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These are the closing thoughts for our full three-part series. Read the other three here:
“A lot of people feel that it is inherently racist… It’s a very divisive term, because all lives matter. It’s a very, very divisive term.”
Donald Trump’s statement on Black Lives Matter reflects the same sentiment felt by many of his party’s members. The Black Lives Matter movement must be racist, since it makes explicit the differences between whites and blacks in this country. No difference exists in the conservative view, and as such, “by making a difference explicit,” Black Lives Matter has “been hit with the charge that they’re the ones who created that difference to begin with.”
What seems clear to me is that conservatives understand what Black Lives Matter actually stands for. Some have said the movement is discriminatory because it valuates black lives as higher than other lives; by that same logic, blue lives matter believes that police lives should be valued higher than anyone else’s. Obviously, the conservative pundits understand that Black Lives Matter means Black Lives Matter as well, since they’ve used the same semantics with no issue.
They try, like Trump, to brand the movement as racist just for making explicit the difference in the lives of blacks and whites in this country. They work hard to paint the movement’s gains as the effects of “race racketeers” all because any perceived discrimination in the system is imagined, probably so some black politician can amass a little capital. And Black Lives Matter members must not be experiencing the hurts of racism every day. On the contrary, they are themselves the racists, exploiting an imaginary gap at the expense of good, unprejudiced white people.
In this three part series, we’ve covered a lot of different topics. We’ve seen the anger and anguish of black Americans as they rise up to protest the discrimination leveled against them each and every day. We’ve looked at the numbers that show overwhelmingly that policing is broken in this country. We’ve looked at they ways in which black neighborhoods were intentionally cut off from federal assistance, and how the federal government still refuses to help today. And yet, in spite of the overwhelming body of evidence that shows that blacks are obviously disadvantaged in this country, the conservatives say no. Systemic racism doesn’t exist.
The simple facts of history clearly show how we’ve arrived at this point. Slavery made black people property for generations. White people benefitted tremendously from this free and unending source of labor. After slavery, predatory housing policies and sharecroppers in the South kept many black Americans in a sort of economic slavery, while Jim Crow raged on. Only in 1964 was the Civil Rights Act passed, a remarkably short time ago. Looking at these plain events, someone unfamiliar with American society could say with confidence that the effects of centuries of enslavement and discrimination have disparaged black Americans. But the conservatives say no. It’s all in the past.
Their motivation is obviously self-preservation. Their party’s ideals are built on the American dream, the vision of a land of prosperity where everyone is equally able to participate, and where each citizen sinks or floats on their own merit. The idea that the system keeps black Americans from reaching the same successes as white Americans necessarily debunks the idea that the U.S. is a pure meritocracy. Furthermore, wealthy white politicians and pundits have a bad habit of characterizing themselves as self-made. To be informed that one’s fortune in life depends on the pigment of their skin doesn’t just destroy the conservative national narrative—it destroys their personal narrative as well.
When confronted with solid evidence, however, that slavery’s legacy still hangs heavily over this country, such people deny its influence entirely. Beyond protecting their ideology, they fall upon prejudice. This brand of racism hears black Americans saying unequivocally that they are regularly abused and put down, and it calls them liars. It cries out that entitlements allow the lazy to get away with not working and it says that delegitimizing the police is just a tactic to get away with more crime. This brand of racism believes that black Americans aren’t trying hard to find prosperity and security, but are instead trying to game the system. In short, these politicians and pundits martial their prejudices to argue that the system isn’t racist.
And so we come to HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. Congressman John Conyers Jr. of the Detroit area has brought this bill before congress annually for the last 25 years, only to see it routinely ignored. Ta-Nehisi Coates wonders, quite correctly, why a bill to investigate the lingering effects of slavery on American society wouldn’t be passed by Congress. The likeliest reason is that any such investigation would reveal that demands for reparations are rightful and just, and acknowledging that means understanding that American history is routinely marred by acts of cruel inhumanity.
Or we can just keep fighting. As the police shoot too many black people and as violence and inequality continue to worsen in this country, we can continue arguing about who is racist and who has benefitted most from the structure of society. It’s an argument without an ending. But to bring about a real national discussion about how slavery and Jim Crow continue to distort our country might provide the United States with a genuine opportunity to heal. As Coates says, “the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”
I suppose, for lack of a better conclusion to all of this: Call your representative and tell them to vote yes on HR 40. That power, at least, is in the hands of each citizen.
 Weigel, Dan. “Three words that Republicans wrestle with: ‘Black Lives Matter.’” The Washington Post. July 12, 2016.
 Mendoza, Jessica. “Can Black Lives Matter and Police Lives Matter coexist?” Christian Science Monitor, September 13, 2015. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/USA-Update/2015/0913/Can-Black-Lives-Matter-and-Police-Lives-Matter-coexist-video
 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. “Instigate.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cV1XoclfexI
 Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/