In response to a national outcry over systemic racism and police brutality, conservative critics glibly reply: "All lives matter!" This slogan implies that the Black Lives Matter movement is not inclusive and serves to provoke racial divisions. Yet the criticism does not accurately reflect the historical significance of the protests in the wake of George Floyd's murder. It dismisses the reality of Blacks in American society and insults a multiracial struggle for justice and equality. Of course, all lives matter---but not all lives are under equal threat within our current power structure.
The All Lives Matter movement trivializes historical discrimination and its residual effects. The tragic truth is that in the United States of America, racial inequality is not a passing problem but an inherent defect. Our nation, since its inception, has suffered monstrous hypocrisy. While built on the backs of millions of African slaves, America has long espoused liberty and equality. Even after formal emancipation, legal doctrines continued to hobble free Blacks for another century. It was only in the past 50 years that America finally became true to its creed by guaranteeing equality under the law.
But no legal mandate or reform could dismantle centuries of institutionalized racism. The brutal weight of history still weighs heavily on Black Americans. Yes, a Black middle class is rising, and selective evidence of Black achievement is easy to cite. But a starker reality lies beyond the idealized world symbolized by Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Some Blacks lead affluent lifestyles, but millions find themselves trapped in a rapidly spreading underclass. Ensnared by racism, many succumb to despair. Following Floyd's killing, the ensuing riots expressed the rage and disgust that any so dispossessed a people must inevitably feel.
The point is, our legacy of prejudice has created persisting racial disparities. For example, mass incarceration poses a unique threat to Black communities. While only 14% of the national population, Black men represent 38% of federal prison inmates. To explain this alarming trend, we must acknowledge an unpleasant truth: law enforcement routinely targets individuals based on skin color. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report on public encounters with police, based on survey data from 2015, provides overwhelming evidence of racial discrimination in the stop-and-frisk policing practice. Blacks are more likely than Whites or Hispanics to be pulled over in both traffic stops and street stops.
Washington Post journalist, Radley Balko, cites corroborating findings based on similar studies. Of all Black and Latino suspects, only 3% broke the law. The remaining 97% faced harassment for belonging to a stigmatized group. To be clear, branding all officers as blatant bigots would only perpetuate stereotypes. The problem is not attributable to any specific individual but to the system. In 2020, a system that allows racial profiling to continue debases Martin Luther King Junior's dream of a colorblind world. Again, all lives matter, but as research on prejudicial policing has consistently shown, some face a disproportionate threat of institutional punishment and discrimination.
Further, Floyd's murder within the prevailing hierarchy of authority and status was hardly an isolated incident. It was only one in a broader continuum of race-based police violence. Like Treyvon Martin and Breonna Taylor, his name has become an immortal metaphor for a heartbreaking pattern: numerous Black victims have died at the hands of a racially biased and increasingly militarized police force.
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