Why “Black Lives Matter” Matters

Racism in America is something that has persisted since the day this country began. And while there have been many outcries at the injustice, none has been so universally prevalent as Black Lives Matter.


| September 2016



Black woman behind fence

The Black Lives Matter movement has the true potential to do what no other protest against inequality has managed: end in liberation.

Photo by Fotolia/Laurin Rinder

There is a history of Black oppression in America that dates back to the founding of our country. And while racial inequality seems to inch toward solutions every year, it is never enough to quell the injustice, never enough to bring the racism to an end. In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2015), author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor traces this inequality from its beginning, shows its deep roots on display in today’s society, and proves once and for all why Black Lives Matter is such an important, far-reaching movement.

For more books that pique our interest, visit The Utne Reader Bookshelf.

A Culture of Racism

"Negro poverty is not white poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences — deep, corrosive, obstinate differences — radiating painful roots into the community, and into the family, and the nature of the individual.
These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice ... For the Negro they are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white they are a constant reminder of guilt.
Nor can we find a complete answer in the experience of other American minorities. They made a valiant and a largely successful effort to emerge from poverty and prejudice.
The Negro, like these others, will have to rely mostly upon his own efforts. But he just cannot do it alone. For they did not have the heritage of centuries to overcome, and they did not have a cultural tradition which had been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness, nor were they excluded — these others — because of race or color — a feeling whose dark intensity is matched by no other prejudice in our society.
Nor can these differences be understood as isolated infirmities. They are a seamless web. They cause each other. They result from each other. They reinforce each other."

— President Lyndon Johnson, Howard University commencement speech, June 4, 1965

"I understand there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.” Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned. Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hard- ships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too."
— President Barack Obama, Morehouse University commencement speech, May 20, 2013

On the same day that the Ferguson Police Department finally revealed the name of Darren Wilson to the public as the police officer who killed Mike Brown, police chief Thomas Jackson simultaneously released a grainy video that appeared to depict Brown in the act of stealing cigarillos from a local convenience store. Jackson later admitted that Wilson did not know that Brown was suspected of having stolen anything. But the real work of the tape had already been done. Brown had been transformed from a victim of law enforcement into a Black suspect whose death was probably justified.

Brown’s depiction as a possible criminal did not derail the fight to win justice for him, but for the mainstream media and other political elites who had stuck their toes in the waters of social justice, Brown’s possible involvement in a criminal act in the moments before his murder cast doubt on his innocence. The New York Times ran an unwieldy story about Brown’s interest in rap music and reported that he had occasionally smoked marijuana — hardly alien activities for youth of any color, but the Times declared that Brown was “no angel.” Months later, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted that twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, killed by police in Cleveland, was a better face for the movement because his death was more “clearcut [sic] and likely to persuade people of a problem.” The attempt to differentiate between “good” and “bad” Black victims of state violence tapped into longstanding debates over the nature of Black inequality in the United States. Was Brown truly a victim of racist and overzealous police, or was he a victim of his own poor behavior, including defying police? Was Brown deserving or undeserving of empathy, humanity, and ultimately justice?