On my way home after church a few weeks ago, I stopped for a snack at the Arizmendi Bakery on Valencia Street in San Francisco. Behind the counter is a small chalkboard that usually displays a handwritten inspirational message, usually aligned with the progressive, left-leaning nature of the Mission District neighborhood. That day the message was: Black Lives Matter. And as an African American, I had to concur. Only a couple of weeks earlier, the nation had been confronted with a video showing the killing of an unarmed African American male who was shot in the back by a police officer in South Carolina, just the latest in the string of incidents that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
But others seemed perplexed by the message, to put it kindly. Specifically, two men standing in line behind me were engaged in the following conversation:
– Why should Black lives matter? I mean, of course they do, but why more than anyone else’s?
– I think all lives matter.
– You’re right! I think the sign should say ‘All Lives Matter.’
– Yeah, that’s what I would have said.
I discreetly turned around, pretending to look at the various baked goods on display beside me, but really seeking to find out just who could have been so oblivious to the context behind a phrase that has become its own Twitter hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter.
Behind me stood two young men, both White, in their late 20’s or early 30’s and dressed in hipster fashion (although only one sported the requisite amount of facial hair). In other words, these were exactly the sort of people one might expect to find standing in line for pricy pastries on a sunny afternoon in the Mission.
“A-ha,” I thought, “you’re the target demographic. And as for me, well…I’m just the target.”
I wanted to say something to them, to explain why their words troubled me. But what could I say? After all, I agreed with their assertion that “all lives matter” – and as a Christian, how could I not? Yet at the same time I was angered by the apparent ease with which they could disregard the silenced voices of those who tell us that #BlackLives MatterLess:
Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Walter Scott.
While you may not recognize all of these names (and there are others I could add to the list), chances are at least one will cause you to pause and remember a headline, a video clip, a scene from a protest march in Oakland or elsewhere. But that day at the bakery, I knew that those names resonate with me for reasons that I feel intensely. Yet I couldn’t find the words to articulate my frustration to those two young men who had the luxury of insisting that all lives matter equally. Instead I left the store, wondering what could I say the next time I found myself in a similar situation?
As it happens, I got my answer the next day, courtesy of the New York Times. On April 20 the Times ran a story about a demographic study showing that among African Americans between 25 and 54, there are only 83 black men for every 100 black women. (For whites, by contrast, the ratio is 99:100 – in other words, near parity.) The “missing black men” are either in jail or in the grave, their early deaths often due to preventable disease or gun violence.
Add the numbers up, and 1.5 million men in my age cohort and racial category – a number equivalent to the entire population of Alameda County – have simply “gone missing.” These men were sons, fathers, and brothers. For the men, women, and children who loved them, no doubt their #BlackLivesMattered, until they were taken away from them.
As the Times commented in a subsequent editorial on April 25, this gender imbalance reveals itself in “lower marriage rates, more out-of-wedlock births, a greater risk of poverty…and by extension, less stable communities.” The surge in Black male imprisonment following the never-ending War on Drugs not only contributes the missing man problem, it has “stigmatized blackness itself.” And as Black men and those who love them have learned, that stigma yields consequences ranging from subtle discrimination in their day-to-day lives to death at the hands of the police.
Removing that stigma requires all of us, regardless of color, to confront our own internal racial biases as well as the structural racism that, at its worst, literally costs lives. But until we do, the burden of the stigma will continue to be felt most acutely by African Americans, who collectively remain vulnerable to the evils of racism regardless of any progress we make as individuals. And that, quite frankly, is why we must be reminded that Black Lives Matter.