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Black Lives Matter (Some Limitations May Apply): Why Doesn't BLM Care About Black Unemployment and COVID Deaths?

If there was no way to fix poverty the best that could be done was to contain it. Quickly, the War on Poverty morphed into the War on Crime. So fast was the transformation that the tools, bureaucracies, and funds allocated to the poverty war were instead used by police stations across the country to fight crime. Police departments began filling the spaces meant for the War on Poverty. It was police who delivered food and toys to needy Black families. Law enforcement would be the frontline on the War on Poverty, and would thereby increase its presence in, and surveillance of the Black community.
Mehrsa Baradaran
The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap 

I have admittedly been pretty silent about the current events roiling the entire country. I honestly don't know what there is to say. The conditions that turned the anger and sadness over the video captured murder of George Floyd into national protests and rioting and looting in cities across the country, are the conditions that made coronavirus especially deadly in predictable ways in low income Black and Native communities, which are the conditions that created the circumstances in which I taught homeless elementary students, food insecure kindergarteners. (Even before the crisis led to an unemployment rate projected to dwarf the Great Depression with no rent or income relief from the government the number of homeless students in public school had increased by 70% over the last decade.) I have been advocating for the political will to change these conditions for years and people respond to me as if I'm their FOX News watching uncle. This is genuinely funny to me.

I'm reminded of my first trip to Los Angeles a couple Decembers ago. That's when I was introduced to the Baradaran quote above. I walked the streets, as this history was detailed on audiobook, watching new homeless encampments appear daily, all as multi-ethnic and multi-generational as anything in the Golden State. I turned to social media to find mutuals arguing the importance of the relative white privilege of a homeless person. This would usually strike me as parody level conversation. In the context of my daily explorations it seemed sickly absurd. The people who often respond to me like a FOX watching uncle are usually making less absurd variations of this argument without understanding the implications. I understand. I used to make the same arguments.

No one ever asks but if they did I'd nutshell what I've been advocating for as the completion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, the fulfillment of his vision for the work the Poor People's Campaign was meant to do; to ensure that no one else ever teaches food insecure kindergarteners in the wealthiest country in history. This should not be controversial. When I say I used to make the same arguments, I mean that I used to frame systemic racism/sexism/homophobia in a way that conflated personal bias with systemic issues. There are important connections, but these things are separate, dealing with each requires different tactics. 

Conflating them, I cynically thought there was no way to ever end systemic racism since there was no way to end anti-Black bias in all white people. Understanding them as separate, I see ending that bias as ultimately irrelevant; the pursuit counter-productive, since everyone has bias. A white man with anti-Black bias can work on a project that challenges systemic racism while working to improve his own life. I'll explain, but first I'd like to share an observation and ask a few important questions.

I've seen a fair number of white friends, former classmates and associates speaking to their desire to be more aware of their own biases. I think this desire is valuable and worth pursuing. Nothing I say here is meant to suggest otherwise. However, pursuing and continuing to excel at challenging your biases does nothing concrete to challenge systemic racism. Prior to the pandemic, 40% of Black workers made less than 35k per year. If by decree or spell every white person in the country were to suddenly develop a deep affinity for Black people tomorrow, what would that do for the material well being of Black people, half of whom are currently unemployed? If one is acknowledging one's white privilege what are the corresponding actions? What is the outcome if you do it correctly?

These are not rhetorical questions. I've seen more than a few friends suggest that they were unsure how to address systemic racism in the way this moment begs. I'd suggest that in trying to answer those and similar questions they've begun to recognize that being better individuals doesn't alone result in systemic change. If the point is addressing these systemic issues, rather than just expressing anger, guilt, and contrition, questions of desired outcome and their corresponding actions are central. We don't solve a problem without clearly identifying the problem first. 

I felt the outrage over the Zimmerman acquittal, the deaths of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland and a list of names all the way to George Floyd, that emboldened a hashtag into considering itself a movement. I was an early supporter of BLM, but at some point I had to ask myself what I was supporting. It's not an actual movement, there are not exactly clear systemic goals, there are no accountable leaders. It's not an organization, more a series of loose affiliations. In a sense it's a self-perpetuating machine. 

For what purpose did the Ford Foundation set up a*$100 million fund for BLM? Why are so many brands endorsing actions against racist police violence right now? These are rhetorical, it's because the framing is no threat to their bottom lines and may ultimately be beneficial. It's telling that Amazon fired Black workers organizing for healthcare and hazard equipment and pay last month while tweeting in support of protests this weekend. I'm sure I've just missed BLM supporters and founders organizing around getting these large corporations with huge profits to be accountable to their disproportionately Black essential workers. I'm sure it's not that Black Lives (only) Matter (when individually taken by police)!

Evaluating the goal of BLM on the basis of how it defines the problem I'd say it's a "movement" to assure that unarmed people are killed by police proportionate to their racial representation in the country. This is the end goal for every discourse that defines a problem as one of disproportion. More unarmed white people are killed by police every year. The knee jerk response, as if one can advocate for justice while dismissing those deaths, is typically, "but Black people are more likely to be killed by police." No one ever considers what it means that Black people are also more likely to be poor and what that might suggest about solutions to end police violence against unarmed victims, rather than just making it more proportionate.

It's typically understood that a Black man is twice as likely to be killed by police than a white man. (It's usually men.) However, a World Socialist World Site study of police murders in 2017 found that rate decreases considerably when only the places where the deaths occurred are compared. They call these areas collectively designated as the police killing zone, USA-. USA- represents slightly more than a quarter of the population. 
USA- has significantly different demographics from the USA as a whole. Non-Hispanic whites made up 44.5 percent, blacks 18.6 percent and Hispanics 26.7 percent of this region. The median household income is slightly lower at $52,218 per annum, and the percentage in poverty (PP) is much higher, at 19.5 percent.
The poverty rate for the 3/4s of the country where no police murders took place was less than half that of USA- at 9.5 percent.

So, what is the problem? Is it the disproportionate killing of Black people or that unarmed people are killed by police? How we define the problem matters. The brilliance of MLK was that he identified the problems of poor Black Americans with those of a much larger population of poor people to build solidarity. He recognized that the people we might call racist could be convinced that their self interests had nothing to do with race. A very easy argument could be made that focusing on similarities separate from cultural differences rather than focusing on cultural differences might offer individuals a better reason to examine their biases. BLM's racialist framing turns what could be a clarion call for justice into a culture war topic for corporate investment. The irony is that what is meant by Black Lives Matter is that all lives should matter, but so much time is spent arguing that saying All Lives Matter is racist that the message is confused.

I've seen it suggested that we have to start where people are, no matter how self-defeating, the racialized framing is necessary. If that's true, the way to do that is the way that Rev. William Barber does with his movement to modernize MLK's Poor People's Campaign. When he discusses poverty in the US he explains that it's disproportionately Black and brown but, in terms of raw numbers, very white. Police murders are like poverty, in that they are much more likely to affect the poor and, in terms of raw numbers, are very white. In the way that Rev. Barber seeks to end Black poverty by ending all poverty, wouldn't it make the most sense to try to end murders of Black unarmed people by police by ending all murders of unarmed people by police? That starts by addressing the role that police play in controlling a growing pool of impoverished citizens.

Sadly, I don't see the Ford Foundation starting a *$100 million fund to change the material conditions for USA- anytime soon.

*Editor's Note

I removed $100 million because Snopes disputes it as a story promoted by right wing media. They don't, however, note the amount The Ford Foundation committed over six years. While other reporting also points to a $100 million commitment, in addition to other extensive fundraising, the amount isn't the point. The point is that these large corporations and corporate partnerships endorse and fund a non-organization with no ostensible leaders.

Correction to the correction: Snopes only disputes that Ford MOTORS has established the fund, not the Foundation.


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