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When someone proclaims “Black Lives Matter,” a common response is, “All Lives Matter.”
And that is certainly true.
Biblically, in Matthew 6:26, Jesus talks about how much God values humanity: “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?”
And in America’s Declaration of Independence, it’s right there near the beginning: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”
That doesn’t say “all lives are created equal.”
In forming America’s Constitution, many of the same men who signed the Declaration also helped craft language that said, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
That last part of Article 1, Section 2, known as the “three-fifths compromise” has generated scholarly debate for years. Even if you don’t take it to mean the framers viewed slaves literally as three-fifths of a man, the fact it was part of a “compromise,” meant slaves were discussed as property, and clearly not equal as men. Indians and women didn’t receive much credit, either.
Our country has been around for almost 244 years, but women only earned the right to vote 100 years ago (19th Amendment, 1920). Black men earned the right to vote, constitutionally anyway, with the 15th amendment in 1870. We all know, however, that wasn’t accepted practice. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, outlawing discrimination and segregation, it was still difficult for blacks to vote. In many instances, obstacles still exist.
Jim Crow laws persisted for 100 years beyond the official end of slavery, treating blacks as less than second-class citizens. Slaves first arrived on what would be American soil in 1619. Through the institution of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination, white Americans by the 1960s had been taught for 345 years that black lives did NOT matter.
But the Civil Rights Act would suddenly correct all that, right?
Well, the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964. That was 56 years ago. If civil rights had made 56 years’ worth of progress in that time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Segregation was sanctioned by the Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, allowing separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites. The separate part certainly was enacted in practice — we’ve all seen the photos of the “Colored” water fountains and other separate facilities; many of you lived it —but the equal part didn’t make it, even in theory.
Schools and Real Estate
Segregation in America’s public schools was officially outlawed in 1954, with the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court case. Implementation across America took years. In the Midland and Odessa school districts in Texas, officials didn’t start addressing segregation until 1966, and it wasn’t officially off the books until 1982, a full generation after Brown v. Board.
Maybe not by law, but in practice, even today in many parts of the country, school districts remain one of the most segregated institutions in America, perhaps second only to churches. Sunday mornings have long been termed “the most segregated hour in America.”
It’s also commonplace that many minority-dominant schools have much worse conditions and amenities than their white-dominant counterparts. That is, in many cases, a function of real estate and property taxes, which often fund school districts. In many cases, schools in areas densely populated by African-Americans are surrounded by houses and real estate valued much lower than in predominantly white areas.
That is also rooted in a practice that perpetuated black lives DON’T matter.
Housing discrimination wasn’t an issue for much of America’s history because, for the most part, black people were not allowed to own property. When African-Americans started buying houses after World War II – or at least trying to buy houses – the discrimination quickly surfaced. Real estate discrimination was specifically addressed in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which languished for over a year on Capitol Hill because of opposition in the House and Senate. Racists are great at finding loopholes, though, and while sellers could no longer legally discriminate against black people, lenders still could, which brought about the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974.
Newsday, a newspaper in Long Island, New York, did a lengthy investigative journalism project that uncovered rampant racial discrimination in real estate. Reporters and experts discovered discriminatory practices in real estate processes at the following rates with prospective minority buyers:
Asians - 19 percent
Hispanics - 39 percent
African-Americans - 49 percent
That Newsday project was conducted not in the 1960s, 70s or even 80s. It took place in 2019.
Military and Sports
During World War II, more than 400,000 German and Italian prisoners of war were interred at military posts in the United States. African-American soldiers and nurses stationed at those posts consistently reported receiving worse treatment than the P.O.W.s and, for instance, were relegated to the “Colored” mess hall, while the German prisoners were allowed to eat in the “White” sections. So, back then, black military lives did NOT matter and, in fact, mattered less than Nazi war prisoner lives.
Some of the walls of military discrimination began to come down thanks to a case involving a familiar name: Jackie Robinson. Before he became a baseball pioneer, Robinson served in the U.S. Army. While stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1944, Lt. Robinson was ordered by a bus driver to move back, further from whites. Robinson refused, and the situation escalated, resulting in Robinson’s court-martial. At the trial, Lt. Robinson was found not guilty.
Less than three years later, Robinson would be the Brooklyn Dodgers’ opening day first baseman, breaking baseball’s longstanding color barrier. That didn’t stop relentless abuse and name calling from fans, opponents and, in some cases, Robinson’s own teammates.
It’s no surprise Robinson was being called the n-word in the 1940s and 50s.
Another African-American player, Torii Hunter, a native Arkansan, played 19 years in the major leagues, and also reported being called the n-word regularly, especially when visiting Fenway Park in Boston, home of the Red Sox, the last major league team to integrate, 12 years after Robinson. The abuse was so consistent for Hunter he had a no-trade-to-Boston clause in his contract.
Hunter was not a player in the 1960s, 70s or even 80s. He played from 1997-2015.
Blatantly and Subtly
Discrimination against blacks originated in the perception slaves were subhuman, and perceived as wholly inferior. Later, when it was discovered they could learn to read and write, black people were still considered intellectually inferior and their skin color considered impure. Science has long since proven there are no significant genetic differences between human ethnicities, yet millions still discriminate by skin color. There are millions more who may not practice physical discrimination, but social discrimination, based on perceived cultural or class differences between African-Americans and whites.
After 400 years of having it both blatantly and subtly reinforced in America that black lives DON’T matter (not to mention native lives, Asian lives, brown lives, Jewish lives, female lives, homosexual lives, Muslim lives), and that white lives (more specifically, straight, white, Christian male lives) intrinsically DO matter, there is an important distinction in saying Black Lives Matter.
Saying All Lives Matter is akin to saying, “The sky is blue.” It is inherently true, but does not inform or enlighten.
Saying Black Lives Matter is akin to saying, in the 19th Century, “The world is round.” Even though, by then, it was theorized for 2,000 years, and science had proven it for 250 years, many still would not accept the world as being round. They could not visually see it, and their experience was that the world could ONLY be flat.
Saying “the sky is blue” as a response to “the world is round” is irrelevant.
There are more people now than ever who believe the world is round. And, there appear to be more people now than ever who believe Black Lives Matter. There are people who believe it not just on 38th Street in Minneapolis (where George Floyd was killed), but worldwide, including Atlanta, Washington D.C., Seattle, Houston, Baltimore, Buenos Aires, Berlin, London, Toronto, Sydney, Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Seoul, Kenya, Lebanon and right here in Las Cruces.
But yet, just as there are people who still believe the world is flat, there are also people — way too many people — who still believe black lives DON’T matter.