A version of this article was previously published at Huffington Post. It has been republished here as part of a 5-part series for Black History Month.
“Black Lives Matter” and Angry White People
A couple of years ago, I was walking in the Fourth of July parade with my Unitarian church in Hobart, a small town in Northwest Indiana. The church, like the town, is almost entirely white. The church members walking in the parade that day were all White. We had put “Black Lives Matter” signs on one of our trucks and a couple of the members were wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts.
As we walked down the street, some people applauded and shouted approval, but it seemed that many more people angrily shouted (or loudly mumbled), “All Lives Matter!” One elderly woman even came up to one of us and shouted “Shame on you!” And an off-duty police officer loudly proclaimed that we were “hypocrites” who, he seemed to think, didn’t see the contradiction in being White and saying “Black Lives Matter.”
It wasn’t what they said, so much as the emotion behind their words, that struck me. These people were angry. To them, “Black Lives Matter” were fighting words. To them, saying “Black Lives Matter” was saying that their White lives didn’t matter.
Of course, logically, that doesn’t make sense. We give special emphasis to specific causes all the time. Shouting “All Lives Matter” when you see a “Black Lives Matter” sign is like shouting “All Cancers Matters!” at a breast cancer awareness event. But clearly, many of the attendees at the Fourth of July parade felt like the words “Black Lives Matter” were an affront to their worth as people.
White Lives in the Rust Belt
There is a tendency among progressives and liberals to vilify people like those we encountered during the parade as ignorant or bigotted. I admit, it’s usually my default response too. But when you talk to such folk, you find they are just regular people, not especially stupid or hateful.
To really understand why our “Black Lives Matter” signs were so upsetting to the White residents of Hobart, we have to look at the social and economic context. The small town of Hobart with its 30,000 people is 85% White and 7% Black. It sits in the “Rust Belt”, on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, where Illinois, Indiana and Michigan meet. Lake County, in which Hobart sits, resembles in many ways Flint, Michigan, in that it is among the areas of the country that have suffered the greatest losses of manufacturing jobs over the past several decades, with corresponding declines in per capita income and changes in demographics.
The people in Hobart, like many people in the Rust Belt, feel like they have been left behind. The median household income is $35,000, compared to $52,000 nationally. They have been cut out of the American Dream. Many of them do not feel “privileged.” And so, when liberals like myself talk to them of white privilege and white supremacist culture, they look around in disbelief and anger.
Seen in this light, their angry responses to our “Black Lives Matter” signs is somewhat understandable. “All Lives Matter!” is their way of saying “Don’t leave us out!”
Black Lives in the Rust Belt
But while I am coming understand why so many White people compulsively say “All Lives Matter” when they hear “Black Lives Matter,“ it nevertheless betrays an ignorance on the part of White people. Yes, the White people of the little town of Hobart are suffering from economic devastation wrought by corporate greed and political corruption. There is no denying that.
But right next door is Gary, racially the mirror image of Hobart, 85% Black and 11% White. And Gary has long had it even worse than Hobart. It has a median household income of $27,000, with a quarter of the population below the poverty line, compared to 5% in Hobart. And on top of the economic injustice, the Black population of Gary has to struggle with pervasive institutional racism which is unknown to the White population of Hobart.
But many of the White residents of Hobart don’t see that their plight and the plight of the Black residents of Gary are intertwined. They don’t see that it is the same corrupt corporate capitalist system oppressing both communities and keeping them divided. Instead, they blame Gary’s problems on racist stereotypes (“welfare queens” and “criminal thugs”), while looking elsewhere for the cause of their own economic woes.
The response of the residents of Hobart to the “Black Lives Matter” signs, their compulsion to angrily shout “All Lives Matter,” is born of a deeply rooted capitalist mindset, a mindset of pervasive and chronic scarcity, a zero-sum game mindset where more for you necessarily means less for me. White people will never achieve economic justice until we learn to question those assumptions. We must come to see that the corrupt corporate capitalist class uses racism to divide and conquer the poor and the working class. White people need to realize that achieving economic justice for White people requires us to work for racial justice for Black and Brown people.
The Capitalist Origins of Racism
In his 1965 speech in Montgomery, Alabama, at the end of the march from Selma, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of how the racist Jim Crow laws were born in the post-Civil War era of a need by rich capitalists to keep southern masses divided and White labor cheap. When a populist movement arose to unite White and Black masses into a voting bloc with the political power to challenge the rich capitalist class, the capitalists devised Jim Crow laws:
“the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.
“They segregated southern money from the poor whites … and they segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”
And those same forces which created Jim Crow foster and perpetuate institutional racism today. Institutional racism not only oppresses Black people, but it keeps poor and working White people from realizing their solidarity with their Black brothers and sisters. It keeps White and Black people from working together to realize their common goal of justice for all.
Occasionally, an individual here or there—Black or White—will achieve some degree of prosperity, and this allows White people to go on believing in the myth of the American Dream, believing that with hard work and determination anyone can “bootstrap” themselves out of poverty. And so we believe that we are all “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”, taking consolation in a sense of polite (or sometimes not so polite) superiority over our often poorer Black neighbors. Meanwhile, the wealth gap grows year after year, and the 1% just laughs.
Together or Not At All
As Steven Singer recently wrote, it’s time to wake up to the fact that poor and working class White people have more in common with Black people than they do with corporate capitalist class. The 1% wants White people to go on feeling superior to Black people, keeping us from working together, keeping us fighting over a piece of the pie that keeps getting smaller and smaller every year.
If we’re going to take back power from the corporate capitalist class, we have to challenge the assumptions of the system which keeps them in power, the assumption that more for you means less for me, the assumption that more for Black people means less for White people. We have to embrace a new vision, a new way of relating to one another, where we are all lifted up when the most oppressed of us is lifted up, and where none of us are lifted up so long as any of us remain oppressed. We need to learn that the economic salvation of the White poor and working class comes, not at the expense of the liberation of Black people, but actually through the liberation of Black people—the two being inextricably intertwined.
Yes, all lives matter, ideally. That is to say, we hope for a world where all lives matter. But until White people can say “Black Lives Matter” without jealousy, then that world will never be realized. Corporate capitalism and institutional racism go hand in hand, and so our liberation from one requires our liberation from the other. My liberation is bound up with the liberation of my neighbor, especially if that neighbor has a different color skin. Until poor and working class White people can see that the cause of their suffering is same cause of the oppression of Black people, then none of us will really be free.
About the Author
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, Gods & Radicals, and A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.