By Alee Gonzalez
“From racial profiling and being pulled over just for ‘driving while black’, to this new phenomenon of killing unarmed people out of some preconceived idea of fear, our lives and our children’s lives are not being valued.” – Al Sharpton
Institutionalized racism has increasingly materialized in the form of extrajudicial killings. In 2015, studies reviewing police brutality found that 37 percent of unarmed victims, killed at the hands of the police, were black. These alarming statistics are disproportionate to US demographics – black people constitute only 13 percent of the US population. The disparity between the race of the victims and their population size intensifies pre-existing notions of oppression felt by the black community. Moreover, the majority of positions in the police force are occupied by white officers. According to data collected by the nonpartisan magazine Governing, even in areas where minorities outnumber whites, white police officers continue to outnumber their ethnic colleagues. What overwhelmingly appears to be racially targeted police brutality is an epidemic that has sparked a modern wave of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Lives Matter. The unceremonious trial following Trayvon Martin’s death cleared the officer that shot him of all responsibility and trivialized the act of taking someone’s life. It was the final affront that established the need for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black Lives Matter takes a stance against the United States’ failure to acknowledge the formulaic equation of racism + abuse of power = one too many lives taken. Black Lives Matter does not exclude other victims of police brutality, rather it focuses on the modern day result of historical racism and racial stereotypes of black people.
Ill-informed opposition to Black Lives Matter has resulted in the slogan “All Lives Matter.” This phrase might be a worthy sentiment in principle, if it were not for the fact that it is a direct response to a movement striving to challenge racial injustices. All Lives Matter presumes the absence of these injustices, consequently carrying elements of racial prejudice.
The problem with this is that racial stereotypes have evolved and persisted throughout history, and continue to have tangible implications today. Blackface is a prime example of historic systematic racism. White actresses and actors would darken their faces using burnt cork, and played roles that alternated between a handful of racist stereotypes based on derogatory images of black people: the coon was a mockery of free blacks that tried too hard to appear ‘dignified,’ and the buck was a large black man that had sole interests in white women, to name a few. The internalization of these images continue to feed discriminatory practices and prejudicial views in contemporary America. They materialize in the form of racial jokes and slurs, discrimination in hiring, and in the belief that a black man only has himself to blame for his poverty.
Racial economic inequality is a component of systematic racism where personal fault does not play a role. A study conducted in 2013 found that the median white household possesses 13 dollars in net wealth for every dollar held by the median black household. The writer Amy Traub perfectly outlines an explanation for this: “The causes of the racial wealth gap are clear: centuries of unjust public policies, from slavery to segregation to redlining, allowed white households to accumulate wealth through opportunities that were systematically denied to (and frequently came at the expense of) people of color.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data reinforces this explanation with its findings that black men earned 73 percent of white men’s hourly earnings in 2015. Regretfully, the wage gap is one of many disadvantages the black community faces that continues to be unaltered, and is sustained by embedded racial prejudice.
These few examples are only minor pieces of a larger puzzle. Negative attitudes towards black people have been inherited and perpetuated in the long history of dehumanizing people of color, and at the extreme level, result in tragic loss. Of course all lives matter, but the persistent racial bigotry in the United States means that the worth placed on an individual’s life is unfairly determined by their race. To say that change is unnecessary is beyond ignorant, and Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile, to name but a few, are the painful examples of the critical need to acknowledge and combat racism. In their memory, we reaffirm: BLACK LIVES MATTER.
By Alee Gonzalez