Things are happening. People have opinions. And you, reader, may be one of those people going: “whoa, whoa, whoa, what about …”
That’s a natural impulse. But when it comes to racism and protests, it’s awful easy to get sucked down a rabbit hole of other people’s misleading or misguided arguments.
Two circulate so frequently that they’re worth addressing.
First: George Floyd.
He wasn’t perfect. The degree of his imperfections are a matter of some disagreement, even if sensible people agree that he didn’t deserve to die for them.
The second part of that sentence is what’s key here. George Floyd’s death provided the ignition that began the current focus on racism in society. But whatever one wants to think about that life, it doesn’t affect the core facts underlying the current re-examination of society.
Simply: in many, many places, the colour of one’s skin affects one’s likelihood of dying at the hands of police; and one’s chances of professional and life success.
That’s what this is about, but those who aren’t subject to racism can tend to forget it under a deluge of news and information.
Imagine you have two identical 13-year-olds (or two six-year-olds or two 20-year-olds or two 30-year-olds) with the same family background, education, and everything else down the line. Countless studies show that if one is Black (or, in Canada, Indigenous), something bad is far more likely to happen to the one who is not white.
That all leads to things like the wife of a Black wine shop owner fearing her husband will be killed by police in his own store if he is present when officers go to check on a security alarm that went off.
It leads to things like First Nations men and women in Canada feeling unwelcome in, and being driven out of, key societal institutions by racism. It leads to them distrusting – often with good reason – our country’s institutions.
Many of us know someone with a sketchy past who turned their life around. But white people are more likely to be given the opportunity to do so than those who aren’t. This is what “systemic racism” is. It doesn’t mean everybody is racist. It means that our society is riddled with things, big and small, that collectively end up penalizing people for having a different skin tone.
Sometimes systemic racism results in someone dying who wouldn’t if they were white. Often it leaves a person without the same access to the opportunities afforded to white colleagues. Even if one were to put aside Floyd’s unjust end – and one cannot ignore it – we still need to deal with everything else faced by those who look different.
One other thing:
Some people take issue with the Black Lives Matter rallying cry. The standard is that “all lives matter.” It’s a response that is, to put it kindly, problematic. But it’s not always made with bad intentions. Often, it’s one borne of a lack of information, or a misreading of what the statement Black Lives Matter really means.
“Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean only Black lives matter. It doesn’t mean they matter more than the lives of other people. It just means they should matter. Period. You probably agree with this.
Demonstrators are stating, simply, all lives should matter, regardless of race, but that they don’t. That’s the core message of Black Lives Matter. It’s just Black Lives Also Matter doesn’t have quite the same potential as a rallying cry.
The premise of Black Lives Matter is that while society values white lives, it values those of Black people to a much lesser degree. All the data underscore this fact. In Canada, we also know this applies to Indigenous people.
Ottawa has repeatedly promised, but failed, to address severe water problems on First Nations reserves. Our federal government has been found by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to have continuously underfunded the on-reserve child welfare system.
And Ottawa has continuously fought against having to repay that money to Indigenous kids. The list goes on.
Demonstrators want all kids to have the same chance at success, all teens to be confident they aren’t being judged based on their skin colour, and all adults to not have to think about their race when they head for a job interview.
The core message of demonstrators is that all our lives should matter equally, and that our neighbours and friends shouldn’t face discrimination that we know exists. It shouldn’t be controversial.
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