Black Lives Do Matter.
Black Lives Matter. Police reform is a critical issue that urgently requires attention and action. What happened to George Floyd was immoral, unlawful and a national disgrace. My wife is black. My children will be black. I want to live in a world where opportunity is not predicated on the color of a person’s skin. I want to live in a world where the law is enforced fairly and consistently across all demographic groups.
Ultimately, I want Martin Luther King’s dream to come true:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I agree with the self-evident expression “Black Lives Matter.” However, I’m concerned about some of the organization’s stated goals and tactics.
In early July, CNN’s Don Lemon generated some controversy due to an interaction that he had with actor and former NFL player Terry Crews on his program¹. The entire exchange was contentious but one specific disagreement was focused on the scope of the Black Lives Matter movement. Crews was discussing how Black Lives Matter has ignored the murders of Black Chicago residents due to non-police-related gun violence when Lemon cut him off:
“But what does that have to do with equality, though, Terry? I don’t understand what that has to do with equality. Listen, there’s crime. There are people in those communities, those people aren’t just being nonchalant about gun violence.”
The conversation continued further with Lemon firmly stating:
“Black Lives Matter is about police brutality and about criminal justice. It’s not about what happens in communities when it comes to crime, Black-on-Black crime. People who live near each other, Black people, kill each other. Same as whites.”
Lemon and others have limited the scope of BLM to avoid dealing with claims similar to those mentioned by Crews. While likely motivated by good intentions as a Black man, Crews’ comments are often used as talking points by conservative political commentators to dismiss concerns of police brutality against Black Americans and/or to pivot away from discussing the urgent need for criminal justice reform. However, the organization’s stated goals are actually much broader in scope than even Crews’ understanding.
Criminal justice reform is just ONE of the goals of BLM.
According to BLM’s “What Matters” page on the organization’s website, the following issues are the focus of the 2020 electoral campaign season:²
- Racial Injustice
- Police Brutality
- Criminal Justice Reform
- Black Immigration
- Economic Injustice
- LGBTQIA+ and Human Rights
- Environmental Conditions
- Voting Rights & Suppression
- Government Corruption
- Commonsense Gun Laws
While there’s absolutely NOTHING wrong with advocating for any of these important issues, the scope of that collection of issues is far broader than the narrow focus of criminal justice reform and police brutality that Don Lemon insisted was the sole focus of the movement. In fact, it’s almost difficult to think of issues that could NOT be included in one of these twelve key categories. Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine what is precisely included in some of these categories.
For example, what is economic injustice? Does it refer to student debt? Does it refer to general poverty alleviation? Does it refer to lending practices? Does it refer to wealth disparities across groups? Does it refer to the “gender pay gap”? Does it refer to the decline of the manufacturing sector? Does it refer to automation and globalization? Does it refer to discrimination in the labor market? Does it refer to the monopolistic tendencies of Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other corporations? Does it refer to the high cost of childcare? Does it refer to landlord practices?
ARE ALL OF THESE INCLUDED?
Important Issues mandate robust discussion.
There are a wide variety of policy options to address the issues that I just listed, which could all plausibly fall under the umbrella of “economic injustice.” For any one of these questions, there needs to be a robust debate where individuals from all points on the political spectrum can offer their perspective. This is necessary in order to arrive at something approximating an optimal solution. These are complex, multi-variate issues that require detailed, empirically-driven policies.
For example, there is little disagreement between the left and the right that massive income inequality (an issue that falls under “economic injustice”) is an objectively bad thing. A high GINI coefficient should cause everyone to be anxious. However, there is not consensus on how income inequality should be addressed. Diversity of thought around this issue is essential and debate should not be squashed. A policy platform aimed at reducing income inequality that is solely dictated by the right will likely be disastrous, just as one that is solely dictated by the left will likely not be optimal.
The tremendous momentum of the BLM movement has motivated corporations, government officials and celebrities to publicly pledge support to the organization’s cause. The focus of their support is generally around the issues that Don Lemon enumerated: police brutality against Black Americans and criminal justice reform. Obviously, it’s a GOOD thing for Americans to band together to fight injustices against Black Americans.
Nevertheless, the ill-defined scope of Black Lives Matter (and the self-evident name of the organization itself) allows the organization and the allies of the organization to silence criticisms of BLM’s positions that exclude police brutality and criminal justice. It is not a politically desirable position to disagree with BLM on any issue because that individual will be seen as not supporting the notion that Black lives matter. The potential public perception of disagreement with this self-evident statement is an extremely high opportunity cost for expressing a disagreement about policy.
If the organization Black Lives Matter promotes a particular policy to combat income inequality, for example, and someone expresses disagreement with the policy or expresses doubt about the efficacy of the policy, it would be very easy for BLM to paint this individual as hostile to criminal justice reform or as unsympathetic to the suffering of Black Americans.
Virtually everyone wants criminal justice reform. Everyone wants police brutality to stop. However, even with these issues on which everyone agrees, there are still a wide variety of options for how to address the problem. If an individual disagrees with one of BLM’s proposals (such as “Defund the Police”), it does not mean that they don’t want the same ultimate outcome.
The political power of BLM makes good-faith criticism difficult. When this is coupled with a broad and ill-defined scope, it seems possible that our polices will suffer from a lack of nuanced debate and intellectual diversity.
- D’Zurilla, Christie. (2020). “Don Lemon to Terry Crews: Don’t like Black Lives Matter? Start your own movement.” The Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2020-07-07/terry-crews-don-lemon-black-lives-matter
- Black Lives Matter. (2020). “BLM’s #WhatMatters2020 Goals and Focus.” https://blacklivesmatter.com/blms-whatmatters2020-goals-and-focus/