Before the shooting in Dallas that took the lives of five police officers and the one in Baton Rouge that resulted in the deaths of three more, Black Lives Matter had begun to gain traction.
Among other things, the movement contributed to the introduction of body cameras for the police in some jurisdictions, and led to the resignation of the University of Missouri’s president over racial bias.
In the aftermath of the murder of Philando Castile at the hands of cops in Minnesota, Governor Mark Dayton attributed the death to institutional racism. The BLM movement was at least partially responsible for informing the governor’s thinking on these matters.
The movement was on the offensive, establishing itself as an important player on police reform – until two armed black men, Micah Johnson and Gavin Eugene Long, changed the game by killing cops.
Black Lives Matter had been forced to compete with those who demand the public acknowledge that “All Lives Matter.” Now it’s now forced to contend with those who argue that “Blue Lives Matter.”
Is Black Lives Matter capable of regaining the legitimacy for which it’s fought so hard?
Will Black Lives Matter still matter, moving forward?
Let’s consider the question from both sides.
Why Black Lives Matter won’t matter
In the past, white sympathy has proven to be a necessary ingredient in making civil rights gains.
If the cop killing continues, Black Lives Matter may lose white support – and that may prove fatal to the movement.
White folk have a far more favorable view of cops than black folk. Period.
Why? They trust them more – and with good reason. Almost from the founding of the republic, law enforcement has treated white people better than black people.
Consider the Fugitive Slave Acts. The first, passed in 1793, permitted slave masters to recover their “property” if slaves managed to escape. Congress followed it up almost 60 years later with the Second Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. This act enlisted the U.S. Marshall Service to assist slave masters in their efforts to recover runaway slaves. Allow me to add that these services were gratis – free of charge.
After slavery was outlawed in the aftermath of the Civil War, the South was eventually permitted to “redeem” itself, effectively short circuiting the racial leveling promised by Reconstruction.
The removal of the Union army from the South, part of which consisted of black troops, allowed the South to return to a system of white supremacy: Jim Crow. As a system of laws, Jim Crow reduced black southerners to an existence that only barely bested their lot during slavery. Their “freedom,” in short, was nominal at best.
Of course, this was also the time during which the Ku Klux Klan touched down. The “Invisible Empire” sought to keep black southerners in line through the use of violence: lynching. Law enforcement not only permitted this to happen, but local law enforcement were often members of the local Klavern: badges by day, hoods at night.
As the freedom struggle moved beyond Dixie in the 1960s, many whites in urban areas came to fear blacks and sought the protection of law enforcement. It’s beyond ironic that it was blue-on-black violence that triggered the urban conflagration, with which most whites were concerned.
Law enforcement has always protected and served the interests of whites more than blacks. For these reasons, whites have a flattering view of law enforcement. With this in mind, it would come as no surprise when, if forced to choose between supporting the police or supporting the BLM movement, they’d favor the former over the latter. If blacks were given the same choice, it should come as no surprise if they prefer to support the movement.
The case for why BLM will continue to matter
Making the case for why the movement will regain its footing, if it ever completely lost it, is even easier than arguing the case that it won’t.
We already know why: racism. Let me explain how.
To the degree that the BLM movement’s chief goal, in the present moment, is the reduction of blue-on-black violence, the movement will continue apace. As it turns out, police officers, especially white ones, tend to believe that black folk don’t deserve treatment on par
with whites. Of course, this paves the way for continuing discriminatory treatment of blacks on their part.
Despite its current focus on addressing police brutality, BLM’s agenda isn’t confined to this issue. Indeed, the BLM movement is about contesting the systemic oppression of black folks.
Toward this end, BLM has its work cut out. Research suggests that the impact of race and racism on American society has only grown worse in recent years, especially since President Obama was first elected. Indeed, in recent polls, 63 percent of the country believes race relations are “bad.” Among blacks and Hispanics, the numbers are 72 and 65 percent, respectively.
The 2016 election cycle isn’t helping. Trump’s deployment of race as a means of rallying his “base” only adds to the already noxious racial climate.
The tragedy of the Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings cannot be denied. These deaths represent senseless losses of lives, for both the police and the shooters. Likewise, the deaths of Sterling and Castile were at least as useless and tragic.
But because the complicity of law enforcement with black oppression remains a problem almost 250 years after the founding of the republic and because racism continues to haunt us some 400 years after the establishment of the 13 colonies, I’m betting that the Black Lives Matter movement will continue to matter for the foreseeable future.
This is regrettable, but necessary.