I will admit that I don’t know a lot about how Black Lives Matter is organized. It is more of a movement than a group and a point of unity for many people around which they can share a voice against racism in the United States.
Racism is a problem in the United States. Whether race relations was ever truly getting better or if festering racial injustice just got lost behind other social priorities can be debated. However I think a person would have to be very out of touch to not notice tensions of racial identity straining strongly in this country now. Perhaps we’re finally getting impatient with it all and will make sincere efforts to make things right for all people.
But then I look at the protests and counter-protests that a movement like Black Lives Matters inspires. It is frustrating. Sometimes I am not sure there is as much dialogue as there is digging in. Talking about breakdowns or problems with the discourse of race is risky business, too. You can get called out for being naive or out of touch or worse.
Let’s take a look.
Black Lives Matter in St. Paul, led by Rashad Turner, organized a protest at the Minnesota State Fair on the claims that the State Fair is unfair to minorities. I contend that this protest was misguided and inappropriate unless the organizers could support their claims that the state fair was prejudiced in either policy or practice against minorities. The protest eventually became one addressing broader issues of race when organizers could not support their claims that the Minnesota State Fair unfairly treated minorities, however they never backed off on their claims against the fair.
I believe this was a strategic and irresponsible error. You are not going to promote your cause if you begin disparaging organizations who have no reason for being the focus of protest. Moreover, their target — the Minnesota State Fair — is one of the state’s oldest and most popular events, an almost sacred tradition for some. You better have your facts and rationale in order if you’re going to take swings at a long-standing institution like this. Unfortunately, Black Lives Matter did not have their facts in order…or at least we’re still waiting for them. And after the accusations and protest is too late to make your case.
Black Lives Matters Minneapolis posted something of an explanation on Facebook, but the logic seems convoluted. Take a look.
“In statements made to the press, Fair officials claim that the Fair’s vendors are diverse yet officials also admit that they do not track any racial data. They claim that “evidence” indicates a diverse group of vendors, yet they do not provide any data. They put forth no evidence to back their claims while at the same time concede that they do not collect and do not keep data regarding racial demographics of vendors.”
The Minnesota State Fair is responding to accusations that its policies are racist. What’s frustrating here is Black Lives Matter dismissively putting “evidence” in quotes as if it really doesn’t count as evidence while at the same time providing no hard evidence of its own that the fair does indeed bias against diversity. In fact, Rashad Turner’s initial argument for the protest was entirely based on such “evidence”, citing the lack of diversity one can see at the fair as valid proof. I see a double standard here.
Moreover, Black Lives Matter is accusing the Minnesota State Fair of bias — without evidence — then asking the fair to defend itself and ultimately condemning the fair because it cannot defend itself against an unproven claim! Merely because the fair does not maintain racial data of its vendors does not make the fair guilty of Black Lives Matters charges. One could go further and argue that being unable to defend oneself from bogus charges does not make one guilty of those charges.
Am I wrong?
My concern is the sloppy nature of this protest, not with objectives of the movement. This protest strikes me as an opportunity that was seeking a cause rather than clear objective with purposeful action. Indeed, Black Lives Matter backed off on making the fair the focus of the protest and more generally targeted overall racial injustice, which indeed is a problem in this country. Nonetheless, making unsupported claims weakens the cause and gives doubters — the people you need to influence — reasons to second guess the cause. That is the problem here.
Behind this there is another troubling aspect to it all. Dissent or debate among like-minded folk runs into a wall of discursive purity. Go to Black Lives Matter Minneapolis’s Facebook page and you see expressions second guessing the event shut down. Some of it — if not most of it — is infighting. These people would generally agree with the cause motivating Black Lives Matter. However there is a limited tolerance for discourse that questions the tactics and messages of the movement.
In a thread on a friend’s Facebook page I expressed my reservations about the State Fair protest and a reply followed — maybe not directly to me — advising “take a moment to learn from another viewpoint” and pointed to an MSNBC link about Black Lives Matter. That’s not engaging the contrary points being made, but dismissing them.
I would caution that this isn’t much different than the absurd counterpoint heard too often that white lives matter. Of course they do. But anyone paying attention or understanding the premise of the protests for social justice understands that this sort of comparison is not germane. It represents an inherent misunderstanding of what racial injustice is all about. Those of us who support the cause gotta work together! Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis…that sort of thing.
I hope people don’t go humbug on me. I had many of the same complaints about Occupy Wall Street. There really isn’t a central organization coordinating the populist movements emerging today. (I think that is unfortunate and a disadvantage, by the way, regardless of how much it might appeal to anti-authoritarian sentiments.) If such movements are going to find their purpose organically, we need to be open to criticism and dialogue. I am writing not against the movement, but against what I tried to explain here could be a mistake — indeed is a mistake, in my opinion — if we get too loose with our ideals.
Let me know. What do you think? I am hitting the post button…now.