In this ever divisive society, exacerbated by the sounding board that is the Internet, there have been a lot of arguments against movements to help racial disparities in society. Most of the arguments against these movements are from White individuals who espouse a variety of perceptions and beliefs why the other side is wrong. Sadly, many of these arguments are based in ignorance or logical fallacy, supporting a maladapted schema about racial issues. Here are some of the most common claims and why they hold no water…
One of the biggest arguments against the Black Lives Matter movement is that the name itself is divisive and racist. After all, shouldn’t all lives matter? Are supporters claiming that Black lives are more important than the other races?
The problem is that latter question is a strawman. No one is saying that Black lives are more important; instead, they’re bringing attention to the fact that society seems to treat Black lives with less importance. Statistically, the race that is most likely to be killed are African-Americans, whether by police, medical reasons, etc. This disparity is often tied to societal practices and systems, whether it’s profiling by law enforcement and non-Blacks, unequal treatment by judicial systems, the prevalence of poverty and crime in Black neighborhoods, or a lack of proper treatment for mental and physical illnesses.
When someone wants to remind people that “Black lives matter”, they’re attempting to bring attention to this disparity and the underlying causes. Supporters are saying that the attention needed for Black issues is more important than other demographics, not the Black lives themselves. “Oh, but you just admitted it, they want more attention!” Well… yes. Why wouldn’t they? There’s a cartoon that easily explains this…
As you can see, those who are suffering more deserve more attention. Whites are not statistically more likely to be killed; even Asians and Latinos fare better, with Middle Easterners only beginning to face similar problems because of Islamophobia. This doesn’t mean that each group doesn’t have its own problems, but that the biggest problems require more help. If you have a group of people with one cut, one shot, and the rest are untouched… who should the EMT look at first? Would you try and suggest the people standing around unharmed, require attention? “I’m sorry, but could you please stop and talk to me as I’m suffering mental distress from witnessing this incident. I mean, we all matter equally, don’t we?”
Black lives matter because they are currently the ones suffering the most. They’re not more important than other races, but their situation generally is.
This isn’t exactly untrue, as the literal definition of the term racism is objective and doesn’t care about the perpetrator. You can find individuals of any race who espouse beliefs or practice behaviors that race is a determinant of characteristics and/or a race is inferior (or superior) to others. What this ignores, however, is the influence of racist acts on society by certain demographics (historically and currently).
Even if 50% of Whites practiced racism and 50% of Blacks did the same, what impact would each have on society and its systems? 110 million Whites that discriminate against 38 million Blacks, in a society where Blacks are at a disadvantage… versus 17 million Blacks who might discriminate against 220 million Whites in that same societal system. The only way it would be close to equal numerically would be if 100% of Blacks were anti-White and only 17% of Whites felt the same way. Given recent polling data, I highly doubt that sort of mentality is equal, and that’s still ignoring the fact that the majority of people in positions of authority (from legislators to judges) are White. Which is where structural racism, as opposed to individual acts, comes into play…
In sociology, and similar academics, there is a different definition of racism as a societal structure that makes the “playing field” unfair for certain races. Some demographics do not have adequate representation and often suffer under unequal institutional policies. They may be subject to stereotypes, labels, and (conscious or subconscious) reactions based on these generalizations and misperceptions. These problems are not just on an individual level but ingrained in society as a whole, thanks to generations of societal norms and continued inaction by those in positions of authority. This is why racism cannot be “reversed”, because a single racist act by a Black against a White is nothing compared to the structure of a society where Blacks experience systemic racism on a daily basis.
So, yes, every person can be racist regardless of race. Yet that doesn’t mean that African-Americans don’t have it worst when it comes to the racism game, from simply being outnumbered to being subject to a complex societal structure that puts them at a constant disadvantage. That’s why “racism” in this country generally runs one way, at least on a societal level.
- Africans were Guilty of Slavery Too
Now that we’ve explained why Black lives matter and how the system of racism generally puts Blacks at a disadvantage, we get to the next misinformed arguments. That usually involves historical examples of how Blacks treated themselves or the subjugation of other demographics. Of course, this is all irrelevant as it doesn’t address the problems African-Americans face today or the sources of those issues. That being said, let’s look at the first of two common historical arguments: the actions of Africans.
Historically, much of the African slave trade originated in Africa by Africans. This is an indisputable truth and no one denies this practice (that is still common in war-torn countries even today). Of course, it ignores several historical truths that put the slave trade of the Americas into a different context when compared to the practice of slavery throughout historical Africa.
Prior to the presence of foreigners, African slavery was a varied practice where slaves were treated as anything from future tribal members to third-class citizens. Often these slaves were sold through commerce or won through conquests, yet in the end they were still treated with some sense of humanity. This ingrained a certain expectation that when a slave was sold to someone else, they’d be treated in the same manner as the seller’s culture. Things would change, however, when slaves were taken or traded to foreign powers.
Starting with the Arabic invasions that brought slaves to northern Africa and the Middle East, some slaves were treated as disposable labor or soldiers. Still, even with the wars and expansions of these kingdoms, slaves still held onto cultures and were treated as human (even if lesser). It wasn’t until the rise of the European powers that slavery took on a new face, treating enslaved Africans like chattel and beasts of burden. Africans probably thought their fellows would be kept similar to their own culture, not squeezed into ships, tortured into submission, and discarded like refuse.
So yes, Africans sold slaves to Europeans and no one is excusing that unethical cultural practice. However, few expected them to be treated like animals or objects. The atrocities committed during the European slave trade rivaled those committed during the genocide of the indigenous American peoples, and laid the groundwork for future prejudices and the structural racism of American society.
- The Irish were Slaves Too
A more recent argument, that is even more fallacious, is the discussion of enslaved Irish. Like the discussion of the African slave trade, this is based on fact without considering the context or consequences. During the 17th through 19th centuries, Britain invaded and oppressed Ireland, murdering or enslaving most of its people. Many Irish were shipped to plantations in the Caribbean, where they initially were even interbred with the African slaves (explaining the many slaves of mixed-heritage). Although these practices were later curbed, the process of enslaving the Irish wasn’t abolished until 1839 and hundreds of thousands had been through the same experiences as Africans.
Although atrocious, the comparative experiences and lasting consequences are far different for each population. Hundreds of thousands of Irish are compared to millions of Africans, who were being shipped overseas two centuries earlier and who experienced consequences long after their emancipation in 1863. African slaves were far more widespread, outnumbered Irish at least 20-to-1 and had been enslaved for so long their culture was all but forgotten.
Another big difference is that, upon freedom, those descended from Irish alone could blend right back into society… only linguistics and culture divided them from the rest of the Euro-dominant world. Despite some continued prejudice during the immigrations of the later 19th century, by the early 20th most Irish were part of the majority culture and just another part of the White demographic. By the modern era, Irish heritage is often displayed as a badge of pride and celebrated annually by people of all types.
Compare that to African-Americans, who created a demographic unto themselves because of a difference in skin color. After “freedom” they still struggled for acceptance and equal opportunity, facing White supremacists, Jim Crow segregation, fights for civil rights, the loss of their original culture, and stereotyping in everything from civilian society to law enforcement. Even into the 21st century, Blacks still face discrimination and unequal treatment. Can anyone honestly compare the post-slavery experiences of Irish and Blacks and claim they are equal?
So, once more, yes… factually the existence of Irish slaves is completely true. Yet, comparatively, the experience was nothing compared to African slaves. In addition, the descendants of the latter still face consequences compared to the pride and normalization of those of Irish descent. In fact, those modern experiences are why historical events are of little consequence when discussing racism today.
This is a catch-all for a variety of self-assurances that the individual arguing against equality movements is not a racist. “I never owned slaves or treated a Black person poorly”, “I don’t see color”, “I have Black friends”, and any number of claims are spouted to point out how non-racist the individual is… all to justify their arguments. After all, if the individual arguing against these movements is not a racist, then their argument (no matter how ignorant or fallacious) must be just as valid as the movements themselves.
This may even be coupled with talks about what the person has gone through. “I’ve experienced racism and know what it’s like”, “I’m poor, and therefore I have no privilege”, etc. are all used to deny a society-wide problem because of individual anecdotes. Since the claimant has suffered at some point in their life, they’re on the same level as anyone else who’s suffered… right?
What the claimant seems to not notice is the very egocentrism of their own words. Notice what word they use? “I”… repeatedly. It’s all about what they did, rather than discussing what others do or the inherent unfairness of society itself. This is the crux of most arguments, as the person only wants to think about the immediate picture rather than expand their schema to include a larger picture and their role in it.
A popular movie quote stated, “Now, we must all fear evil men. But there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men.” By ignoring one’s position in society, including one’s advantages, authority, and participation in unfair systems, the individual becomes just as culpable as those who flagrantly practice racist beliefs and behaviors. In essence, the claimant contributes to racism by refusing to acknowledge racism.
So, while you might not be racist, that doesn’t mean your perceptions and actions don’t contribute to racist systems and policies. Not to mention, when people talk about these issues, it’s not all about you.
- I Shouldn’t be Forced to Feel Guilt
This last is not so much as an argument against racial equality movements, but a general statement that crops up. When you attempt to confront someone arguing against racial issues, they fall back on how you are trying to make them feel guilty when they did nothing wrong. Interestingly, this emotion they feel has nothing to do with what you are doing and everything to do with their own psychological mechanisms.
An individual who experiences a disparity between what they believe and reality, often suffer a form of psychological distress known as cognitive dissonance. They cannot handle the difference between their worldview and the facts in front of them, so they experience emotions similar to guilt. This often triggers psychological defense mechanisms including minimization (“Racism is not that big an issue”), denial (“It’s not happening around here”), and projection (“You’re the one that keeps bringing up race!”). Thus, when confronted with a societal reality (wherein they have an advantage), they resort to fallacious and ignorant statements.
Here’s the thing… no one is saying you should feel guilt. If you feel guilt it’s probably because you are experiencing some sort of mental distress when faced with these issues. Which is good! No one should look at the disparity of how society treats African-Americans and feel positive. They should be upset, outraged, or any other negative emotion. That’s normal!
What’s not normal is then choosing to deny the issue and make all sorts of claims why it’s not an issue. That’s just plain ignorant… and ignorance is a major factor behind society-wide racism.