The murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile this week, along with the murders of police officers in Dallas, should serve as a wake up call to the people of our nation that cycles of violence in our communities cannot be dismantled until we begin to examine the effects of historic racism imprinted into the systems of our American culture.
The call of the Black Lives Matter movement to awaken to systemic racism in our country and to end the disproportionate amount of violence committed against Black Americans must be answered. Indeed, the relationship of cooperation between the Dallas police department and the activists of Black Lives Matter should be held up as a model of how a community can be made better when police and the citizens they are sworn to protect tackle deep systemic issues together. It is this fact that makes the police deaths in Dallas all that more devastating.
This week, the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos has hung a banner declaring that Black Lives Matter. It may seem like an empty gesture in our small and relatively peaceful community. It may seem unnecessary in a predominantly white community. So why take this stand? We have done this in part as an answer to our denomination’s commitment to solidarity with the national Black Lives Matter movement. We have done this, as well, in the hopes of opening up a larger conversation on the subject of systemic racism in our country.
It is a sad fact that from the beginning of our history, the fortunes of our nation were built upon the notion of white lives being superior to black lives. And, while it is true that we fought a Civil War to end the institution of slavery and struggled a hundred years after that to pass legislation that ensured basic civil rights for Black Americans, it is also true that we have not dealt with the scars that still permeate our national conscience after the fact, nor have we fully exorcised the fiction of white supremacy that brought these wounds into being.
The racism built into American culture, regardless of any one individual’s own attitude toward race, persists today in a culture that sees Black Americans making up nearly half of the nation’s prison population while making up only 13% of the nation’s population as a whole. It is evident in disproportionate sentencing between black and white drug offenders. It is evident in a national media that prints the mug shots of black youth accused of drug dealing while printing the yearbook photos of white youth accused of rape. It is evident in the statistic that black men are three times more likely to be killed during a police stop than white men.
None of this occurs because Black Americans are inherently more criminal than others. And it does not occur merely because there are individual racists acting out against our higher ideals. It happens because the lie of superiority and inferiority based upon race is still so deeply ingrained in our way of being, and has been for so long, that many of us simply cannot see it.
This is the tragedy of our history. And while we did not create this system, we have inherited it. The question is whether we will continue to ignore its presence, thereby passing it on to the next generation, or whether we will finally see it and name it for what it is, giving ourselves the chance to finally say “enough.”
To say that Black Lives Matter is not to say that those lives matter first or only. There is a “too” or an “also” implicit in the statement. It is a statement of focus. It is a demand for Black lives to be seen finally as worthy as the lives of those of us living in the dominant culture of this country. Many have countered the statement that Black Lives Matter with the idea that all lives matter.
In spirit, we Unitarian Universalists agree with that sentiment. Our own guiding principles call upon us to affirm the worth and dignity of all people. However, we also know that the lives of our Black brothers and sisters, as well as other people of color (especially Native lives in New Mexico) are disproportionately affected by the violence inherent in systemic racism. And so we express solidarity with Black Lives Matter in order to call attention to those lives not so readily included in the “all.” We need to be reminded just what “all” means. And all lives cannot truly matter until all lives matter equally.
There are some who point the finger at Black Lives Matter and declare it to be an anti-police movement. However, the relationship between BLM and the Dallas police – the cooperation and community improvement that cooperation engendered – shows that argument for the lie that it is. It is possible to demand racial justice at the same time as we honor the work of our public servants. It is possible to support police while still decrying needless brutality.
Here in Los Alamos, we have a deep respect and appreciation for the members of our police department and the work that they do. The Unitarian Church’s declaration that Black Lives Matter is in no way a condemnation of their service in our community. It is helpful to remember that Black Lives Matter was founded in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, killed not by police but by a civilian vigilante. Black Lives Matter is calling for an end to disproportionate violence upon people of color, no matter who perpetrates such violence, and that the end of such violence makes life safer for our police, as well.
Ultimately, this is not a black vs. white, us vs. them issue. There is, ultimately, only us, and it is our issue. Systemic racism and the ensuing cycle of violence it leads to is a detriment to us all. We declare that Black Lives Matter because the brokenness within the larger system needs to be acknowledged and transformed. This is a call for all of us to open our eyes and learn about the unpleasant history and realities of our time. Nothing will improve until we can acknowledge the problem and understand it. In this community that values education, I recommend you begin with the following books:
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates
More resources can be found at our website: www.uulosalamos.org/programs/social-justice/black-lives-matter.