VOICES: What you don’t get about Black Lives Matter

Editor's note: This commentary by Steven Conn appeared on the Dayton Daily News' Ideas and Voices page Sunday, July 26.

If you respond to the Black Lives Matter call by retorting “All Lives Matter,” or “Blue Lives Matter,” or “Football Matters,” like the T-shirt worn by tone-deaf Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, then you just don’t get it.

As a slogan, Black Lives Matter is a history lesson in three words. It encapsulates 400 years of the way African Americans have been treated in this country, and it is a defiant, pleading demand that that treatment change. Here’s a quick review of that history:

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In 2019 the nation marked the 400th anniversary of the importation of African slaves to North America. For the next roughly 250 years Black lives didn’t matter at all because they weren’t regarded as human lives in the first place.

Chattel slavery as it developed in the colonies and then in the United States viewed slaves as property.

Congress reinforced that notion when it passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which essentially made it a federal crime for slaves to escape their bondage and required law enforcement officials to arrest anyone even suspected of having escaped.

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Seven years later, in its abhorrent Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court settled the matter of Black lives under slavery. Chief Justice Roger Taney concluded that Black people “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution,” and continued, “a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery.”

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It took a civil war to end slavery but for approximately a century after it was over, Black lives were subjected to a dizzying variety of restrictions, humiliations and brutalities. Laws dictated where they could and could not live, where they could and could not shop, where children could and could not go to school.

Social customs were equally repressive, requiring, for example, that Black people never speak to a white person unless spoken to, to yield to any white pedestrian on the sidewalk, and forbidding a Black driver from ever passing a white one on the road.

All of these restrictions on Black lives were enforced by violence and an ever-present threat of violence. That violence took its most horrific form when Black lives were lynched. Lynchings were intended as public displays. They were sometimes advertised in local newspapers ahead of time; whole communities turned out to watch and cheer. They served to remind everyone, white and black, that Black lives did not matter.

More recently, the so-called “war on drugs” became another way to demonstrate just how expendable Black lives are. Launched by Richard Nixon in 1971, the war on drugs initiated an era of mass incarceration that has affected Black lives all out of proportion. Recall what Nixon aide John Ehrlichman acknowledged about the war of drugs: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the (Vietnam) war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Hippies, of course, could cut their hair.

If this history is unfamiliar to you, or if it makes you uncomfortable, I invite you to read the work of dozens of my professional colleagues who have researched and written about it all.

No supporter of Black Lives Matter, from its founders to people like me, a middle-aged white guy, invokes this phrase to denigrate anyone else or to suggest that some lives matter at the expense of others. The sign does not read: Black Lives Matter More. We chant “Black Lives Matter” because for 400 years they simply have not, and we are long past the time to change that.

Steven Conn, W.E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University, is a regular contributor.

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