Op-Ed: In the Black Lives Matter era, we need justice well beyond the legal sense


America’s violent summer — egregious shootings of more black men; egregious shootings of cops — has been exhausting, and far more exhausting than the extended aftermath of the riots of 1992, when the city exploded for six days following the acquittal of the four Los Angeles Police Department officers who beat black motorist Rodney King.

Police reform and its reflection of racial attitudes was the story then, too. I assumed, somewhat naively, that such significant unrest would bring significant change, and we did get some: the Christopher Commission recommendations, the rise of community policing, eventually the federal oversight of LAPD. Now what we need goes beyond commissions and programs and training.

In the era of Black Lives Matter, the stakes are high. Not to sound apocalyptic, but the time for debate and dialogue is surely over. In 2016, the problem is clear. The question is whether America will finally undo what divides black reality from everyone else’s. This time, what’s necessary is not only a change in law or language or police chiefs. We need life change, to undo a truth that’s been commonplace for so long we barely notice it, to dislodge what has been ingrained in us all — that black lives don’t matter.


The urgency for black people comes, in part, from increased expectations. We’ve had a black president, after all. That hardly means black people believe in post-racialism, or in President Obama’s own initial lofty expectations of change. Rather, Obama’s limitations over the last eight years have reawakened us to the fact that securing racial justice can never be left to black elected officials alone, even a president. Especially a president. So black folks’ expectations are probably right where they ought to be, and we’re not backing down from them. We shouldn’t. It’s time.

Black Lives Matter fundamentally seeks equity in the criminal justice system, an end to police brutality. And then the hashtag goes deeper. A manifesto released last week by a BLM coalition spells it out: inclusion and equal regard for black people in every aspect of life, at school, at work, in politics. In a word, reparations. It’s a big ask — to bring about justice well beyond the legal sense — but one commensurate with the times: Undoing racism is on a par with solving climate change.

In other words, we have no choice but to act. The window of time to make this right is open, but it won’t be open forever, and anything less than a fix will keep dragging us down to mediocrity, or oblivion.

And yet for all the urgency of now, change isn’t coming fast.

It’s encouraging that, like each other or not, agree with each other or not, we at least acknowledge at this point we’re all in this together. America is a fractured community but a community nonetheless. We all know bad policing is everyone’s problem. Everyone suffers from the failure of full reform and everyone will benefit from a real solution.

White privilege and black invisibility form the foundation of our society.

At the same time, we resist the need for life change as we keep pondering the race problem, analyzing divisions, abstracting polarization. Ironically, the president encourages us in our denial. Standing at the Rose Garden podium or speaking at another tragic funeral, he appeals to the better angels of our nature, insisting (more and more desperately, it seems) that we’re a good people, that this is not who we are.

It’s not who we have to be, but it is who we are. Racism and color hierarchy are us, as much as — sometimes more than — the ideals of democracy and fairness. Strange bedfellows, I know. I understand that even black folks, who have been long victimized by embedded racism, ultimately prefer to see the United States in the light of its ideals rather than in the shadow of its shortcomings. But this optimism, which was recently on full display at the Democratic convention, doesn’t serve us, black or white.


The devaluing of black people that perpetuates bad policing descends from slavery, the national trauma that too often gets passed off as a terrible but isolated event in time — done, over with, only tangentially bearing on our national consciousness now.

Then comes Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Ezell Ford and the way so many American institutions willfully ignore the truth despite mountains of statistics and anecdotal evidence: White privilege and black invisibility form the foundation of our society.

In order for black lives to matter, black experiences have to matter — they have to be taken seriously for what they say about the American character. If instead we react to brutality and injustice incident by incident, as discrete events that say something about this bad police force or that crazed sniper but not about us all, we are doomed. “We will surely perish as a people,” as the sheriff in East Baton Rouge gloomily put it last month.

Of course, saying America is falling short of its democratic ideals has defined the black experience since the nation’s beginning. The wide gap between what African Americans hope for, what we expect and what our reality is has persisted even as we espouse optimism. Generation after generation, blacks stubbornly — but necessarily — believe we will reach the elusive mountaintop. Now, for perhaps the first time and for complex reasons, the gap has grown intolerable. It’s threatening to swallow not just black folks but white folks, Latinos, the poor, the middle class — everyone.

Black lives indeed matter, which means the American character needs to change. If it happens there may even be hope for the climate.


Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Opinion. Her latest book is “I Heart Obama.”

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