How do you react when you see these three words? 

Black lives matter. 

A lot of white Americans, I’ve noticed, bristle with annoyance, even indignation, as if they’re offended that African Americans feel it necessary to remind them of something that should go without saying. Of course black lives matter. What kind of monsters do you think we are?

As a result, many never answer the more vulnerable question implied within those three words: 

“Do our lives matter to you?”

“All lives matter” is the defensive answer one hears whenever an answer is infrequently ventured — as if the respondent feels the need to up the ante. “Yes, black lives matter, but no more than the rest of us matter,” implying a hidden agenda on the part of African Americans, reflecting the longstanding attitude among many white Americans that making any attempt to atone for, address, or redress past inhumanity toward African Americans is to somehow leapfrog over equality and give black people an unfair advantage. That was the argument used against affirmative action. The same argument, by the way, was used to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage. Whenever an oppressed minority asks to be treated equally, they’re accused of seeking “special treatment.” Peculiar logic.

Some hard-core existentialists would say, “Black lives matter only if they make them matter,” which is the default position of hyper-individualists who preach personal responsibility. They contend that everyone should embrace the words spoken by Cain, humanity’s first recorded murderer: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (To which they would answer a firm “No.”)

The more pertinent question, however, is “Do black lives matter?” Strangely, the one answer I almost never hear is a firm “Yes.”

Not “Yes, all lives matter.” Not “Yes, but why do they have to be so strident?”

Just “Yes.” 

It worries me that white Americans have such a hard time saying, “Yes, black lives matter.”

An even better answer would be: “Black lives matter, and I will do my best to be your ally.” As important as it is for white people to say this, it’s even more important for black people to hear it. That’s how trust begins.

Though few of us consciously think black lives don’t matter, we live in a society that, judging by the results, seems to be saying precisely that.

Actually, what our society really seems to be saying is that black lives don’t matter … as much.

The problem is inequality. Judging by the many divides in our society, the lives of rich people matter more than the lives of poor people. Christian lives matter more than Muslim lives. Long-established immigrant lives are more important than new immigrant lives. 

In the last year and a half, we’ve learned that, nationwide, a distressingly large number of unarmed, young, African American males have been killed by police officers, mostly white, and that this has been taking place for much longer than the past year and a half. 

And it keeps happening — in spite of the glare of publicity and the omnipresence of cellphone videos. 

Police officers have a tough job, especially those who patrol high-crime areas. Poverty breeds crime, but inequality breeds impoverished ghettos. 

Inequality also breeds insensitivity. On the part of some police officers, for sure. In high-crime areas, where guns and gangs abound, it would be no surprise if more than a few cops were thinking “guilty until proven innocent” rather than the other way around.

But inequality also breeds insensitivity in us, the relatively affluent and advantaged. Who are the police working for? Not the poor. They take their cues from the rest of us. If black lives don’t matter as much to us, they likely won’t matter as much to our police officers.

I have a personal stake in this because my son is a police officer and I want him to be one of the good guys, one of those who practices law enforcement like he believes black lives matter as much as white lives.

Unfortunately, he also hears from those who try to twist the Black Lives Matter movement into an anti-police campaign, just as they accuse anti-war protesters of not supporting the troops, and paint anyone who criticizes this country as anti-patriotic. That attitude reflects a real sickness in our society.

If those who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us hear only calls to get tougher and tougher on crime — and never hear that black lives matter to us — is it any wonder that some get overly reactive?

The problem of too many unarmed black men being killed by police is a very real problem that we help perpetuate.

Black lives matter as much as white lives.

That should be our mantra — and the banner hanging outside every police department.

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