The problem with the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) in the US is the tone of its members. What is their tone like? Angry, accusatory, self-righteous, smug, and the list goes on. But wait, you might say, everyone—not just active and protesting BLM members—ought to have this tone about these issues. We know there are unjustified racial disparities in criminal sentencing, police behavior, housing opportunities, and in countless other domains, and we should not stand by, all apathetic or meek about what is rightfully owed. If you are not angry, accusatory, self-righteous, and smug about this, something is wrong with you!
This perspective certainly has an element of truth to it. I’m certainly not going to deny that some of these racial disparities exist. However, it misses the point. You have to ask yourself: what is the goal of BLM? Well, obviously, to solve the sort of problems mentioned above. But who does the movement need to convince and rally in order to solve them? Here’s where things get more complicated. There are two main candidates. The first is black people. I doubt this is the right answer. Why? In short, black people are already convinced that these problems are problems, and they are powerless to solve them. They are already convinced because most of them have been experiencing these problems firsthand their whole lives. And even if they themselves are fortunately unaffected, they know people who aren’t so lucky or they are descended from people who weren’t. The purpose of BLM couldn’t be to convince black people because they already know what’s up.
As for the point about power: what better proof of black people being largely powerless to solve these problems could there be, if not the existence of the problems themselves? Assuming, as I have suggested, that black people are—by and large—convinced of the existence of these problems, if they had the power to solve them, then why haven’t they done so? It’s the same reason that the problems exist in the first place: black people don’t have the means to solve them. Hell, this is almost a premise of BLM. Black people are systematically discriminated against because they are systematically excluded from controlling their own lives.
Still, one might object that the point of BLM is to rally black people in such a way that they have never been rallied before, such that they can finally solve the problems themselves. The past is no guide to the present, one might say, because never before have black people been so woke. I don’t know what world this objector lives in. If you think the solutions have much to do with the actions of governments, then you must realize that black people will never remotely be a majority in this country, excepting some very limited locales. You can convince all the black people you want and they won’t be able to substantially change the laws or the way the laws are enforced. Alternatively, if you think the solutions must largely flow from changes in the way people treat one another or, more specifically, treat black people, then surely it’s not black people who need to change. Maybe there is some black on black injustice, but this isn’t really the problem at hand.
We are left with the second candidate for who needs to be convinced and rallied to solve these problems: the society at large, including many white people. And so we come to the tone of BLM members. It takes little social observational skill to see that there has been, in many non-black quarters, a negative response to BLM. BLM members will say that this is because racism has deep roots in the US, and when racism is noted, racists (whether they are conscious of their racism or not) respond negatively. I would like to suggest that this explanation is a poor one. It is certainly an uncharitable one. A better explanation is that the tone of BLM members is not the appropriate one even if they are completely right about the nature of these problems. The fact is that humans of all shapes, sizes, and colors do not respond well to condemnation, particularly if it is conveyed with an angry, accusatory, self-righteous, and smug tone. It is good that BLM members are calling attention to the aforementioned problems, but they must realize that if these problems are problems, then they are to some degree problems with the people who constitute society at large. There is no police brutality without police being brutal. People aren’t stupid—they realize that you are condemning them, and they don’t like the way you are going about it.
One reason they don’t like the tone of BLM members might be that they think that they are not personally responsible for any of the noted problems. Surely this is true in some cases. But I think the main reason they don’t like the tone is that they are humans. No one likes to be talked to in that way and bristling is a natural response to it. Whether it is right in this case to bristle or not, people are bristling. This fact alone means that the tone needs to change. People respond better to a more conciliatory tone, so BLM members should assume one. Supposing, that is, that the BLM members actually are seeking to solve the problems that concern them, and they are not merely signaling.
The issue is that it is much too late. BLM came out the gate with the wrong tone and will be forever associated with it. Indeed, the name ‘Black Lives Matter’ is the ironic embodiment of this issue. The name itself is exclusionary and divisive. No matter how loudly BLM members insist that the name has been misinterpreted, no one will believe them because of their tone. It might be true that the name was not intended to be taken in an exclusionary or divisive sense, but that is how it will be seen because of how the members of the movement have conducted themselves. It seems almost designed to make people bristle. It’s no surprise that other response movements called ‘All Lives Matter’, ‘Blue Lives Matter’, and so on were formed in response—the BLM movement has never tried to portray itself as seeking unity, so why should others meet them halfway? They might as well rally together to defend their own interests.
Yet, some degree of unity is needed to solve these massive problems. As I argued above, black people alone cannot solve them, for otherwise they wouldn’t be problems. So where does this leave us? Well, it looks like BLM is a movement that has irrevocably damaged its effectiveness due to its tone, and there’s no going back. BLM members may have gained from the existence of BLM. It may cause future movements that are more effective. Nevertheless, the main goal of a sociopolitical movement like BLM is to have an immediate effect on the problems that it identifies. It’s hard not to conclude that BLM was, in essence, a missed opportunity.