We spend much more time in our country finding ways in which to be polarized than we do trying to build unity. The response to the Black Lives Matter movement is yet another example of our great propensity to seek polarization. However, it does not take much effort to understand what these words really mean. That is, if a person has a willingness to think about them while allowing the situation of African Americans both past and present to be a part of their thought process.
Yes, life has changed in many ways for African Americans in the United States since the days of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. But the basic assumptions that were being made about the worth of the black body during that time have not changed. They continue to haunt the present day reality that must be faced by African Americans.
Of course, there is no argument that there are more opportunities for African Americans now than existed a hundred years ago, but how much does that really matter if there continues to be a pervasive negative attitude about individuals who happen to live in black bodies?
These ongoing attitudes are supported by many institutional structures that were never dismantled though some laws changed. Those 18th century ideas toward African Americans that made the Three-Fifths Compromise possible as a remedy for counting slaves also made it possible to firmly institutionalize other notions of inferiority and to create second-, third- and fourth-class citizenship.
Similar notions made it possible to see 12 year old Tamir Rice as a frightening menace that needed to be shot rather than spoken to as a police officer killed him within seconds after arriving on the scene where he was playing with a toy gun. The notion of the dangerous brute in black skin is alive and well in the 21st century and many of us have been caught off guard by its potency. The hope that the era of lynching ended decades ago seems to have been a false one.
The fact that every 28 hours a person of African descent is being killed by a police officer in what has become known as extrajudicial killings, speaks louder than most words.
Though the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was coined in response to the Trayvon Martin murder, it struck a deep chord with folks who did not know how to name their feelings of being those who did not matter. The silly response that some choose to make saying that “all lives matter” would be comical if it was not so sad. If all lives really mattered, the need to declare that black lives matter would not have been necessary.
Folks who are allowing themselves to think beyond the sound bites of what is often being passed off as news reporting will find this effort that continues to grow across the country is a 21st century expression of the ongoing struggle for the liberation of people of African descent. When we called it the civil rights movement in the 1950s and beyond, it was not popular. And it is not popular now.
Of course many folks today think they love Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which was not the case when he was alive and challenging the status quo. The movement he led was often fragmented and struggling, but was held together by the will of the brave young and old folks who were ready to risk their lives for liberation.
We are now seeing another generation of brave young folks ready to risk themselves for the sake of liberation. Their effort is gaining strength and they are growing in their understanding of the way ahead for the work they are doing. They need to be taken seriously and deserve to be supported. We need to help them. Their resistance is collective.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.