During an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said, “When you say black lives matter, that’s inherently racist.” Asked whether he agreed with Giuliani, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said, “A lot of people agree with that. A lot of people feel that it is inherently racist. And it’s a very divisive term. Because all lives matter. It’s a very, very divisive term.”
Folks, I’ve run out of things to say. The ignorance flowing out of the mouths of politicians has me reaching for words I’ve already written. So, let me restate some of them. The best way to understand the meaning of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is to think of it as an incomplete sentence. To those African Americans and other Americans marching to protest lives extinguished by law enforcement, the unspoken finish to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is “as much as anyone else’s.”
To hear that, to have that message sink in, requires a level of empathy that Trump and Giuliani appear incapable of having. To hear that means you have watched and understand that routine traffic stops, playing in the park or shopping at Walmart could be fatal activities for African Americans.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, the current mayor of New York whose wife and children are black, gets it. “The very phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a necessary part of the national discussion,” the New York Times reported he said on Monday. “It has helped us to recognize that sadly our history over and over again did not value African-Americans.”
Pointing out this discrepancy in life experiences is not “inherently racist.” Those who insist otherwise are trapped in a world of make-believe. A world where there are no differences. Or worse, such differences are neither recognized nor acknowledged. That kind of myopia makes the necessary discussion of race impossible.
I’ve long known that Giuliani lived in a racial world of make-believe. During his mayoralty, Giuliani’s relationship with the Big Apple’s black community was volatile thanks to his aggressive policing strategies and harsh dismissiveness and vilification of those who dared to complain.
“That’s their problem,” Giuliani told me in a City Hall interview in March 1999 when I asked him for his reaction to the notion that most people of color in New York thought he was racist. “I’m fair with people. I do not see that racial, ethnic or religious differences should mean anything in terms of the way I do my job. I think I’ve been one of the more neutral mayors the city has had in terms of all the distinctions. . . .What they want is for you to pander like they do. I’m not going to do it. I think it is destructive for the city.”
At the memorial service for the five Dallas police officers who were ambushed last Thursday night during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, President Obama urged the audience and the nation to have a heightened state of empathy. He urged understanding of the enormous strain we put on police as we demand they handle societal ills we have neither courage nor will to address. And Obama talked as only the nation’s first black president could about the strain African Americans feel under the weight of racial indifference.
And so when African Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across the country, voice a growing despair over what they perceive to be unequal treatment; when study after study shows that whites and people of color experience the criminal justice system differently, so that if you’re black you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested, more likely to get longer sentences, more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime; when mothers and fathers raise their kids right and have “the talk” about how to respond if stopped by a police officer — “yes, sir,” “no, sir” — but still fear that something terrible may happen when their child walks out the door, still fear that kids being stupid and not quite doing things right might end in tragedy — when all this takes place more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid. (Applause.) We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and coworkers and fellow church members again and again and again — it hurts. Surely we can see that, all of us…..But even those who dislike the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” surely we should be able to hear the pain of Alton Sterling’s family. (Applause.) We should — when we hear a friend describe him by saying that “Whatever he cooked, he cooked enough for everybody,” that should sound familiar to us, that maybe he wasn’t so different than us, so that we can, yes, insist that his life matters. Just as we should hear the students and coworkers describe their affection for Philando Castile as a gentle soul — “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks,” they called him — and know that his life mattered to a whole lot of people of all races, of all ages, and that we have to do what we can, without putting officers’ lives at risk, but do better to prevent another life like his from being lost.
And then the president added this:
Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes, so that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie who’s kind of goofing off but not dangerous — and the teenager — maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents.
Both of those statements are true. Only an open mind and open heart will allow you to see it. Giuliani and Trump have yet to demonstrate that they have either.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj