they do not matter as much as Black lives. Further, if one can build a movement around the specific concerns around Black lives, then why cannot one just as easily say that “White Lives Matter” to assert the value of white Americans, or that “Blue Lives Matter” to elevate the value and sacrifices of law enforcement officers? On the merits, of course it is every bit as legitimate for any group to make its case to the public and the government about disparities in treatment, so long as it is done peacefully. Yet the assertion that “Black Lives Matter” is inherently exclusionary is belied by two things. The first is that a plain reading of the statement and an understanding of the facts underlying them cannot reasonably be understood to be exclusionary. To tell the world that you are in pain and require attention is not the same as saying that the pain of others is irrelevant and must be ignored. Second, the composition of protesters—who represent a broad diversity of races, religions, and ages—further suggests that the BLM movement is not exclusionary. On the contrary, it is evidence that it is broadly inclusive. Nevertheless, social movements that make space for allies and for the conversion of the agnostic (or even the opposed) have a resilience that improves the likelihood of accomplishing their goals. Inviting others to make common cause with BLM is therefore an essential task for the movement.

The final critique of the Black Lives Matter movement is that it is, at its core, seditious. Critics have labeled it both communist and fascist. The “love it or leave it” argument deployed against BLM is that to protest against the government of the United States in general, or to demand redress for the continued plight of African Americans in particular, is inherently un-American. Yet the “love it or leave it” crowd forgets that America was forged in protest. What, after all, is the “Declaration of Independence” if not amongst the greatest protest documents in history? And even if one were inclined to question the patriotism of well-known activists like Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the National Anthem or millions of ordinary citizens for taking to the streets, it would now be difficult to continue to argue that the supporters of Black Lives Matter hate America.

Because the killing of George Floyd changed everything.

The asphyxiation of Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis by an agent of the state—made all the more heinous by the casual cruelty with which it was done over nearly nine minutes—shocked the conscience of the country. Finally, those who had been resistant to hearing the cri de cœr of Black America were able to see and understand that something was terribly wrong. Two generations after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech and over a decade after the United States elected Barack Obama as its first Black president, Derek Chauvin’s knee pressing mercilessly into George Floyd’s neck was a metaphor for the struggles and inequities that continue to plague Black Americans well into the twenty-first century.

And America responded.

The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger, ordered all Confederate iconography banned from all Marine Corps Installations. Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the National Football League and erstwhile adversary of Colin Kaepernick, publicly apologized for ignoring Kaepernick’s years of peaceful protests and committed the NFL to doing better on matters of diversity. Every one of the chiefs of America’s armed forces committed their services to listening to their colleagues’ stories about race and understanding how they could do better at every level of their organizations.

As important as these volte-faces were, it was the public explosion of outrage both in the United States and around the world that manifested the widespread revulsion at the killing of George Floyd. Ordinary people everywhere were repulsed by the depravity with which a police officer could squeeze the life out of a subdued suspect in broad daylight. The horror transcended boundaries of nationality, of language, of religion, and of color. In reaction, people spontaneously took to the streets from London to Lagos, from Reykjavik to Rome, from Cairo to Copenhagen and from Tokyo to Tunis to denounce the inhumanity evinced by a sworn officer of the law on the streets of the greatest democracy in the world.

And with these demonstrations, Black Lives Matter went global.

History will have its judgement on this unprecedented global outpouring of anguish and anger over a routine police stop gone horribly wrong in a mid-western American city. There are, however, at least two conclusions that can be reasonably drawn now.

The first is that the world expects better of America, and calls for us to expect better of ourselves. Having held ourselves as an example of equality under the law and respect for human dignity— the proverbial “Shining City on a Hill”—since the earliest days of our Republic, our admirers and our adversaries around the world critique or condemn us when we fall far short of the mark. The killing of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin was remarkable not only for the cruelty of the act itself, but also for the dark history that it conjured. It was a testimony to the legions of black men and women in America who had been brutalized or killed by police officers or lynch mobs for generations with impunity. And the fact that this killing was captured on an iPhone in 2020 makes a lie of the assertion that America has overcome this painful history. It is still very much with us. To paraphrase Faulkner, the past isn’t even past. The evidence is plain for the whole world to see. When Black Lives Matter protests are held in countries like Iceland and Japan, which have negligible black populations, or in Syria of Afghanistan, which have their own existential challenges, it is because large swaths of humanity recognize a grievous wrong that must be set right. We would all do well to listen.

The second conclusion is that this moment of crisis on race in America is instructive for other countries as well. Though we as Americans tend to be very self-referential, other countries and societies have had their own painful histories with systems of chattel slavery, with colonialism built on ideologies of white supremacy, and with their own endogenous historical inequalities that are tightly bound with questions of heredity. Our long overdue reckoning with race in the United States sparked conversations in Great Britain about statues in places like Bristol that publicly honor men who made their fortunes in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and the continued controversy over the veneration of Cecil Rhodes, whose diamond fortune was brutally extracted from the exploitation of untold numbers of black Africans in Rhodesia. The Black Lives Matter protests in America gave further impetus to addressing the plight of the Dalit (or so called “untouchables”) in India, who occupy the lowest rung in that rigid caste system. Even in Kenya, the killing of George Floyd prompted conversations and protests about the conduct of police toward Kenyan citizens, particularly toward minority ethnic groups such as Kenyan Somalis. In this instance, the United States is indeed an example to the rest of the world, just not in the way that George Washington or Ronald Reagan intended. It is our failure to live up to our ideals of equality and dignity in America that has caused people in other countries to confront their own injustices related to race and identity.

The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, the day after protesters felled the statue and rolled it into the harbour. Photo credit: Caitlin Hobbs via Wikimedia Commons

As we confront this pivotal moment in our history, the central question is what do we do with it? We cannot say that we did not recognize this moment. And we must summon the collective courage to meet it. The study of ethics is to help us know and do what is right. And as the late American author and poetess Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.”

The first thing we must do is to be uncompromising in facing the facts of historical and continued inequities related to race in our society, and to follow the truth wherever it may lead. This is work that is potentially uncomfortable and even painful. It requires us to revisit received wisdom, recognizing that such wisdom may have been received when important perspectives were inadvertently or deliberately excluded. Yet understanding the full truth of our history and our present is essential for building a better tomorrow. As the scriptures tell us, “the truth shall make you free.”

The second thing we must do is commit ourselves to having difficult conversations that lead to greater mutual understanding, that produce more light than heat. This is extremely challenging, particularly on matters of race. Our black brothers and sisters reasonably ask, “How much more patient and understanding must we be, given the centuries of injustice we have had to endure right up to the present day?” Many of our white brothers and sisters lament, “How many more times must we apologize for events that happened long before we were born? When will enough be enough?” And our brothers and sisters who are native peoples or descendants of immigrants from places other than Europe wonder, “When will our stories be told, and how do our struggles and triumphs fit in this unfolding American story?” It matters how we address and answer these questions, both looking into our past and gazing into our future. The narratives we tell ourselves about who we have been help to provide the frame for understanding who we are today, and set the parameters for the conversation of who we strive to be. If we are to keep our Republic, as Benjamin Franklin apocryphally suggested, in a time of increasing diversity as we reckon with our legacy of racism, we must do the hard work of listening to each other with intention and taking action with humility and grace. This is true for us as individuals, as institutions, and as a country.

Finally, we must set and insist on the boundaries of legitimate dialogue and debate. The institutions on which our democracy depends are fragile. After all, institutions are not independent entities. They are simply the embodiment of a people who agree to live together under a certain set of rules and understandings. When they lose their legitimacy among a large enough portion of a community, institutions become weakened and vulnerable. Thus, our democracy is ours to preserve and protect even as we grapple with incredibly challenging issues. There are at least two essential boundaries on which we all must insist. The first is that the threat or use of violence by citizens against each other is completely unacceptable. When we attempt to settle disputes with the toss of a rock or the barrel of a gun, we threaten the very foundations of our democracy. All of us, regardless of our ideological orientation, must condemn all such violence or threats whatever the source, and we must do so as often as is necessary. The second is that we must demand accountability under the law for those who fall afoul of it, whether they are police officers, public officials, average citizens, or career criminals. As Dr. King said, “true peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” Therefore, we must continue to seek justice in order to build an enduring peace.

Black Lives Matter is more than a statement. It is even more than a movement. It is a moment of great consequence in our history as a nation. How we choose to address it will help to define us for a generation and will be remembered for decades to come. As a nation that has always strived to perfect our Union by harkening back to the founding ideals of our Republic, let us meet this current moment as our ancestors bravely met theirs. Let us rise to the occasion to strengthen an America that is increasingly true to our starting proposition “that all … are created equal” and that proves itself worthy of its place of leadership among the nations of the world.


—Reuben E. Brigety

 

Reuben E. Brigety, II is the seventeenth Vice Chancellor of the University of the South, Sewanee. From 2013–2015, he served as the U.S. Ambassador to the African Union and U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

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