Racial and ethnic differences have been a recurring theme in many conflicts in different parts of the world. While it is the 21st century and the situation is, arguably, better than at any other point in history, we only need to turn on the television or look at different social media platforms to come across the realization that race and ethnicity based problems are far from over. So why are these problems being highlighted in the United States? Perhaps the reason is that the existence of racial discrimination and injustice contradicts the core values of the United States as a country. We still see people living in a nation that is considered the torchbearer for social, civil and economic liberties, fighting for said liberties. Until the day we see racial inequality become a thing of the past, and racial injustice become something we read in our history books, civil movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) will continue to be relevant.
It all began on February 17, 2012 when Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African American high student, went to a convenience store to buy a drink and some Skittles. He had been staying temporarily at the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community in Sanford, Florida. He was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watch coordinator. While Zimmerman had been taken into custody by the police, he was later released. The police chief stated that they could not find any evidence to refute Zimmerman’s claim that he had acted in self-defense. However, after immense public outcry, Zimmerman was arrested again (6 weeks after the incident) and charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter.
The BLM movement began with the social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter when Zimmerman was acquitted by the courts. The movement gained further momentum and achieved national recognition after two African Americans – Michael Brown from Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner from New York – were killed as a result of police brutality in 2015. The movement came to be associated with the fight against police brutality and injustice against the Black community in the United States. The originators of the hashtag, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi developed the movement into a national entity with many local chapters. It is now recognized as a decentralized political and social movement for non-violent civil disobedience to protest all racially motivated violence against African Americans. The organization has no formal hierarchy.
The Killing of George Floyd
George Perry Floyd Jr was a 46 year old African-American man killed during an arrest after a Minneapolis store clerk called the police alleging that Floyd had tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill while shopping at the store. Floyd had been convicted of eight crimes between 1997 and 2005 and served 4 years in prison after being convicted of aggravated home invasion in 2007. However, most reports indicate that he had been working on rebuilding his life and was working as a truck driver and bouncer prior to his death. On May 25th, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer responding to the store clerk’s 911 call knelt on Floyd’s neck for a period of more than 8 minutes, resulting in his death. During the arrest, Floyd had repeatedly informed the officers that he was having difficulty breathing. The official autopsy classified his death as a homicide attributed to cardiopulmonary arrest caused by subdual and restraint.
Floyd’s death resulted in the movement returning to national and international headlines. It is estimated that somewhere between 15 and 26 million people have participated in some capacity in the BLM movement in 2020 in the United States alone. These estimates make it the largest civil rights movement in U.S history.
The popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement has seen some shift through its history. From having a net negative opinion to achieving overwhelming support across different racial and ethnic groups in the United States, it has seen an incredible rise in popularity throughout 2019 and 2020.
Surveys and Data
The following statistics have been derived from a collection of surveys by the Pew Research Center over the last few years:
i) In a 2019 survey, 84% of Black adults opined that Black people are treated less fairly in comparison to white people when dealing with the police. Even 63% of white people held the same opinion. In the same survey, 87% of Black respondents and 61% of white respondents also said that the criminal justice system treats African Americans less fairly.
ii) In comparison to 9% of white respondents, 44% of Black respondents have said that they have been stopped unfairly by police (because of race or ethnicity).
iii) Political ideologies and affiliations seems to have an effect on the perceptions of the treatment of Black people by the police. 88% of Democrats believe that African Americans are treated less fairly then white by the police while 86% believe that they are treated with racial bias by the justice system. In comparison, the numbers for Republicans are 44% and 39% respectively.
iv) Data from a 2016 survey: Only 33% of African Americans vs 75% White Americans said that police used the right or necessary amount of force. Only 35% of African Americans vs 75% White Americans said that the police treated all racial and ethnic groups equally.
v) In a 2016 survey, police and civilians seemed to have highly contrasting views. Almost 2/3rds of police respondents said that incidents of violence with the Black community are isolated incidents and do not indicate broader problems such as systematic racism. In the same survey, the views differed by race. 57% of Black officers acknowledged broader problems in comparison to 27% of white and 26% of Hispanic officers.
vi) In a companion survey, nearly 60% of the public said that such incidents are indicators of broader problems between the police and the Black community.
vii) On the flip side, 68% of police officers believed that the protests and demonstrations over the deaths of Black people during encounters with the police were motivated by an anti-police bias while only 10% believed the intent was to genuinely hold the police accountable for their actions.
viii) These surveys have found differing opinions even among police officers depending on their race. For instance 57% of Black officers (in comparison to 27% of white officers) said that the protest are motivated by the genuine desire to hold the police accountable. The same survey found that 92% of white police officers believed that the country had made the necessary changes to ensure racial equality whereas only 29% of the Black officers believed the same.
ix) While the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) finds that the rate of imprisonment of Black Americans has fallen significantly in recent years, the Black imprisonment rate of 2271 Black men per 100000 population is nearly twice that for Hispanic males (1018 per 100000), and almost 6 times that of white males (392 per 100000). The rate was even higher for different age groups. Overall, African Americans make up nearly 33% of the prison population while they make up 12% of the American population.
Here is a list of relevant statistics from a survey conducted by the W.K Kellog Foundation:
i) 52% of the respondents reported that African Americans are portrayed negatively in popular media, which has a negative effect on how they are perceived in real life.
ii) 74% of the respondents felt that there have been inadequate efforts to reduce crime in Black neighborhoods.
According to a survey conducted for the ABC by Langer Research Associates:
i) 63% of all Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement.
ii) 69% say that African Americans are denied fair and equal treatment by law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system.
iii) However, 55% oppose reducing police funding.
iv) 55% of Black people experience racial discrimination; a number that has jumped up from 37% in 2012. Even 52% of white people (in comparison to 33% in 2012) believe that there is racial discrimination in their communities.
Criticisms of BLM
While a majority of Americans seems to support the Black Lives Matter movement, there are many that agree with the cause but not the approach. There are even those who believe that there is no need for such a movement.
There are many supporters of the Civil Rights Movement that want to get behind the BLM movement but find it difficult to do so because of the BLM movement’s confrontational, divisive and oft controversial tactics. Some say that protests in the 60s were more civil and dignified and had direction, whereas the BLM movement lack direction and discipline. Some even find it difficult to distinguish the legitimate activists from mob and criminal elements that are only there to burn, destroy and loot.
Other critics add the protests are often rife with hate speech, and the actions are often driven by hate, greed or other vile intentions instead of being driven by the need for justice and equality.
The BLM is often criticized for inciting anger and violence. Many believe that white supremacy is a sickness that needs to be healed with kindness and understanding and that the rioting, looting and violence will only serve to make the situation worse.
There are many who criticize the inability of the movement to handle constructive criticism. Some have found themselves being called aloof, racist or evil simply because they have not agreed to all the elements of the BLM agenda. Some have even found themselves at the receiving end of threats and violence for not supporting the more extreme views of the movement. Others have even accused the movement of supporting Marxism.
There are many (mostly white and some Black) Americans who believe that there is no need for such a movement in this day and age. They feel that there are no systemic biases against the Black community and that the incidents involving the use or violent and excessive force by the police are isolated incidents and do not reflect the need for any broad scale reforms. Some say that because of the lack of profound leadership and a common agenda (until recently), the movement has been unable to engage others into constructive discussions and that the movement has actually had a negative impact on the overall situation for Black Americans.
The movement faces opposition from those who say that BLM only focuses on the problems faced by the African American community. They say that the Black community is not the only group that faces injustice. This has led to a smaller albeit important counter-movement known as All Lives Matter.
The Significance of BLM
There are many who deny the need for an organized movement to fight against the injustice faced by the Black community in the United States. There are many who criticize the BLM for its approach, its lack of discipline and its inability to separate real activism from opportunism- which has led to riots, looting and violence. However, the facts remain that African Americans are subjected to racial profiling, discrimination, violence, injustice and unfair treatments especially where law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system are concerned. One only needs to look at the data mentioned above to realize that something is wrong. This is why the Black Lives Matter Movement is important. The movement needs to evolve and improve, but a majority of Americans do agree that it is needed.
When debating the need for BLM as a movement, many end up comparing it to the Civil Rights Movement that led to widespread reforms in the 1960s. While BLM certainly seems to be inspired by earlier movements, one unique contribution of the BLM has come in the way it has combined grassroots movements against institutional racism and economic injustice with a national outcry for changes at a policy level. In doing so, it has become the most prominent movement in 21st century United States.
Similarly, it has been compared to the Black Power and Black Panther movements of the 20th century. While they do share some attributes such as taking a more radical approach to activism than the Civil Rights Movement and that all these movements were created in response to the injustice faced by Black Americans at the hands of the system, BLM stands out in many ways. It has moved beyond the shortfalls of many earlier movements in embracing Black identity in its complexity. It is more inclusive and democratic. The decentralized structure encourages greater participation, diversity of ideas as well as power and spotlight sharing. It has successfully linked the struggles of Black Americans with those of other minorities. It has successfully integrated all genders and the LGBTQ+ communities. It has even, successfully, encouraged the participation of white Americans to a level that no earlier movement was able to achieve before.
It is important to know that the BLM movement in the form we see it today is relatively new. Thus, those who criticize its lack of discipline and structure ignore the fact that movements like these do not take shape overnight. Just as they are a response to years of oppression, discrimination and injustice, they may need time to learn, grow and mature.
The movement has recently started answering its critics by putting forward a list of unified demands. It calls for reparations related to slavery, reforms in housing, education, welfare, health, and incarceration policies.
It calls for an end to surveillance, racial profiling and systematic discrimination. It has demanded training and retraining the police as well as defunding to avoid over militarization. The movement demands for investment in public education and Black communities.
Counter-movements such as All Lives Matter are another reason why the Black Lives Matter movement is important. While on the face of it, such movements advocate that all races should be treated equally, the message that they’re sending across is that they do not acknowledge the greater injustice that the Black community has faced in the United States throughout its history. Black Lives Matter has successfully brought the discussion of race based problems to the forefront once again.
It’s true that all lives matter. But it is also true that the BLM does not fight against that principle. However, if people do not face the reality that some races enjoy more privileges than other races, and that some are more likely to face discrimination and injustice, the country cannot forward. To solve a problem, there needs to be the realization that the problem exists. If you fall into a racial or ethnic group that does not experience the same problems as others, it does not mean that the problems do not exists or that they are any less important. As a movement it may not be perfect yet, it may need more time to be better; but it cannot be denied that the Black Lives Matter movement has successfully brought about greater awareness. It may not have achieved the desired results yet, but it has at least started the discussion.