African-American lives matter
By Scott Sumner
So much has been written about the recent protests over the police killing of George Floyd that it’s hard to find anything new to say. In this post I’ll try to get out of the American “bubble” and look
ing at this from a global perspective.
I’ve been struck by the global nature of the black lives matter movement, with news reports of protests in far-flung nations such as New Zealand. What motivates protesters outside the US?
Obviously the death was a horrible injustice, but the world is full of horrible injustices. So why was there so much protest over this killing? For the US, you could argue that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, that the protests reflect built up frustration over a long series of injustices. Yes, but does that explain the international scope of the protests?
One answer is that the injustices occurred in the US. People in Europe don’t typically go out in the streets to protest the mistreatment of Muslims in countries such as China and India. The US is the most powerful country on Earth, and has claims to the moral high ground. Its behavior will be heavily scrutinized.
That’s part of the answer, but I suspect there’s more. If George Floyd had been a Native American, then I don’t believe the global protests would have been nearly as large. I’m going to throw out an alternative hypothesis, and ask my international readers to tell me if it makes any sense. (I’m too close to the situation to have an objective view.) I’d like to suggest that the African-American community is somewhat unlike other oppressed groups throughout the world—it’s far more visible.
In most cases, oppressed groups tend to be relatively poor and powerless, and thus are often invisible to outsiders. Can you name a single member of the Uyghur minority in China?
It seems to me that African-Americans are somewhat different. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t most well informed people in other countries able to name and identify quite a few African-Americans? In politics the most obvious example is Barack Obama, but America plays such a large role in global news that even figures such as Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Jesse Jackson, etc., have their 15 minutes of fame when they are in the midst of a major news story. In other fields there are quite a few well known African-Americans, such as Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, LeBron James, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Beyonce, Kanye West, etc. I could go on and on. Thus African-Americans don’t seem like a typical disadvantaged group. They are a disadvantaged group—in terms of all sorts of socioeconomic indicators—but with an unusually large global profile.
What’s my point? I am claiming that African-Americans are not just a prominent American minority group; they are a prominent global minority group. They make up about 3% of the global black population, but perhaps 50% to 75% of blacks who have a major global reputation. If that is correct, then in some sense the plight of African-Americans seems like a “domestic” issue to people in other countries in a way that the plight of Uyghurs or Yemeni people do not. Human sympathy is not roused by abstract statistics; victimized groups need a human face to attract our attention.
You might argue that George Floyd was not well known and that the globally famous African-Americans are not suffering from racism, or more precisely are not suffering enough from racism to draw our sympathy. But that misses the fact that the internationally famous American-Americans put a human face on their ethnic group.
I mentioned that people don’t typical go out in the streets to protest for Uyghur rights. But they do occasionally protest for Tibetan rights, partly because the Dalai Lama puts a human face on the movement.
This is where I need help from my international readers. Do you think of the plight of African-Americans in a way that is different from other oppressed groups? Does their plight seem less remote than other groups? Are they more visible than Hispanic Americans or Native Americans? If so, does their visibility in the global media contribute to your sympathy?
At first I had trouble seeing the wisdom of the term “black lives matter”. I’m naturally turned off by simplistic slogans. But now I see how the phrase works on multiple levels, both positive and normative. At a positive level, it says that black lives are valuable. You can think of this in religious terms (in the eyes of God) or in some sort of “moral realism” philosophical sense. At a normative level, it’s an attempt to shake (white) people by the shoulder and say, “Wake up, you need see blacks as people who are just as valuable as anyone else. Black lives should matter more to you than they currently do.” That’s why the retort “all lives matter” is viewed as inadequate.
The title of the post reflects the fact that African-American lives seem to matter to a lot of people throughout the world. Previously I argued that movements like gay rights gained traction when gays were portrayed as appealing characters in film and TV. Perhaps African-Americans are gaining the same sort of empathy. Racism operates on multiple levels, however, and I don’t believe that empathy is enough to solve the problem. In a future post, I’ll consider one set of policies to reduce police brutality. But this post has already run too long.