By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to an idea or slogan is that it is put into practice. The reality rarely lives up to expectations, dreams, or hopes. At a conference at Harvard University in late May, an advocate of the “Black Lives Matter” movement presented an impressive PowerPoint presentation highlighting ways that negative media images harm black people.
During a Q&A, I accepted the speaker’s main points, then asked: best-case scenario, what realistically would happen if you get what you want?
I asked because back in 1899, W.E.B. Dubois suggested in the bookThe Philadelphia Negro that black Americans were not ready to seize opportunities, even if America became less racist. “Probably a change in public opinion on this point to-morrow would not make very much difference in the positions occupied by Negroes in the city,” Dubois wrote, adding that “the mass would remain as they are.” He argued change was necessary, that it could inspire blacks to work harder and take away the excuse of racism.
Black intellectuals and activists have spoken as bluntly and also become frustrated at missed opportunities. In the wake of riots in Harlem in 1964, civil rights activist Bayard Ruskin said that he had found jobs for 120 black teens, but lamented that a few weeks later only 12 of them were still employed. Civil rights activist James Farmer said in 1964: “We can no longer evade the knowledge that most Negroes will not be helped by equal opportunity.”
In 1989, rappers united to start the “Stop the Violence” movement encouraging blacks to stop killing each other, releasing “Self-Destruction, one of my all-time favorite songs. Civil rights leaders, activists and politicians have led a number of other movements, with the pendulum swinging between both internal and external solutions and analysis.
I’m not opposed to what I have learned about the Black Lives Matter movement, but I do agree with three main criticisms. First, as one presidential candidate noted at an event, “All lives matter.” He got shouted down by activists and, unfortunately, apologized.
Second, “The protest chant that black lives matter appears to mean that black lives matter only if they are taken at the hands of white police officers,” wrote Walter E. Williams.
Third, black people will continue getting shot by police officers as long as they run from, wrestle or challenge cops who might not appreciate a well-crafted PowerPoint at a Harvard conference.
Confessing those criticisms and doubting that Black Lives Matters will make a huge difference, I wish the activists well. All lives matter, true, but there are some times that it is worth focusing on one issue. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.” But he didn’t get involved in every injustice everywhere. Initially, he focused on rolling back laws oppressing blacks, then later expanded to global issues.
The reality is that no one can focus on every issue simultaneously. To make the point differently, some defenders of North Korea criticize activists for not focusing on a host of other issues (police brutality in the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Syria). Halting human rights abuses in North Korea and helping refugees adjust is already enough of a challenge. Critics say we are hypocrites if we don’t speak out against and use our limited resources to address problems that befuddle even well-funded governments and international organizations.
We don’t all have to focus on the same thing, the world can walk and chew gum at the same time. Some people want to save the whales, others want to save the dolphins, tuna, dogs, or cats. And still some others ignore all of them, and go fishing, play video games or wrestle at mud festivals. In addition to choosing your pet cause, freedom includes the right to be apathetic or not to vote, despite cries of activists and talk-show hosts to “wake up!” If you can withstand criticism and threats, you can also do the opposite of what others are doing.
I welcome Black Lives Matter trying, although I’m skeptical. Black illegitimacy in the United States is now 71 percent, as high as 90 percent in some cities. That compares with 29 percent for whites in the U.S. and 1.6 percent for Koreans in South Korea). Crime is rampant in many black neighborhoods and many of the public schools in black areas are little more than day prisons. The average black 12th grader reads and does math at the level of white middle schoolers.
Sometimes the statistics are breath-taking ― both to the reader and to the people suffering the reality of that data. These are not the kinds of things that will improve quickly, regardless of what Black Lives Matters does and even if police officers all become angels tomorrow.
The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co. in Seoul. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.