A Sideways Glance with Richard S. Bogartz: Black Lives Matter

  • Naomi Naylor, foreground, 16, of Springfield helps paint a “Black Lives Matter” mural in 20-foot tall letters onto Court Street in Springfield in September. gazette file photo

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Please forgive my ignorance and my not even knowing what I don’t know about Black people. Consider me a well-meaning, hopelessly academic, ally who chooses to stumble rather than remain silent.

If the milk is in a carton, and the carton is in the refrigerator, then the milk is in the refrigerator. Containment works this way. We say containment is a transitive relation. Taller than is also transitive. If Aisha is taller than Hussein, and Hussein is taller than Shakira, then Aisha is taller than Shakira. More transitive relations are equals, faster than, bigger than, descendant of. Likes and recognizes exemplify nontransitivity.

Consider M, the collection of things that matter, L, the collection of all lives, and B, the collection of Black lives. If all lives matter, then the collection of all lives is contained in the collection of things that matter. Black lives, being lives, are contained in all lives, and therefore contained in things that matter because containment is transitive. (B is in L) and (L is in M) implies (B is in M).

Some people, I among them, declare “Black lives matter” (BLM). Some others respond “All lives matter” (ALM). Sounds like agreement and disagreement. Agreement because if someone declares ALM, then that implies BLM. Disagreement because some of the ALM crowd hear and read “BLACK lives matter” as if the BLM advocates are saying “Only Black lives matter,” but the BLM advocates take their declaration to be “Black lives MATTER,” meaning “Black lives matter too,” and “It’s time America begins to live the self-evident truth that all men are created equal enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.”

“ALL lives matter” is a reasonable response to “BLACK lives matter,” taking the former’s meaning to be that the only lives that matter are the Black lives, but it makes no sense as a response to “Black lives MATTER,” which is an insistence that Black lives do matter but have not been treated that way.

Why do BLM advocates present the BLM claim in speeches, on posters, in paint on the streets, as the name of a two-block-long pedestrian section of 16th Street NW in downtown Washington, D.C.,and at sports events? What are their goals?

Brittanica.com describes BLM, as an “international social movement, formed in the United States in 2013, dedicated to fighting racism and anti-Black violence, especially in the form of police brutality. The name Black Lives Matter signals condemnation of the unjust killings of Black people by police … and the demand that society value the lives and humanity of Black people as much as it values the lives and humanity of white people. … BLM activists seek to draw attention to the many ways in which Black people are treated unfairly in society and the ways in which institutions, laws, and policies help to perpetuate that unfairness.”

That sounds like Black lives MATTER.

What are ALM advocates up to? From my admittedly limited perspective, ALM advocates belong to three groups: racist politicians, other racists and gullible innocents.

Racist politicians, like Ted Cruz, who falsely asserts that BLM advocates are avowed Marxists pursuing a radical agenda and planning to disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure, or the soon-to-leave inhabitant of the White House, who asserts that “Black Lives Matter” is a divisive and racist term, do so to manipulate the uninformed, play to their prejudices and get their votes.

Other racists believe and mimic the lying racist politicians because racist lies assimilate smoothly into their prejudices.

The gullible innocents are uninformed, put their trust in authority, and believe what they are told by the racist politicians and other racists. Even though they mouth the racist ALM opposition to BLM, I think of them not as racists but as victims of racism.

What about the propaganda message that BLM advocates are rioters, anarchists, terrorists, determined to use chaos and destruction as instruments of protest? The evidence refutes these racist claims. The U.S. Crisis Monitor reports that between May 24 and Aug. 22, there were 10,600 demonstrations across the country, with only 5% involving violence, and over 80% of all demonstrations are connected to the Black Lives Matter movement or the COVID-19 pandemic. Media focus distorts and amplifies the small number of violent events that are in part due to provocateurs and not planned or endorsed by BLM.

My Thanksgiving thanks are to the Black people who saved us with their votes, campaigning and truth.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.