We need leaders to affirm that Black Lives Matter, not exploit the phrase to divide us

Kevin Cokley, Opinion contributor

President Donald Trump recently called Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” in response to New York City’s plan to paint Black Lives Matter on Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower. Many view this as another attempt by Trump to exploit racial tensions in order to appeal to his base.

But he isn’t the only one. Walmart received backlash for selling T-shirts that included the phrases “All Lives Matter,” “Blue Lives Matter,” “Irish Lives Matter,” and “Homeless Lives Matter.”

It is curious why such a simple, affirmative, and humane phrase would become so emotionally provocative and politically divisive.

The exploitation of Black Lives Matter, whether for political or economic gain, is another manifestation of what Black studies scholar kihana ross argues is anti-Blackness, society’s disdain, disregard and disgust for Black existence.

Black lives haven't mattered

The Black Lives Matter phrase is intended to affirm the humanity of all Black people in the midst of deadly oppression in a country where long-standing racial disparities would suggest that Black lives really have not mattered. Take for example the following health and criminal justice data:

African Americans have the highest mortality rate for all cancers combined compared with all races, are about 50% more likely to have a stroke compared with whites, and are nearly twice as likely to die from diabetes as whites. African Americans have more than twice the infant mortality rate as whites, and Black mothers are more than twice as likely as white mothers to receive late or no prenatal care.

When it comes to criminal justice disparities, young, unarmed, non-suicidal male victims of fatal use of force are 13 times more likely to be Black than white. Nearly half of the people serving life sentences are African American, and Black people make up nearly 42% of death row inmates while making up 13.4% of the population

Black Lives Matter is painted on Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower on July 9, 2020, in New York City.

These racial disparities and many more exist across education, housing, wealth and poverty. So it should be understandable that the phrase Black Lives Matter is said with such urgency. This is why it is so disturbing when certain elected leaders refuse to even say the words.

When Vice President Mike Pence was asked why he won’t say Black Lives Matter, he indicated that he disagrees with what he characterizes as the radical left agenda, insisting he believes that all lives matter. In his mind, simply saying Black Lives Matter is a tacit endorsement of rioting and looting, rather than acknowledgement of the racism and anti-Blackness inherent in the lived experiences of Black people.

Pence’s rationalization is unconvincing given that Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican, is willing to march with protesters and say Black Lives Matter. Sadly, the politicization of the words Black Lives Matter has even reached children.

'All Lives Matter' disregards Black pain

As my 11-year-old was grieving after watching the video of the police officer with his knee pressed into the neck of George Floyd, we had to have “the talk” — one of the most emotional conversations a Black father could have with his Black son. Later, while playing the video game Fortnite with his white friends, one of them mentioned that there were protests on Fortnite related to George Floyd’s murder. When my son said that Black Lives Matter, one of his friends countered by saying, “All Lives Matter.” For reasons that my son was not able to fully articulate, his friend's' words upset him very much.

More: Ready to engage in real conversations about racism? Author Latasha Morrison can help.

After helping him to understand why he was feeling upset, my wife contacted his friend’s parents to express our anger and disappointment that their son would say this to our son. The parents were mortified, and after talking with their son, they wanted to talk with us. They apologized and explained that they had never said those words to their son, and when talking with him, it became apparent that he did not understand how those words could serve to negate or minimize the message of Black Lives Matter.

While a child’s utterance of All Lives Matter may likely be uttered in youthful naivete, I do not extend the same considerations to corporations such as Walmart or politicians such as Pence. The refusal to even say the words Black Lives Matter is a blatant disregard of the pain experienced by Black people and suggests a racial skepticism that will never heal the racial divisions in this country.

Kevin Cokley is the Oscar and Anne Mauzy Regents Professor of Educational Research and Development, professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also a Distinguished Psychologist member of the Association of Black Psychologists.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black Lives Matter is a humane phrase that recognizes deadly oppression

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting.