“Black lives matter” – Why can’t we say it?

Police encircle protesters blocking traffic at Commercial and Pearl streets. (Jake Bleiberg | BDN)

Police encircle protesters blocking traffic at Commercial and Pearl streets. (Jake Bleiberg | BDN)




There… See, it really isn’t all that hard?

I understand that it’s frustrating when activists shut down major thoroughfares. It’s annoying. It disrupts lots of people’s lives. It’d drive me up the wall too if I was trying to get home, and there was a crowd of people blocking the road, especially if I disagreed with them and their cause.

I get that.

It also makes perfect sense to me that if you grew up admiring police officers, and you saw a bunch of people campaigning to “abolish” prisons and “radically transform” law enforcement, they might sound kind of crazy.


But this post is not about tactics. It’s not about policy proposals. This post is simply about those three words: Black Lives Matter.

It seems simple enough.

There are around 36 million African and African-American people living in the United States right now. Some of them are CEOs – one’s even the President – but on average, people in this group are more likely to attend lower quality schools, make less money at their jobs, and, yes, receive much harsher treatment from the criminal justice system.

This isn’t an opinion.  It’s a rigorously documented, indisputable fact.

That said, there are different theories about what causes this phenomenon.

Maybe Black people are worse off because they do more drugs?  They don’t.

Maybe Black people are just less educated?  Nope, that doesn’t explain it.

No matter how you slice it, even 48 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, it’s undeniable that skin color still has a clear, demonstrable impact on how the average person is treated by authorities.

All anybody is asking you to do, for now at least, is say, oh, those people?  Obviously, they have inherent worth as human beings.  Of course Black lives matter!

Then stop.

Stand back.

Listen to what people have to say for themselves.

Like Mercedes Faucher, who was working with the ACLU as a nonpartisan legal observer at the protest Friday night on Commercial Street.  She says that the Portland Police Department violently stormed in to shut down the action, even going so far as to aggressively push around the legal observers like her who were simply documenting the event.

Or Mariana Angelo, who says that Portland Black Lives Matter has two primary demands right now: for all of Portland’s police officers to wear body cams and for our city’s leaders to say publicly that there is a profoundly racist human rights crisis in our nation’s criminal justice system right now.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with these people.  You don’t even have to believe them.  But you have to admit that their lives matter.

Shockingly, that seems to be more than a lot of White people can do.

I’m genuinely freaked out.

It doesn’t seem particularly difficult to say those three words in consecutive order, yet there are currently thousands of people on Facebook chirping, “No, All Lives Matter!” And then insisting that means the same thing.

It doesn’t.

Nobody would object to a charity like March of Dimes saying that “Children’s lives matter.” They wouldn’t even notice.

Nobody runs to the manager at Hannaford’s to inform her that the apples aren’t the only delicious things in the produce area. All fruit is delicious!

Technically, yes. When you say, “All lives matter,” you’re implying that the lives of African-Americans matter as well.

But what you aren’t doing is admitting that our country still struggles with a massive, ugly, debilitating epidemic of Racism. You aren’t listening to the people who are taking enormous risks to get your attention.

Why can’t we say those three words?

I think, for a lot of us White folks, saying anything openly about race is next to impossible and feels incredibly unsafe.

We’re free to avoid hiring Black people, renting to Black people, hell, we’re even free to avoid smiling at Black people. Just don’t ever say anything about race. It’s never an appropriate topic of conversation, at least not in public.

in this context, Black Lives Matter starts to feel almost like a booby trap.

Thinking along racial lines reminds me of this classic scene from “Roseanne” in which John Goodman speaks to his son DJ about masturbation, finally saying that even though it’s okay and everybody does it, “Nobody ever, ever talks about it!”


Similarly, well behaved white people like us know that we can’t ever say anything openly about Black people. Even when we’re condemning criminals or terrorists or crudely stereotyping entire swaths of the population, most of us are smart enough to avoid speaking in public about “Black people.”

Well, my fellow White people. This needs to stop. We need to talk about race.  We need to talk about this toxic, violent fiction that we’ve all been socialized to believe.

And if you don’t know what I mean by that, this video lays it out clearly:


If we’re going to actually have these conversations we’re going to need to be vulnerable.

We relate to the discomfort John Goodman conveys in talking about masturbation, and we know that it’d be even less comfortable to talk openly about our own racist thinking. There’s a good chance it could even be dangerous for us.

We can do it, however.

The Whiteness Project in Dallas, Texas shows a beautiful example of what those explorations can look like. The videos there are poignant and troubling, definitely worth checking out.

If we’re going to deal with this stuff, we’ve got to put our thoughts out in the open where we can work together to dissect and process them.

It’s not going to be easy, but we need to talk about our country’s entrenched system of racial inequality, and we need to do it now because it’s killing Black people.

And Black lives matter.

Rob Korobkin

About Rob Korobkin

Rob is a software engineer, community organizer, teacher and musician. He can often be found at Peloton Labs, staring at his laptop, drafting diatribes and programming software late into the night.