When slavery was formally abolished in the US, the former owners felt aggrieved as if they were the victims of a terrible injustice. Many sought, and some even won, reparations for lost property—unlike the formerly enslaved people (the former “property”) who instead of reparations got Black Codes, Jim Crow, regimes of lynch-mob terror, red-lining, mass incarceration, occupying police forces, and more. For those who’d been blithely enjoying their privileges while riding on the backs of others, justice and fairness—equality—can always be made to feel like oppression. It’s not—it is instead a cruel if powerful illusion. But privilege works like that. Today young people are leading and building a broad and hopeful movement—the next step in the centuries-old Black Freedom Movement—demanding the end of militarized police targeting and occupying Black people and communities, the creation of decent schools and good jobs, the abolition of mass incarceration, reparations for harm done, and simple justice going forward. Black Lives Matter! To some privileged people it’s as if a terrible injustice has once again befallen them—and of course it hasn’t. To proclaim that “Jewish Lives Matter” in Germany in the 1930s would have been a good thing—those were the lives being discounted and destroyed; to say that “Palestinian Lives Matter” in Israel now would be to stand on the side of the downtrodden and disposable. And to shout out that Black Lives Matter in the US today is to take the side of humanity. Every City Hall and every police precinct should hang a large Black Lives Matter banner over the front door, and then get real about the work needed to bring that slogan authentically to life.
The Myths and the Reality