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Rudy Giuliani and Black Lives Matter

July 12, 2016

You would think the slogan is unarguable: “black lives matter.” Is anyone willing to say that black lives don’t matter? But the slogan has engendered a remarkably heated opposition, most recently from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who declared on CBS’s Face the Nation program last Sunday that the slogan is “inherently racist.”

Giuliani leveled two attacks on the “black lives matter” slogan, neither one new.

First, Giuliani argued that it is inappropriate to point out that black lives matter without also pointing out that “White lives matter. Asian lives matter. Hispanic lives matter.”

I studied logic in college, but that was 40 years ago, and I’m a little rusty. Let me take a stab at it.

The Black Lives Matter movement asserts that black lives matter, which we’ll take as proposition A. Giuliani says that the slogan “black lives matter” implies that other lives don’t matter – in other words, A implies not B.

“Save the Whales” evidently, implies that the dolphins can go to hell, strangled in their tuna nets. Proposition A is that whale lives matter, and B is that dolphin lives matter; asserting A implies not B.

“The sky is blue” implies that there exists no other blue thing; proposition A implies not B.

Did we really elect this guy mayor? Twice?

In fact, I have yet to hear any Black Lives Matter member assert, suggest or imply that white lives don’t matter, Asian lives don’t matter, Hispanic lives don’t matter – or, while we’re at it, that police lives don’t matter. I think the reason for this is fairly simply, and fairly obvious: the point of the Black Lives Matter is not to diminish respect for other lives, but to raise respect for black lives.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not about achieving preference for black lives over other lives, but about achieving respect for black lives equal to that afforded other lives.

The factual premise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the “black lives matter” slogan, is that black lives are at greater risk than other lives when it comes to law enforcement. Specifically, the premise is that young black men are at greater risk of being shot by police officers than are other people.

You can disagree with the premise. The New York Times yesterday reported on a study that found that American police officers use all kinds of physical force – from use of hands to pointing of firearms, and everything in between – substantially more frequently with African-Americans than with whites. But the same study found no racial bias in shootings, the highest level of physical force.

The study’s conclusions are surprising, in light of the stream of anecdotal evidence of disproportionate police shootings of young black men. But I know enough statistics to distrust anecdotal evidence, and the study was written by an African-American professor of economics at Harvard (who called the result “the most surprising result of my career”) – a source who seems both competent and resistant to anti-black bias.

The study’s conclusions are surprising for another reason – if police show racial bias in the use of physical force at every single level lower than shooting, it’s at least counter-intuitive that the bias would vanish at the highest level of physical force.

You get to argue the premise that black lives are at greater risk of being shot by cops. But you don’t get to deny the legitimacy of the premise. And you don’t get to dispute the commitment of the Black Lives Matter movement to the premise. Even if black men are shot by cops no more frequently than other men, the full context of American history gives ample credibility to the view that black lives have not yet achieved equal respect.

I don’t care to argue the point – anyone who doubts that American law, public policy and social norms have devalued black lives for hundreds of years, up to and including the present, should spend some time reading almost anything written by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

If the Black Lives Matter movement believes – correctly, I think, but in any event – that police officers disproportionately shoot African-Americans, then there is no room for discussion that the assertion that “black lives matter” is not only decidedly not racist, but in fact egalitarian, and therefore the very opposite of racist.

Giuliani’s second argument is that by focusing on police shootings of African-Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement ignores the African-American lives lost to violence by other African-Americans. We’re back to A implies not B – if Black Lives Matter condemns police shootings of African-Americans, then manifestly Black Lives Matter doesn’t care about other deaths of African-Americans. Giuliani doesn’t quite say it, but it’s clear he means it: Black Lives Matter is motivated by anti-police bias, or else they wouldn’t single out killings by cops when there are other killings with which to be concerned.

I don’t think Giuliani would agree with an assertion that police officers should be held to the same standard as civilian criminals, or vice versa, but I think that is in effect what he’s saying. Black Lives Matter should be just as aggravated by civilian homicides as they are by police homicides.

But a civilian homicide is just not the same as a police homicide. For starters, a police shooting is by definition an action of the state. Actions of the state resonate with connotations of government policy and moral example in a way that civilian criminality does not.

Second, the police, unlike civilian criminals, are sworn to protect and defend the populace. Civilian criminals take no such oath. Police officers work for us; they are paid with our tax dollars. Police are supposed to be susceptible to the protest, “that’s not fair.” Nobody really expects that from civilian criminals.

Third, unjustified homicides by police officers are shocking in a different way than homicides by civilian criminals. We don’t accept civilian criminality, but we understand that it is both inevitable and somewhat random; randomness – or worse, racial bias – is not expected from officers of the law. The criminal justice system is symbolized by the blindfolded Lady Justice, who renders judgement without knowledge of race. We expect lawlessness from criminals; we don’t expect lawlessness from law enforcement officers.

Fourth, the police, unlike the population of civilians who will commit homicide at some point, are a knowable and identifiable group. We can engage the known population of police officers, challenging them to recognize their biases and training them to reason away from those biases. We can’t do the same, or anything very close, with future civilian criminals.

(This works both ways, by the way: killing a police officer is the taking of a life, just as is killing a civilian. But killing a police officer is also an attack on the justice system itself, and we justifiably punish criminals who kill cops more severely than criminals who kill civilians – not because we don’t value civilian life, but because we value both the police officer’s life and the justice system the police officer was part of.)

Even if civilian and police homicides were morally, politically, and in all other respects the same, the demand that Black Lives Matter address both or neither would still be flawed. The notion is oddly pervasive in our political discourse that failure to address a problem in its entirety voids the legitimacy of any effort to address part of the problem. It’s as if someone who has wants to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels has no right to speak unless she also proposes to reduce all other carbon emissions as well.

Yesterday, the Times editorial board characterized the Giuliani comments as “his trademark brew of poisonous disinformation.” I think that about sums it up.


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