Having just come home to Maine from attending the funerals for three slain police officers in Baton Rouge, I was again mystified as to why “Blue Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” aren’t understood to refer to overlapping groups. Surely anyone who lives in an even moderately diverse city—or watches television— would notice that not all law enforcement officers are white?
In Dallas, surrounded by police officers of every hue and addressed by the remarkable Chief Brown, it seemed obvious enough to me that Micah Johnson, who only wanted to murder white officers, failed in this, at least; he managed to kill three white ones along with one Mexican-American and one Taiwanese-American.
Less picky, the Baton Rouge cop-killer murdered Corporal Montrell Jackson, who was just as black as the man, Alton Sterling, that his murderer wished to avenge.
It struck me that the failure of what gets referred to as “both sides” to communicate is rooted in semantics; when police officers and other ordinary Americans use the word “black” they do not mean what Black Lives Matter activists mean by the word.
An ordinary American looks around and sees a black president with a black family living in the White House. There’s a black attorney general, black government officials in major cities, and black police officers patrolling their neighborhoods. Ordinary American veterans served in the military alongside black people, often under the command of black officers. Ordinary Americans very often can boast (if they bother to boast about something so…ordinary) spouses, children and other family members of different races. Meanwhile, to ordinary Americans, the travails of black people living in poverty don’t look all that different from the struggles of their poor white neighbors.
So naturally, the ordinary American’s response to “Black Lives Matter” is to say what seems perfectly and inoffensively obvious: “All Lives Matter.”
The ordinary, older American sees Chief Brown, or Montrell Jackson or the president, and thinks “wow, cool! Things have changed.” As the president himself will sometimes admit, things have changed …but not enough. Just look at Ferguson, Baltimore, the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of white officers in Baton Rouge.
Given that Corporal Montrell Jackson and others like him are available, why would the likes of Alton Sterling (a documented domestic violence offender and sexual abuser armed with an illegal firearm) be anointed the very model of authentic blackness?
Because—silly ordinary Americans!— “blackness” isn’t about having black (or dark brown) skin. Blackness means being different from whiteness, with most of the characteristics ordinary Americans think of as being ordinary and American defined as “white.”
When a black person takes on those characteristics, they become less representative of “blackness.” (Hence the especially vicious vituperation heaped upon the heads of black police officers during #BLM protests.) This distinction was articulated in an essay on the website Everyday Feminism:
“Under white supremacy… those who most fully represent Blackness (the poor, queer, femme, disabled and women among the community) have nothing to celebrate.”
“If your activism prioritizes (some) people gaining rights over destroying the system, or doesn’t consider that part at all, it will never be activism that benefits the Blackest and poorest of us.” Everyday Feminism
Get that? Those who “most fully represent” Blackness are sexual minorities, impoverished, disabled or female (though my guess is that Michelle, or Oprah, don’t count either).
By this definition, Montrell Jackson is not black, and neither are Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Clarence Thomas or most of the many black police officers who joined me in honoring the dead in Dallas and Baton Rouge (nor, for that matter, those who traveled to Maine twenty years ago to honor my late husband).
In a startling variation on Martin Luther King’s formula, black people are indeed not to be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. If their character is demonstrably good, if they have made fine, intelligent choices and virtuous use of the life God gave to them, they are less black… or maybe not black at all.
How extraordinary. How idiotic.