Despite being unable to hurl a rock online without hitting someone gushingly pronouncing Black Lives Matter, you can tag Angelique M. Davis unimpressed.
The Seattle University political science professor had grown tired of the oaths to “do better” that formulaically followed the most high-profile cases of the more than 1,300 Black people killed by police since 2015. Vows as conspicuous as smoke, and just as weightless.
Even with multitudes of Americans flooding the streets since George Floyd’s death, heeded demands for police reforms, and millions being thrown at Black-owned businesses, Davis has witnessed too many moments promising paradigm shifts that only scooted society mere inches.
“I think we’re seeing incremental progress and I think [these pronouncements] can now be used to hold people and organizations accountable. But it’s one thing to say something, it’s very different to live up to those aspirations,” says Davis, who adds Black Lives Matter signs are omnipresent in her Rainier Beach neighborhood.
Embodying the words on those signs is pressing at a time when a wide swath of Americans remain supportive of the BLM movement, even as that backing appears to be shrinking among white Americans.
“I think you really have to ask yourself what are you doing this for? … Is it making you feel good or is it actually changing something,” says Davis.
Davis wrote a research paper that showed little progress after resolutions apologizing for slavery passed at the dawn of the Obama presidency by some former confederate states — with the U.S. House and Senate eventually following suit. Recalling her research, Davis now has a hard time seeing today’s pervasive proclamations as more than a type of “social insurance policy.”
It’s as if that policy comes with a rider immunizing you against accusations of racism. Think: But I have a Black friend, how can I be racist?
Combating racial oppression must go deeper than non-racist sugar coatings.
Past “national reckonings” around race failed to produce societal transformation not for a lack of 10-point plans or a commitment to diversity hires but due to our hush around one issue:
Power — specifically who deploys it, exercises it and controls it.
Power is amoral. We can only judge how those who disproportionately possess power use it to advance society. Not a single Black soul voted for the 13th amendment, nor did one woman vote for the 19th. And yet chattel slavery is illegal, and my mother will cast her vote on Nov. 3.
Fulfilling our collective promise as a country has always rested on power being shared, never concentrated.
Wealth, health and political utility are power’s markers. Black Americans run a deficit in all categories. When compared to that of white Americans, Black wealth is 10 times less, Black life expectancy is three to five years lower, and Black Americans are grievously underrepresented in politics.
Changing those statistics begins with embracing social humility, as Ben Franz-Knight discovered.
After two decades helping to advance the careers of women and people of color while in prominent positions within the city, including as executive director of the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, he fashioned himself as “racially enlightened.”
But his cousin questioned the self-assessment. He asked Franz-Knight what he was doing to become an anti-racist.
“At first, I was like, I’m always working on it,” he said, admitting that the word anti-racist initially made him uncomfortable. “But I have come to understand the privilege I have as a white guy walking through the world; the importance of really thoughtfully and deeply understanding how that influence exists out in the rest of the world.”
A fixture on influential boards and committees citywide, he says he and other white people should assess the societal responsibility inherited with their social standing, and probe their lifelong assumptions.
“There’s a whole lot of people that took police providing public safety as a fact, and that fact is being questioned given the experiences of others,” he says.
So are conditioned defaults that unintentionally perpetuate racial hierarchy.
Recently, Franz-Knight assisted his colleague Colleen Echohawk in organizing a meeting between Decriminalize Seattle and business leaders to address street civility in downtown Seattle.
Echohawk noted that his list of local leadership included almost no people of color.
“I brought a majority of white people together to solve a problem, and I understand that’s not the way. … It wasn’t intentional.”
No, it was automatic.
That’s how the perpetuation of power works.
“I can’t speak for People of Color. But I’m bound and determined to ensure that there are places where we speak together,” says Franz-Knight, an urban planner and president of the Board of Trustees for the University of Washington’s Alumni Association. “And I’m bound and determined to share that access to power. And I’m bound and determined to cede it if I need to.”
Such efforts must be replicated on a national scale for the notion Black Lives Matter to overcome the reality that white people command power in this country.
Once it does, it too can go powerfully unstated.