The Black Lives Matter protests, in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, have swept the country and the world, with more people realizing the need for an end to police brutality and racism at large. So far, it’s had positive effects, both practically and culturally.
Practically, the four officers in George Floyd’s murder have been arrested, with the principal suspect, Derek Chauvin, being charged with second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years. Minnesota – the state in which George Floyd was murdered – has instituted new laws banning police from using chokeholds and intend to defund the police. And there are even stricter measures being discussed locally, nationally, and globally…
Culturally, support has been shown as far as New Zealand, Lithuania, Germany, the UK, South Africa, and nearly all corners of the planet.
With the national and international attention being placed firmly on BLM, there is also a lot of confusion about what BLM is, what it wants, and why it even exists. In this article, I want to give a broad overview of what BLM is – a sort of BLM 101 – that I hope will lead you on a journey to discovering more about the movement.
So let’s start at the beginning – the prerequisites for BLM in 2020
The foundations of BLM
I don’t want to start with the obvious founding of BLM as a movement in a chronological sense. Let’s just agree that it really started after Trayvon Martin’s murder – and when the murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted.
Instead, I want to talk about the foundations of BLM, which in actuality, are the foundations for the racism, economic equality, and ongoing brutality of black bodies in America. And by foundational, I mean this: if you do not understand or accept these, you simply won’t understand or accept BLM.
#1 Institutional racism
Black people in America face now, have faced, and tomorrow will again face institutionalized racism that limits their growth and development within the country.
So what is institutionalized racism? It’s the systematic oppression and limitation coming from essential institutions – the police, the government, the banks, the schools, the hospitals, the criminal justice system, the housing institutions – that corrals black people into poverty, the ghetto, early death, and other places and events that prevent a happy, healthy, fulfilled life.
There are lots of resources online for evidence of institutional or structural racism (this Wikipedia article gives a good overview), but I’ll summarize two crucial areas:
Discrimination in the criminal justice system: there are many examples of black people facing tougher sentences (and even arrests) than white people. One alarming example is the punishment for crack – a 5-year sentence for 5 grams or more – versus that for cocaine – a 5-year sentence for 500 grams or more – although they are basically the same, just separated by class.
Even now, think about marijuana – black and brown Americans have been imprisoned en masse for possession of marijuana, compared to white Americans: while both consume relatively the same amount of marijuana, black Americans are arrested 4 times more than white Americans.
Even now, think about marijuana – black and brown Americans have been imprisoned en masse for possession of marijuana, compared to white Americans: while both consume relatively the same amount of marijuana, black Americans are arrested 4 times more than white Americans. While black lives have been destroyed for marijuana possession, marijuana companies (largely owned by whites) are now raking in billions of dollars each year. And remember – this is while people are still serving sentences, some facing multiple life sentences, for doing the same thing.
Discrimination in housing and loans: since the 1930s, American banks provided loans to white people and denied loans to black people. This allowed white neighborhoods to flourish (white people could buy houses at good interest rates and black people could only rent) and allowed white Americans to get loans to start their businesses.
Compounded over time, this allowed white companies to become corporations, while black companies remained largely stagnant. Ask any white corporation or successful business now if they were able to succeed without bank loans, and see what they say.
I could go through more, but let’s leave these – intentional economic inequality and criminal discrimination – as some examples of the foundation of systemic structural racism in America.
#2 White privilege
Let’s talk about what white privilege is and isn’t. White privilege isn’t about the material wealth you have in comparison to black people (answering such questions like, “How can white privilege exist if Lebron James has so much money?” or “If I have white privilege, why am I so poor?”).
White privilege is, simply, knowing that of all the bad things that have happened to you, you can be certain that it isn’t because of your skin color. If you are poor, it’s not because of your skin color. If you got stopped by the police, it’s not because of your skin color. If you were denied a loan, it’s not because of your skin color. If you didn’t get a job, it’s not because of your skin color.
That certainty is called white privilege, and it’s a stark comparison to black experiences in America.
In relation to the police, white privilege is having the benefit of the doubt. When the police are called, and one person is white, and the other person is non-white, the police (and the media) will more likely believe the white person.
In relation to the police, white privilege is having the benefit of the doubt. When the police is called, and one person is white and the other person is non-white, the police (and the media) will more likely believe the white person.
Compare that to black American experiences, when black people have cops called on them for barbecuing, or swimming, or just running, and by default having the presumption of guilt. It’s why white women like Amy Cooper know that they have the fundamental power against black people: calling the police and being believed, and using that power to scare black men.
But mainly, white privilege is only connected to your skin color, and not your character. You don’t have any say in whether you have it or not, and you cannot get rid of it. That’s probably tough for many people to hear, but that also means that if you have white privilege and recognize that white privilege, that doesn’t mean you’re racist, as it has nothing to do with you as a person.
It is not your fault.
You, white person, you are also a victim, in a sense, of this American and global racism.
#3 Inequality as a foundation
Economic inequality is not an accident, as many people believe. It is not a remnant of America’s “distant” racist past. Economic inequality is the root of this country and the cause of its growth.
The United States of America was, in many ways, founded on economic inequality. As Kimberly Jones so eloquently put it: black Americans were brought to America to work for free for the agricultural industry in the South, and the textile industry in the North. These companies were allowed to grow rapidly because of the “cheap” labor – the free slaves and the cost of “maintaining” these slaves.
We generally recognize this period as lasting 400 years, starting from the year the first slave ship arrived in the US (the colonies back then) in 1619. Slavery officially “ended” in 1865, but all human rights were stripped from black Americans until the late 1960s with landmark voting rights and fair housing legislation. Even then, it’s a simple mental exercise to understand that “racism,” as an institution and a way of life, did not stop the next day suddenly.
There were moments throughout American history that black people did try to establish communities of their own that did not depend on white institutions. One such example is “Black Wall Street” a nickname given to the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was one of the wealthiest black communities in America in the early 1900s. Because it was growing, both economically and physically extending its borders, white residents surrounding Greenwood burned it down to the ground in 1921.
Another example is Rosewood, a small town in Florida that was a self-sustaining community of black Americans. It was destroyed in 1923 when a “mob of several hundred whites combed the countryside hunting for black people and burned almost every structure in Rosewood.”
It’s important to note that the justification for both massacres came from white women’s accusations of black men (which provides further context for the Amy Cooper situation).
What BLM wants
Now, with that out of the way, I hope you understand that inequality is an American fact.
I hope that by now this is next point is understood well enough, but I’ll just reiterate a few things:
- Black Lives Matters does not mean black lives are the only lives that matter. It simply wants the nation to recognize that black lives also matter.
- BLM is not about violence against white or police officers. BLM is simply about fighting for equal rights and equal protection under the law.
One other important thing to understand is that BLM is not a behemoth, strictly-organized movement. It’s a collection of groups, affiliated or not, official or not, that march and protest primarily against police brutality, but it branches off into other civil rights issues as well.
For that reason, I’ll just go over the biggest one we’re fighting right now: an end to police brutality and the protection provided to bad police.
Police in America are not just protected by some cultural beliefs in the country – the belief that the police are always the good guys – but also by specific laws and processes. One of the most egregious is what’s known as qualified immunity, a doctrine that was created by judges – not legislation. Qualified immunity means that police officers cannot be sued civilly for violating your rights while they’re on duty unless those rights were established. Practically, it means that police can violate your rights and most likely get away with it.
Take the example, for instance, when police executed a search warrant, and in the process, stole $100,000 of rare coins and cash. The police officers were never charged because stealing during a search was never established as being illegal.
In today’s criminal justice news, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals holds police officers can *steal $100K+ of someone’s property* and still be protected by qualified immunity to avoid any accountability
Because it’s “not clearly established” that cops stealing is illegal https://t.co/OhuSjbUwKV
— T. Greg Doucette (@greg_doucette) March 20, 2019
Unfortunately for us, qualified immunity also extends to murder.
There are many other doctrines and practices that protect the police, such as:
- “Sweetheart” deals between cities and police unions, that prevent officers from being interviewed immediately after an incident, getting cities to pay for police misconduct, and limiting consequences for police misconduct
- No de-escalation policies that would ban police from strangling or choking suspects when other less-lethal options are possible, ban police from shooting at moving vehicles (which is ineffective), require other officers to intervene when witnessing excessive force, etc.
- Lack of independent investigations and prosecutions. At the moment, police are investigating themselves, and the prosecutors have established relationships with the police, which could explain why 99% of police killings don’t result with police being charged
- And the list goes on
It’s important to note this: what BLM stands for, in its fight against police brutality, will benefit all lives, not just black lives.
How can you help?
There are many ways that you can help, and most of them don’t involve marching in the streets to join the protests. Most of them are personal and require having uncomfortable conversations, but it’s the only way to move forward together and join the fight.
#1 Check your implicit and explicit biases
No one likes to hear this, but you’re not an objective third person. You, like all of us, have your own biases you need to check and work towards solving on a regular basis.
Racism specifically isn’t solved by people only attending a college class or reading a book. Instead, these are starting points to exploring how you are shaped by any explicit or implicit negative attitudes to people of different races.
When people hear “racism,” they automatically think of explicit racism – the cross-burning, KKK kind of racism – but rarely think of implicit racism. Implicit racism is the racism that develops over time, unconsciously, in which people categorize other races in negative ways. Because of the way it works – buried deep in your subconscious – it’s hard to identify. Implicit racism is emotional, not reasoned, and usually comes to the surface in moments of high tension, when you’re at your most emotional.
When people hear “racism,” they automatically think of explicit racism – the cross-burning, KKK kind of racism – but rarely think of implicit racism.
For a good example: imagine a white developer in San Francisco who knows his African American history, voted for Obama twice and all the rest. He leaves the movies late one night and walks to his nice car. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a large black man running towards him, and this nice white developer suddenly feels an overwhelming sense of fear and starts sweating, and he considers calling the police.
Of course, the black man was simply jogging, as many people in this neighborhood do at night. And although other people have jogged past him at night before (all white), he never felt this level of stress before. Why? His implicit bias kicked in – his emotions overtook his “reasonable” brain. The subconscious is powerful, and it takes a lot to deal with that – years upon years of work, and it still may never disappear.
And that’s what we mean when we ask you to check your biases. Check all your biases and make sure when you come to the table, you understand where you stand. It doesn’t mean you should be “clean” of your implicit and explicit biases – instead, that you simply know that you have them and that it doesn’t make you a bad person.
If you haven’t checked your biases by the time you come to join the fight, you’ll end up bringing a lot of noise, tension, and confusion.
#2 Check your sources
There’s misinformation on both sides of the aisle – far-right misinformation and far-left misinformation. It’s essential for you, whoever you are, to check the information and validate the sources.
If you see a meme that supports your position, the first thing to ask yourself is: how do I know this isn’t wrong? How do I verify this information? It’s your responsibility to fix the information before you pass it on or stop it dead in its tracks.
#3 Check your friends and family
Okay, after you’ve understood your explicit and implicit biases, and once you have a good set of information, your next responsibility is to check your friends and family. You know which friends and family I’m talking about, and you need to do your part to approach them.
Sometimes approach means to “confront,” but many times, it means talking with someone for a long time to help them understand their biases or develop their empathy. This is probably the hardest to ask since it means having very uncomfortable conversations with people you love, and they may feel attacked.
#4 Organize, mobilize, protest
After all, ’s said and done, the best way to move issues forward is to get involved in marches, protests, and other forms of civil disobedience. This is helpful for not only showing your support for an end to police brutality but also helps build awareness.
Furthermore, it helps to keep the issue at the front of the mind. With more attention paid to this issue, more people will begin to have conversations around it, research it, ask questions, and understand why it is so important.
At this point, I guess it’s also important to state that this is only an “intro” – there are many ways you can help support Black Lives Matter not mentioned on this page. If you have any other ideas, please don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments! Also, see our recommendations on Resources to Support Black Lives Matter.