It didn’t start with George Floyd. It didn’t end with George Floyd, either.
It wasn’t just the death of one ordinary man in a forgettable city in the Northern US that led to worldwide demonstrations and protests, and brought the issue of systemic racism into daily conversation. Rather, Floyd’s murder represented a tipping point – whereby we could either continue as-is, tacitly accepting the fact that a large segment of our society is actively discriminated against, or we could actually do something about it. And, doing something about it starts with a collective shout of “Black lives matter!”
Before George Floyd, we all understood that minorities are treated differently. We read about the indignities inflicted upon people of colour on a regular basis- driving/eating/sweeping/napping/golfing/swimming/exercising/ birdwatching/etc. while black. Normal everyday activities that when undertaken by Black persons prompt calls to police [click to see CNN list]. We may have seen other videos of police confronting black or indigenous persons in a way that they would never do with whites. We may have quietly expressed indignation or even private outrage about it, and agreed that things should change. But we didn’t actively push for change.
But, now we’ve been challenged – to no longer just quietly disapprove of the quiet and not-so-quiet racism that permeates so much of our law enforcement and political bodies. It’s time to join in the protests and calls for change. It’s time for this middle-aged white guy living comfortably in Toronto to also say “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” And to repeat the phrase “Black lives matter” until no longer necessary.
Let’s first cut the bullshit and explode a few myths.
Myth #1 – Systemic racism doesn’t exist
Most people accept that racism is pervasive in western cultures. Especially in the US, but also in Canada and Britain (the 3 countries in which I have lived). Much of this is pure bigotry – racism practiced at an individual level. But there’s a difference between an individual holding a racist attitude and a system/structure that enables racism to foster. Attitudes can evolve. Systems have to be made to change; left alone, they will continue to provide an environment for racists to thrive.
Here in Ontario, Black residents are routinely stopped and questioned by police in far, far greater numbers than whites, and numerous courts have struck down police methods as being discriminatory. Most people of colour in Ontario, regardless of social status, can describe numerous instances of being stopped and questioned by police because they “looked suspicious.” Looking suspicious in Ontario includes driving a car that costs more than the officer thinks a black person can afford.
Same in Britain. According to Home Office statistics, Black men in Britain are almost 10 times as likely to be stopped and searched as those from White ethnic groups. For instance, England footballer Danny Rose pointed out that he is regularly stopped by police and interrogated as to what he’s doing and how he can afford to drive his car. (he’s on about £60,000 per week). Each time, Rose says, he’s asked whether he stole the car. Can you picture Harry Kane being similarly stopped and interrogated regularly? I didn’t think so.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki hummed and hawed her way to a non-committal answer when asked whether there is systemic racism within Canada’s largest police force, musing on the definition of “systemic.” Here’s some advice for you, Ms Lucki: if one member of your service treats indigenous Canadians more harshly than whites, that individual is a racist who should be fired. If many individual officers have treated indigenous people worse than whites (as is well-documented), then you have a systemic racism problem. Your organization does not have the systems and procedures to avoid hiring individuals with racist attitudes, or to identify and prevent racist behaviour, or to get rid of officers who discriminate.
Then there’s the US, where senior Trump aide Larry Kudlow not only maintained that there was no systemic racism within American law enforcement, he went on to boldly state that there was no longer systemic racism within America itself. A jaw-dropping claim, given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Black Americans have sharply higher infant mortality rates, lower income levels, and lower education levels than Whites. They are incarcerated far more often, and receive more severe sentences than whites for the same crimes. They are regularly challenged by (white) bystanders and police for being in places or performing activities deemed the exclusive domain of white people. Districts with higher proportions of Black residents are much more likely to engage in voter suppression. And Black Americans are often subject to policing that includes kneeling on a man’s throat, being tasered after minor traffic violations, or even being shot in their own apartments while watching television.
African-Americans see white supremacists marching through the streets of Virginia being called “very fine people” by the President. If the symbolic head of the US “system” supports and encourages racists, then how can there not be systemic racism within US society?
Myth #2 – All Lives Matter
“Don’t all lives matter?” is a refrain heard across the airwaves, especially from those who hold a Trumpian view of society. I’ve also heard it from my dental hygienist, the elderly Italian guys at my local coffee shop, and others who one might think would have a more sympathetic view of the plight of minorities. When US Vice-president Mike Pence was challenged to just say the phrase “Black lives matter,” he repeatedly refused, instead responding “All lives matter.”
The implication of anyone resorting to the phrase “all lives matter” is that BLM supporters want special treatment above that of the rest of the population. Uh, how about equal treatment to the rest of the population?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”US Declaration of Independence, 1776
Noble words, indeed, but Black Americans were not even notionally considered as part of “all men” until 100 years after these words were written. It took another 100 years and a national uprising to pry open the door to something even approaching equality. Even now, 244 years after the Declaration, the US continuously fails to live up to its founders’ stated moral platform.
So, maybe the phrase “All Lives Matter” will be appropriate when Blacks are readily included in the protections, opportunities and rights afforded to “all men.” Until that happens, Black Llves Matter is a necessary distinction, and a necessary emphasis.
Same applies to other groups such as the indigenous Canadians who have not previously enjoyed protections, opportunities and rights afforded to other Canadians. Indigenous lives matter too. Again, repeat as necessary.
Saying “Black lives matter” is not being politically correct – it’s just being correct.
Myth #3 – It’s just a bunch of radical leftists
After George Floyd’s murder, the US president decided to tackle the volatile situation by attacking those protesting racism and discrimination. He branded them as thugs and terrorists, all representatives of Antifa, a descriptor of activists who pursue an anti-fascist agenda.
Before he and his advisors came up with the lame idea of blaming Antifa, Trump wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between Antifa and Anti-foie, a movement which aims to ban fatty duck livers from diners’ plates. But, since tackling racism might actually conflict with his own racist attitudes, and cost him the support of some of his base, Trump needed to blame someone – anyone – for the chaos enveloping multiple American cities. So, he blamed the protestors for the fact that people were, shall we say, “a bit angry.”
He’s still at it. After Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a Kenosha, Wisconsin policeman, demonstrators again took to the streets. And, Trump again labeled demonstrators as “agitators and thugs”, threatening to send in federal troops, while praising the heavily armed right-wing provocateurs who arrived to stir up tensions and fan the flames of violence.
Meantime, the BLM movement has swelled to include professional athletes in all major sports, CEOs from major corporations, community leaders, and folks like me from all walks of life. People who respect the law, who would like to respect the police, and long for a day when they don’t hear about more Black or Indigenous men being unlawfully arrested, shot, harassed, insulted, or otherwise discriminated against. Now, how radical is that?
Myth #4 – Nothing will change
It’s already changed. Many individuals have done some soul searching and have acknowledged the need to identify and confront racism – whether their own or that of others. Companies and institutions have pledged to do better. Municipalities and governments have started to tackle long-standing policies that discriminated. We’re having some tough and necessary discussions about policing methods and police leadership. Attitudes and behaviour that were previously tolerated are now challenged.
What’s changed already is that it’s not radical leftists who are pushing for respect and equality – it’s the establishment. Now that middle-aged white guys are on board, change will continue. The issue of racism and how to address it has come front and centre, because more and more people have stood up and said “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Stay mad, my friends.
“Black Lives Matter.” Repeat as necessary.