Black lives / All lives

One of the most irritating moments during last night’s Democratic debate came when a young black man posed the question, “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?”, because it was a trap whose either/or form precluded a nuanced, thoughtful response.

As most longtime readers know, my first freelance pieces were true crime features for the old tabloid crime rags, and one of the very first things I learned is that features about black people killing each other are not salable. I tried. If a scary-looking minority rapes and kills a white Sunday School teacher its a story; if a scary-looking minority rapes and kills a black Sunday School teacher it’s … too bad. That’s the bald commercial fact.

If you doubt that, just visit the true crime section of your local Barnes & Noble store, or scan Ann Rule’s or Joe McGinniss’ or Gregg Olsen’s output: No black people. Check the televised true-crime shows, too; No black people.

So, make no mistake: blacks do have a legitimate grievance; white America isn’t very interested in black lives or deaths.

I believe that’s chiefly a cultural effect, rather than racism per se. The legacy racism of the Jim Crow laws inhibited assimilation of blacks into the mainstream of American life, and conduced toward the development of a separate, co-existing, all but immiscible culture — and it’s that cultural barrier that works against the empathy that makes victims sympathetic.

If there were nothing to know about the subject of race in America but racism-racism-racism, then Barack Obama would never have been elected president and Condoleezza Rice would never have been Secretary of State. Never.

I would probably have felt honor-bound to answer that all lives matter, and looked as hopelessly dopey as Jim Webb did.

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