How to argue with your family about: Black Lives Matter

By: Dara Lind

The Black Lives Matter movement has been in the news almost constantly throughout 2015, such as when activists confronted Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail or protested in the streets of Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody this spring. But it's been in the news indirectly, too, because the rise of the movement (especially after the killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a police officer last summer) has turned national attention not just to other similar cases but to bigger problems of implicit bias and entrenched racism in American life, from universities to sports media.

The movement has been blamed for inciting violence against police, courted by presidential candidates, and pretty much everything in between. And at Thanksgiving, someone will say likely something about it that will make you want to roll your eyes. But don't do that. Here's what you should say instead.

Your sister-in-law says:

"Why can't we just say that all lives matter?"

Her confusion is understandable; media outlets often do present "black lives matter" and "all lives matter" as opposing slogans. Even at the first Democratic debate, a young black questioner really did ask the candidates to choose: "Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?" — reinforcing the very misconception the questioner was (presumably) trying to fix.

If your sister-in-law enjoys sarcastic humor, she might appreciate some of the explanations-by-analogy various people on the Internet have cooked up — this "all houses matter" comic, for example. The most direct explanation I've found, though, is that the implication of "black lives matter" is "black lives matter, too."

Black Lives Matter activists feel that (for example) the frequency with which law enforcement officers kill black Americans, and the circumstances of those deaths, is evidence that police don't care enough about black lives to protect them as much as white ones. All lives matter, but black lives are under more of a threat. So they think the explicit reminder is necessary.

killed by police - circumstances

Your sister-in-law might have seen someone get very upset (or had someone get upset at her!) for saying, "All lives matter." Let her know that people opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement have co-opted the slogan and hashtag "#AllLivesMatter" on social media — and it's often used to express straightforwardly racist beliefs. That's why it leaves such a bad taste in activists' mouths.

Your uncle says:

"These people are making it more dangerous for police officers out there. When police are afraid to do their jobs, everyone's less safe."

Lay out some basic facts. America is safer than it's been in decades. Violent crime is still on a 24-year decline. Attacks on police officers are still incredibly rare. Only 51 police officers were "feloniously killed" in 2014 — despite the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

But your uncle has probably seen news stories of attacks on police, some of which — like the killing of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in New York City last December — were carried out by people who claimed they were avenging the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers. There haven't been many of these "revenge" attacks, but that hasn't stopped some police from feeling that they're under siege (and in some cases, doing less to protect communities as a result).

It might be interesting to talk to your uncle about the way society treats people who commit high-profile murders or attacks — from the man who killed Officers Ramos and Liu to the man who killed nine black parishioners at Charleston's historic Emmanuel Baptist Church in June to the man who killed two television reporters on camera this summer.

In all of those cases, the killers said that their actions were driven by their political beliefs. In all of those cases, the killers had some other indication of mental illness or distress. When is it appropriate to ignore someone's political ideology and attribute violence to mental illness? Since white attackers tend to be more likely to get treated as mentally ill individuals rather than as politically motivated terrorists, is the right answer to treat more attackers of color as mentally ill, or is the answer to hold more white attackers accountable for their beliefs?

Your sister says:

"This is bullshit, man! Why the hell doesn't the media cover any of these injustices? Media only cares when white people are dying."

The best answer to this is that, for the most part, the media really has been covering the movement. Killings by police routinely become national news. Two different mainstream publications — the Guardian and the Washington Post — have taken it upon themselves to tally every killing by a police officer in 2015 (data the FBI still doesn't collect).

Black Lives Matter activists' demands of presidential candidates have been one of the major stories of the Democratic primary campaign. And perhaps most importantly, the movement has helped make a lot of people, including reporters, more sensitive to embedded racism in institutions generally (including their own).

Implicit in that, of course, is that the media has historically not been great in covering racial injustice. So it makes sense that people might be distrustful.

The good news for people who distrust traditional media is that social media — especially Twitter — has become an alternative news ecosystem. You don't need to read newspapers anymore to find out what's going on.

But it can be very hard to correct errors on social-media-driven news, or keep them from spreading. When you can see what's happening everywhere around the country at once, it can be easy to think you're watching a national trend — like a series of fires at black churches this summer — when in fact the events are totally separate and random. Having a check on that impulse, whether it's coming from a professional media outlet or somewhere else, is always useful.

Ultimately, though, there will always be people who claim that the media "isn't covering" a story, even when they found out about it through the media. It makes people feel good to think they care more about important issues than the average person and that they've liberated themselves from the conventional media that warps everyone else's minds. Maybe you can start a conversation with your sister about where she gets her news and compare her media diet with that of another family member. Are there news stories she hasn't heard about?