May/June 2020Vol. XXXII No. 5

The Case Against “#BlackLivesMatter?”

J. C. Woodard

J.C. Woodard was awarded his SB degree in Mechanical Engineering in June of 2018, then earned an SM degree from Tsinghua University as a Schwarzman Scholar, and is now working as a project manager in Shenzhen. The contents of this message were drafted for a social media post in 2016.

The following was penned for white America’s edification, so that everyone will understand why Black Americans have been furiously marching in the streets. The intention here is to offer perspective on the Black American experience from a Black American’s eyes.

Who am I? I am a 20-year-old, dreadheaded Black male from the South Side of Chicago, currently studying at MIT. My major is Mechanical Engineering with a Chinese minor, and I hope to one day receive a PhD in designing prosthetic systems, but before that can happen, there’s this problem that has been bothering me for the past 20 years. See, while composing this, I should’ve been researching a valveless pumping system, but was much too emotionally ravaged by the current state of American civil affairs to do so. Instead, I found myself tearing up in the soup section of the local Target.

What reason do I have to be an emotional wreck in the friendly neighborhood Target?

Picture that relative you have who was diagnosed with a malignant, incurable cancer that could take their life at any time.

Now, picture half of your family suddenly diagnosed with the same type of cancer. Death will loom over their shoulders as regularly as the sun rises and falls. Furthermore, when they finally do die, a wide swath of America will stand up and justify their demise based on their perceived history of doing cancer-causing activities.

Living that way should be enough to drive any reasonable man to his knees.

But this thought experiment doesn’t do justice to explaining the constant horror that I feel for myself and for my brothers as a Black American male, in a society which vehemently tries to justify the questionable circumstances surrounding our deaths at the hands of law enforcement.

At an early age, my parents ensured I knew how to acquiesce to law enforcement if need be. “Never argue, just comply,” my mom would tell me. She, my other family members, and Black America have had such negative experiences with police that they all teach survival techniques like white parents teach manners. I was instructed to be acutely aware of the race of those around me, because it would keep my expectations for equal treatment from fellow citizens as low as they needed to be for a Black boy from the South Side. The Black mother’s version of motherly love is ensuring that her children have the mental fortitude to endure the abuses of a world built on their subjugation. The reality is, fortitude wouldn’t have saved me from a cop’s bullet, and since those were easy to find in my neighborhood, I grew up hypervigilant.

An underrepresented white person wouldn’t deserve to be presumed a dangerous villain, but that is how America stereotypes Black Americans. A Black American’s criminal record for marijuana possession is used to justify their death, while white Americans go unprosecuted for using harder drugs in larger quantities. Does America only believe in second chances for those with lighter complexions?

Has America been desensitized to the deaths of Black Americans in the same way that Chicagoans have? Is it possible that centuries of lynchings and unquestioned executions of Black Americans has created a culture that averts its eyes instinctively, because that’s what people’s parents and their grandparents did? In her expression of “motherly love,” is it possible that your mom taught you how to look the other way?

When I was 17, I was at the front door of a peer’s house in one of Chicago’s more affluent (read: white) neighborhoods. After several minutes of waiting on them to answer, the cops made a surprise appearance. I was doing nothing more than standing in front of a door, playing on my cellular while waiting for it to open. The neighbors called them “because they didn’t recognize me on their friend’s porch.” I would’ve rather they call me a nigger up to no good than try and blanket their prejudices as innocuous precautions. That’s the same kind of culturally ingrained fear that leads to cops having over-dramatic fight-or-flight responses to Black men reaching for their wallets, and now Philando Castile’s name rings out in the streets of every major American city, followed by an incensed crowd calling for change. In retrospect, I was lucky, but the next time I might not be.

Please count the number of white people on your hands who have had the cops called on them for trivial reasons. Zero? If I were to do the same for Blacks, I would need more hands.

In December of 2014, after a grand jury cosigned Darren Wilson’s manslaughter of Michael Brown, people who look like me protested in Ferguson and hundreds of other cities across the country. My cohort live-streamed the tear gassing of protesters in St. Louis from our dorm room, appalled at the unreasonable force exercised by “lawmen.” Our frustrations mounting, we printed out police brutality posters, grabbed chalk and headed to campus. By morning-time, our handiwork was omnipresent. I was most proud of “#BlackLivesMatter” sprawled across a classroom chalkboard, and eagerly awaited the campus response to our work. How could it be anything but supportive?

If seeing those posters thrown in garbage cans felt like a kick in the face, seeing the chalkboard work replaced with #AllLivesMatter was a conclusive blow to my confidence in America’s people. I was consumed by rage – as a fellow American, how could you ignore and negate our call for attention to a plight affecting so many of us? I couldn’t stand the profound apathy in the majority of people I was supposed to call peers. How could MIT not understand #BlackLivesMatter? How could these people, at the brightest Institute in the world, misconstrue our cries for help as something malicious or racist?

This is the same rage that motivates millions of Black Americans to take up arms in the streets, metaphorically and literally. It is mentally consuming and makes friendly people lose it in the face of blissful ignorance for the Black community’s current and long-standing crisis. Rage is an effective, accessible motivator, but not a means towards a real solution.

America needs more empathy, which is why I answer all questions about my Black experience with grace. This is how we move away from isolated bubbles and start productive conversation, because therein lies the solution that makes everyone happy. Without this, Black men like me will continue to be executed, and the cyclical pattern of police brutality, minority outrage, and government indifference will rage on.

No one should be condemned for thinking America is post-racial, since the issues at play aren’t nationally visible. No one should be berated for, upon first examination, believing that #AllLivesMatter is an appropriate response to today’s predicament. That being said, please be informed of what you’re standing for and against. My American passport looks the same as yours, and I aspire for the American dream as you do, but our experiences here have been dramatically different. The case against #BlackLivesMatter is that no single hashtag can encapsulate the decades of grief Black Americans have endured, nor can it enclose the numerous data points and arguments supporting our outrage.

#BlackLivesMatterAsMuchAsAllOtherLivesButThatsNotWhatAmericaIsShowingUs would have been more appropriate.