Understanding Black Lives Matter – The New Civil Rights Movement
We are continuing our Racial Justice Initiative this year, which was well received in 2015-16. As before, there will be book suggestions and discussions, a few movie nights, and social action opportunities, as well as the Beloved Conversations Adult Religious Education offering which was developed by a UU minister.
A main focus of this fall will be understanding the Black Lives Matter movement, and the UUA’s support of the movement.
See Understanding Black Lives Matter – The New Civil Rights Movement: Info Sessions and Listening Circles for dates and details.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Black Lives Matter movement?
Don’t “All Lives Matter”?
What about “Blue Lives Matter”?
What is institutional racism and how does it impact black people?
Is the UUA supporting the Black Lives Matter movement?
What is Standing on the Side of Love?
Links for further information
Download the PowerPoint slides from the information sessions.
This new civil rights movement was founded in 2012 by three black women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. It is a national and international social justice and civil rights movement of people stating that change simply must happen if we are to be a just society.
The movement was founded after George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin. During Zimmerman’s trial, his lawyer frequently implied that 17-year old Trayvon was somehow responsible for his own killing, presumably because he was a young black man out at night. The movement gained momentum after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, the death of Eric Garner, and many similar events. However, the focus of the movement goes far beyond the highly publicized and questionable killings of black people by police officers. It is a movement for the end of institutionalized and systemic racism; for an end to the criminalization and mass incarceration of black people for offenses that don’t result in similar treatment for white people; for committed investment in schools serving black children, for economic investments in communities of color and, very importantly, the active participation of black people in the decisions that impact their lives and communities.
Through the three and a half centuries since America’s inception, great harm has been inflicted on black people and the movement stresses it is time to repair that harm, to recognize the rights and history of black people, and to end their disenfranchisement. The movement is not simply an angry response to police actions against people of color and absolutely does not condone the killing of police officers. It is a widely disseminated myth that the Black Lives Matter movement hates police officers and that it advocates making our country more unsafe for them. While there are small but highly vocal groups advocating violence towards the police and which have received a lot of press, the broader Black Lives Matter movement is not anti-police and recognizes that police officers simply want to do their jobs and return home safely to their families.
This does not mean, however, that law enforcement organizations in the United States are not implicated in a system that frequently criminalizes black people, that often views them as unsafe and dangerous, and that does not stress that these citizens deserve to be protected and served just like everyone else. The Black Lives Matter movement is encouraging a return to the community policing rather than the current heavily militarized practices that exist in departments across the nation. Increasingly, the police presence makes black people feel less safe rather than more, given the often antagonistic ways in which police interact with citizens more generally and black citizens in particular. Police departments and their officers need to rebuild trust with the communities they serve.
Another misconception is that the movement hates white people. The statement “black lives matter” is not an anti-white proposition. Contained within it is an unspoken but implied “too,” as in “black lives matter, too,” which suggests inclusion rather than exclusion. However, there is a mischaracterization that affirming the value of black life is anti-white and that for white lives to matter, black lives cannot. That is a foundational premise of white supremacy and is antithetical to what the Black Lives Matter movement stands for, which is the simple proposition that “black lives also matter”.
It is not necessary to agree with everything that is disseminated under the Black Lives Matter name. It is clear that there are aspects of the movement and factions within it with which we might, or do, disagree, but in almost every civil rights movement there are such factions, which doesn’t necessarily mean one should back away. If we did, we wouldn’t have had civil rights legislation in the U.S., the end of apartheid in South Africa and of British rule in India, to name just three.
As Unitarian Universalists we of course believe that all lives matter. However, the phrase “All Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry of critics of the Black Lives Matter movement, as have the accusations of the movement being anti-police or promoting violence. Such criticisms ignore how much more violence black Americans face on a day-to-day basis than their white compatriots. A major problem with “All Lives Matter” is that it takes the attention away from black people, shifting it to an “all” that is overwhelmingly white. To quote black minister John Crestwell Jr., of the UU Church of Annapolis, MD,
“Because of the structure and history of our country there is a lot of guilt and shame around slavery, our original sin as a nation. What has grown out of that, with black incarceration and drug laws, is a tremendous shame in white communities, within Unitarian Universalism and beyond. We aren’t able to articulate the shame, and so it comes out as anger and pushback when Black Lives Matter or other multicultural projects are promoted that are targeted specifically for African Americans.”
Currently a light is being shined upon black people who have experienced systemic injustice and we cannot ignore that by simply stating “all lives matter”. The Black Lives Matter movement has never claimed that black lives are more important than other lives but rather that black people are being criminalized and oppressed in a myriad of ways and it seeks to find solutions to these injustices.
Black Lives Matter does not automatically mean that Blue Lives Don’t Matter and the movement doesn’t claim that it does, as has previously been mentioned in this FAQ. Those of us who live in comfortable suburban communities are unlikely to have negative experiences with our law enforcement personnel. Police throughout the nation perform heroic duty every day and keep many communities safe.
However, in predominantly poor black communities, community policing has mostly become militarized policing. The US government responded to threats of terrorism by providing police departments with military equipment, such as tanks, military grade weapons and riot gear. This equipment has been almost exclusively used in communities of color, not to deter terrorists. The Black Lives Matter movement is not trying to make the world more unsafe for police officers; rather it hopes to effect changes that make police officers less of a threat to communities of color and to be more supportive to these communities that they serve.
In August 2016, Rev. Kim Wildszewski, Rev. Rob Gregson of the UU Legislative Ministry of New Jersey, and Sallie Dunner of the Council for Faith in Action at UUCWC, met with Hopewell Township Chief of Police Lance Maloney, Lieutenant Chris Kascik and Ms. Julie Blake of the Hopewell Township Committee. There was a respectful and frank exchange of views and the officers indicated that they fully support our constitutional right to publicly express our values. They further stated that they did not consider our anti-racism work or support of Black Lives Matter as an affront or threat to them. In fact, the Hopewell police are very pro-active in ensuring that their police officers receive anti-bias and de-escalation training. Going forward, Rev. Kim and Sallie will continue to be in communication with the Hopewell police and the Township Committee.
Institutional racism is expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. This is distinct from the racism of individuals or informal social groups. Institutional racism goes back to the earliest days of our nation when much of the country’s wealth was built on the backs of enslaved people and indentured servants. After the brief two year period of post-Civil War Reconstruction, Southern states enacted a myriad of punitive state and local laws known as Jim Crow laws, which targeted every area of black life. In Northern states segregation was not established by law but by patterns of housing and military segregation, bank lending practices and job discrimination, including discriminatory labor union practices. After World War II, a scant 4% of the million black GIs who served the country, were able to access the free education and good housing promised by the GI Bill. The former was due to universities having tiny quotas for blacks and the latter by FHA policies mapping out neighborhoods by the skin color of residents which effectively resulted in blacks being denied loans. Even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was enacted, municipalities still found ways to circumvent the new laws. School segregation continued to exist, as did housing and job discrimination.
Welfare laws contributed to the break-up of families; the “man in the house” rule did not allow families to get assistance if there was an able-bodied man living in the home. So if a man lost his job, he literally had to leave home if he wanted his family to be eligible for government assistance. The Urban Renewal Program, dubbed the “Negro Removal Program” by James Baldwin, demolished entire neighborhoods to build highways, etc., resulting in the destruction of 90% of low income housing. The displaced residents were crammed into already decaying neighborhoods and the promised new housing never materialized. This critical point in our history created a housing footprint which froze communities into skin-color-coded have and have-nots, reaffirming segregation and causing increased distrust between the races.
Schools in the have-not districts were allowed to deteriorate, health care became non-existent, almost the only shops were, and still are, bodegas, liquor stores and payday lenders charging interest rates as high as 20%. People struggled on every level and continue to do so. Given the lack of opportunities, drugs took hold as a way of numbing pain and making a living. This lead to violence in communities of color as drug lords took over the neighborhoods. The draconian drug laws of the 1970s resulted in millions of arrests often for minor infractions causing the explosion in the prison population. This is much of what Black Lives Matter and other groups are now addressing.
Yes, it is and strongly encourages congregations to actively promote racial justice and support the Black Lives Matter movement. The 2015 General Assembly had a call and positive vote to support an action of immediate witness linking the Black Lives Matter movement to UU principles. It resolved that member congregations should be called to action, urged to engage in intentional learning spaces to organize for racial justice, and to work toward police reform and replacement of the current prison system with one that is more just and equitable. The action also urged member congregations to collaborate with other organizations in fighting for racial justice. To quote from the UUA 2015 Action of Immediate Witness Statement, “No matter who you are, black lives matter, and a system of fair, transformative and restorative justice that is accountable to communities is something to which each of us has a right.” Unitarian Universalism’s commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement was reaffirmed during General Assembly 2016.
The Standing on the Side of Love (SSL) campaign is sponsored by the UUA and is a public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression. It came into being after the shooting at Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville which was targeted because they stood in support of Marriage Equality and SSL now strongly supports Black Lives Matter. Most UU Black Lives Matter banners use the SSL yellow background and their heart logo. SSL affirms and promotes these simple but daring acts in the communities of faith that make up our liberal religious tradition.
Links for further information: