Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fighting an Attitude

A few days ago, a group of #BlackLivesMatter activists interrupted a Bernie Sanders event to call out the candidate for his lack of vocal support for their movement. Their movement is focused on bringing about real change in response to the recent, frequent, and increasingly hard to deny string of unarmed black people killed by cops. It's a worthy goal, and this is a problem that should be one of the key issues our politicians should be addressing today. However, that specific event troubled me.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement received some backlash for the incident from fans of Senator Sanders, of course, even while it was happening. Many people don't understand why the movement would show up to protest a man who has dedicated his life to progressive causes, including marching with Dr. King in the 60s, and whose campaign is focused on narrowing the income gap and providing assistance to the poor.

There's an unspoken connection there, in which black people are assumed to be poor and, to be fair, poverty rates are much higher among black people than they are among white people. However, as several response articles defending the activists' actions note, there is a difference between economic disparity and racial disparity. Black people are more likely to get denied a job, passed over for promotion, arrested, or shot by a cop than white people with the same education and income level. It's a separate problem, and one that needs to be addressed.

That said, I still can't condone the way those #BlackLivesMatter activists handled that situation. (I'll clarify here that #BlackLivesMatter is a loose organization with no real leadership, so it's difficult to say how the movement as a whole feels about the actions of those activists. This is a common problem among movements without central organization.) It was poor form, disrespectful, and misguided. Which is fine: the activists are human and are allowed to make mistakes. However, the true test of character is that, when you make a mistake, you have the grace to apologize. They have not apologized. Instead, they have dug in their heels.

Their defense is, basically, that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Their message is important, and they shouldn't have to apologize for interrupting someone else's event to spread their message. Word needs to get out. Something has to be done.

Which is all true. Their message really is important, and disruptive behavior will call attention to their cause. But will it help? Maybe so. As I understand it, Bernie Sanders has been a lot more vocal about plans to solve the problem of cops killing black people, as well as several other instances of institutionalized racism. However, I can't help but wonder how many supporters of #BlackLivesMatter were discouraged at the activists' behavior, allowing their disgust at their treatment of a friendly candidate to obscure the purpose of the movement.

Methods matter. When fighting for a good cause, it's important to maintain a level of respect for everyone involved, whether or not they respect you in kind, and whether or not they're deserving of respect. When you walk the path of righteousness, you must watch your every step, not for yourself but for your cause. Don't give people an excuse to be distracted from your message. Don't belie your own cause.

At its core, the fight for racial equality is a battle for respect. Minorities (blacks, hispanics, my fellow natives, etc) are not respected as equals by many people. They can deny it, but evidence proves otherwise; that, time and again, all other things being equal, the person with the lighter skin wins over the one with darker skin. However, showing an equal lack of respect for those who don't respect you won't solve the problem. It's hard, but the only long-term solution is to be the better people, respecting everyone equally, even and especially when they disrespect you in return. With time and persistence, public perception will acknowledge the truth: that those who strive to be better are, in fact, better, and those that do not make the effort will find themselves left behind. This is how progress is made, and it's made over the course of years, decades, and sometimes lifetimes. It's not easy, but there are no shortcuts. It's the only way.

The alternative is to have the same attitude as the people you fight against, which is exactly the sort of thing Martin Luther King, Jr. preached against in his book Strength to Love:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
I think the "love" he's referring to, "agape" as theologians term it, is similar to what I mean when I speak of respect. Disrespect breeds disrespect, as seen in the incident between Senator Sanders and the #BlackLivesMatter activists. The only cure is respect, which Sanders has shown by taking their concerns to heart despite their methods.

Eye for an eye is not and never has been an effective or sustainable policy. Let's fight it.