Elizabeth Warren, a white woman, gave a speech recently that openly embraced the message “black lives matter,” a message which has frequently been undercut by the believed-to-be-more-noble-by-white-people message, “all lives matter.” As many people have pointed out, the reason that “black” as the qualifier for “lives” in this message is paramount is because, historically and presently, our behaviors belie our beliefs. That is to say, we do not enact the “obvious” truth that all lives matter. In a classic example of hegemony, the universal all here is code for white, the privileged racial group in this country.
Unable or unwilling to accept the continued, ubiquitous plunder of black Americans, white Americans understandably defend the ideals they’ve inherited; the conversion from “black” to “all”, the redirection of possibly productive discourse into a status quo response isn’t conscious, overt racism, and that’s what makes it so problematic and elusive. It’s a symptom of a society that has such delusional (because they aren’t grounded in reality) beliefs in its DNA. Hence why Ta-Nehisi Coates summoned a reckoning with the truth of our history and present existence. Until we dismantle the American ideals that hold us hostage, we will never be able to embody them. Instead, they’ve been responsible for widespread disembodiment, particularly of Black Americans.
Bringing up Coates is the main thing I wanted to do in response to Warren’s speech. The speech was effective, and it was a step toward the necessary moral reckoning this country needs, but I’ve heard it all before. In Coates’ words. In the words of an individual who has actually experienced the terror of being Black in America. I was waiting for Warren to credit Coates for her vision and understanding because she was basically restating what he covers with greater eloquence, nuance, and depth in “The Case for Reparations” (linked above), as well as his other research and work.
But no. That moment never came. She made vague reference to modern Civil Rights leaders, but she was taking the message on as her own. Petty criticism? At least the message is out there to a wider audience, right? And it’s not like Warren hasn’t faced her own share of systemic bias. She does admit that she’s privileged to not experience the physical and psychological reality of the tragedies she outlines, so what’s my issue? Perhaps I don’t have one.
Still, there is something to lament in the truth that Coates’ voice isn’t enough to get the message out. But perhaps we should see this as a reason for forming alliances, rather than see it as a reflection of our persistent divisions.