The task of criticizing Black Lives Matter (BLM) is immediately complicated by a deceptively simple question: What is BLM? A slogan, a movement, an ideology, an organization? The answer seems to change depending on who’s asking. BLM is associated with organized bodies, policy agendas, protests, petitions, ideologies and more. The term has become elastic enough to encompass everything from a fundamental conviction that Black lives do, indeed, matter to visions of “toppling… White-supremacist-patriarchal-heteronormative-capitalism” through “Spiritual work.” This ambiguity enables the movement to perpetually elude categorization. BLM presents a litany of political demands, but it’s not so political that government employees can’t don its paraphernalia at work. Left-wing outlets report on the progress BLM has made while defending it from accusations of — or even justifying — rioting, looting and arson. These endorsements facilitate the movement’s expansion. The more support it gains, the more difficult it becomes to criticize. I focus my critique first on BLM as a political movement centered on police reform and second as a cultural phenomenon that has brought critical race theory and intersectional activism into the mainstream of American discourse.
The most cohesive component of both BLM’s ideology and its political activity centers on police violence, which activists view as the product of an inherently racist system designed to target people of color. This issue has sparked massive protests worldwide and has catalyzed the development of several policy proposals — including the BREATHE Act, Campaign Zero and 8 Can’t Wait. It is difficult to say whether BLM (as a political movement) explicitly endorses any of these. I suspect, however, that if any of them prove successful, many will credit BLM and that if the policies fail, they will fade into the background. What appears to be the official Black Lives Matter website makes no mention of these policy proposals, instead offering an unenlightening video to clarify that defunding the police means giving the police less money. Unsurprisingly, the video omits a hefty dose of nuance, like the fact that, in a country occupied by more guns than people, officers have reason to fear for their lives during arrests. Though this reality doesn’t excuse excessive use of force, this fear is still part of the equation. And for all its attention to the white supremacy and racism that ostensibly underlies these statistics, BLM pays far less heed to much more deadly forms of crime. In 2017, 304 Black people were killed by police. 9,908 were victims of homicide. A Department of Justice report found that “Based on victims’ perceptions of the offenders, the offender-to-population ratio shows that the percentage of violent incidents involving Black offenders (25%) was 2.1 times the percentage of Black persons in the population.” Homicide is also the leading cause of death among Black males age 1-44 years, which is not the case for any other ethnic group, but these numbers never seem to make it into BLM talking points.
These statistics don’t diminish the tragedy of police violence, but they do point to a degree of complexity that hashtag activism and protest signs don’t capture. The problem here surfaces in discussions about police reform and is symptomatic of a deeper issue within BLM and racial justice ideology: Zealotry is superseding reason. The “defund the police” slogan seems closer to a quote from treasured scripture than a promising policy proposal, engendering all manner of reverse-engineered solutions. Interpretations range from plausible to borderline ludicrous, but better to be ludicrous than to be a heretic. And indeed, as many commentators have pointed out, anti-racism carries numerous unmistakably religious overtones, with white privilege as a parallel to original sin, Ibram X. Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates as prophets, the 1619 Project providing convenient mythology and the insistence that one must “do the work” or risk ending up “on the wrong side of history.”
Presumably, many of the people putting BLM signs on their front lawns and blacking out their social media profiles are unaware of the extent of BLM fanaticism; or of the fact that BLM leaders are self-proclaimed “trained Marxists;” or that for years, the mission statement on their website included plans to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” Given the number of people who have been fired, doxxed, harassed and slandered for opposing BLM, I can’t help but wonder how many of us are remaining silent about our concerns for fear of being ostracized. I have yet to hear any Stanford student voice dissent. After George Floyd’s death, my inbox was flooded with emails from faculty, student groups, organizations and entire departments endorsing critical race theory and re-articulating anti-racist dogma. I understand why this was a reflexive response for many, particularly in the wake of such appalling violence. But in the months since, this fervent support hasn’t evolved into the kind of rigorous debate that one would expect from a university. In such a climate, opposing Black Lives Matter amounts to near blasphemy.
I expect that a good portion of the people who clamored to show support for BLM will eventually distance themselves from the movement, reaching what scholar James Lindsay describes as “the Woke breaking point.” A summer of protesting, rioting, looting, arson and iconoclasm has raised plenty of awareness and initiated many conversations. It has also resulted in damage that may cost insurance companies up to $2 billion. Homicide rates have spiked in major U.S. cities, calling into question the prudence of reducing police presence during an ongoing pandemic and economic downturn. Meanwhile, election results point to a widespread rejection of identity politics that challenges BLM’s approach to race-based grievances. Amid all this chaos, I can’t help but wonder if BLM has done more harm than good.
Though the movement claims to advocate for every aspect of Black life, BLM’s myopic focus on police reform distracts from more significant problems. Black lives matter and racial inequalities should be addressed with thoroughly researched, thoughtfully implemented initiatives that expand beyond the issue of police violence to address education, poverty, crime and family structure. When BLM puts forward such initiatives, I would be glad to support the movement. In the meantime, I hope that we will not let ideologues stand in the way of progress and that we continue to openly and honestly confront the questions that matter most.
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