Friday, December 25, 2015

How "All Lives Matter" Can Be Racist

In response to the "mistreatment" of black suspects by the police, some protesters and their allies adopted the slogan "Black Lives Matter".

Others then responded with the counter slogan, "All Lives Matter".

On the surface, it seems absolutely absurd to suggest that this response is racist. The counter slogan, in fact, explicitly states that all lives are to be considered equal regardless of race. Nothing could be less racist.

Yet, an argument can be made that it is, indeed, a racist response.

This argument pays attention to the fact that all communication takes place in a context, and the context can contain information that the words themselves do not contain.

Let me illustrate with an analogy.

Assume I were to say, "Amy's car is red."

Then somebody else answers, "There are lots of red cars."

The statement is true, so far as it goes. However, the question I want to ask is, "Why would somebody respond this way to the statement, 'Amy's car is red?'"

The most likely reason for this response is that the responder believes (or fears) that, in saying "Amy's car is red," what I am actually saying is "Only Amy's car is red - no other car is red." In this case, the responder would have reason to offer a correction - or at least a clarification. However, if there is no basis for this type of confusion, then there would be no motivation to offer this type of correction.

For example, if my sister were to ask me, "What color is Amy's new car?" and I were to answer, "Amy's car is red," it would be odd at best for somebody to say, "Well, there are other red cars, you know. Amy's car is not the only red car."

In fact, an impatient response of the form, "Did I SAY that Amy had the only red car?" would be in order.

Note that I am not questioning the fact that "Amy does not own the only red car" is true. This is not about the meaning of propositions. The is about motivation - about reasons for action.

Similarly, we can ask, "Why would somebody respond to the slogan 'Black Lives Matter' with 'All Lives Matter'." The first and best response is because they believe (fear) that those who are saying, 'Black Lives Matter' are really saying 'Only Black Lives Matter' and, as with the red car, one feels compelled to offer a correction or, at least, a clarification.

Now, we can ask, "From where comes the belief (fear) that those who are saying 'Black Lives Matter' mean by this 'Only Black Lives Matter'? As opposed to, "Black Lives Matter As Much As White Lives"?

More to the point: What is going on in the brain of a person who, when he hears, "Black Lives Matter" hears the person as saying, "Only Black Lives Matter" and thinks that some sort of correction is needed?

It is not at all unreasonable to suspect that there are some racist assumptions and attitudes behind this misinterpretation.

Now, let's go back to the initial example where I were to say, "Amy's car is red."

There is something else that can be said about the response, "There are other red cars."

It changes the subject.

A rational response in this case would be to say, "Look, the subject of the conversation is Amy's car. Amy's car is red. Yes, I know there are other red cars out there. We're not talking about them. We're talking about Amy's car. Amy's car is red. Try to keep up."

Similarly, a rational response to "All Lives Matter" would be, "Look, the subject of the conversation is the disregard for black lives, as is illustrated by the death and mistreatment of black subjects and, in some cases, by the very fact that the cop suspects the black person. I am well aware of the fact that other lives matter. We're not talking about them. We're talking about black lives. Black lives matter. Try to keep up."

This is, in fact, the case. The subject under discussion is the systematic devaluing of the lives of black individuals and that black people continue to face.


Anonymous said...

Or it could be that the person is rejecting this false presumption:

"The subject under discussion is the systematic devaluing of the lives of black individuals and that black people continue to face."

The often false presumption that if someone that is black is suspected of a crime, it is BECAUSE they are black.

Similar concept - "white history month" vs "black history month". Are both racist, or neither?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Well, one would then be denying well established empirical facts. For example, there is research where the researcher sends out resumes that are identical except for the name. Some resumes have names that researchers determine that people see as "black sounding" versus "white sounding". The resumes with the "white sounding" name generate 50% more responses than those with "black sounding" names.

Similar research involves send a paper out to a number of teachers and ask that they grade the paper. The papers are identical, except for the name of the student. Here, too, a "black sounding name" means a lower score, on average.

Similar research uses black and white actors who wear the same clothes, perform the same actions, and look at the reactions (e.g., trying to get into a locked car where the assumption is that the white person locked their keys in the car while the black person is trying to steal the car.)

There is research on the willingness to shoot which uses video simulations to put a police officer in a position to determine if the suspect is dangerous and whether to shoot in self defense. These video simulations allow the researcher to adjust only the race of the suspect - everything else is held constant - to show that police officers are more disposed to shoot black subjects. However, research also shows that, with training, this tendency can be reduced or eliminated.

Still, we can ask, what is it that motivates a person to ignore so much empirical data?