A response to ‘The case against BLM’

Opinion by Olivia Lamberti
Nov. 19, 2020, 9:44 p.m.

To Lucy Kross Wallace,

Your recently published op-ed was racist, inaccurate and demonstrated poor comprehension of current events. Below is an annotated version. 

A note: As a fellow white woman at Stanford, I feel obligated to debunk the op-ed’s more grievous claims, but I am certainly not qualified to speak on anti-Blackness beyond that. A selection of columns and stories about fighting anti-Blackness by Black Stanford affiliates are linked at the end of this letter. 

The task of criticizing Black Lives Matter (BLM) is immediately complicated by a deceptively simple question: What is BLM? A slogan, a movement, an ideology, an organization? The answer seems to change depending on who’s asking. BLM is associated with organized bodies, policy agendas, protests, petitions, ideologies and more. 

While there are organizations and collectives that act as hubs for this movement, namely the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and city-specific chapters, BLM as a movement is decentralized and ideologically diverse. As such, statements like “BLM presents a litany of political demands” and “It is difficult to say whether BLM explicitly endorses [policy proposals]” are largely incoherent; despite having unifying principles opposing anti-Blackness and police violence, BLM as a protest movement is not a uniform hive mind. Consider the following two sets of policy proposals, both borne out of Black Lives Matter: 

Alt text:  Data proves that together these eight policies can decrease police violence by 72%:  Ban chokeholds and strangleholds, Require de-escalation , Require warning before shooting , Exhaust all other means before shooting, Duty to intervene, Ban shooting at moving vehicles , Require use of force continuum, Require comprehensive reporting
Photo credit: Campaign Zero on Instagram
 Alt text: #8ToAbolition: A world without prisons or police, where we can all be safe. We believe in a world where there are zero police murders because there are zero police. Abolition can't wait: Defund the police, Demilitarize communities, Remove police from schools, Free people from prisons and jails, Repeal laws criminalizing survival, Invest in community self-governance, Provide safe housing for everyone, Invest in care, not cops
Photo credit: #8toAbolition

The creators of both sets openly affiliate with Black Lives Matter as a decentralized movement dedicated to Black liberation. Yet reformists and abolitionists disagree on the direction and scope of change needed. These disagreements undermine your later characterizations of Black Lives Matter as dogmatic: 

“Zealotry is superseding reason….as many commentators have pointed out, anti-racism carries numerous unmistakably religious overtones, with white privilege as a parallel to original sin, Ibram X. Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates as prophets, the 1619 Project providing convenient mythology and the insistence that one must “do the work” or risk ending up “on the wrong side of history.”

“Zealotry is superseding reason… as many commentators have pointed out,” pro-vaccination carries numerous unmistakably religious overtones, with vulnerability to disease as a parallel to original sin, Anthony Fauci as prophet, the CDC providing convenient mythology and the insistence that one must ‘receive a COVID-19 vaccination when it is released’ or risk ending up ‘dead.’

All movements that deal with the improvement of humankind have thought leaders, knowledge output and something to say about the initial state of the people they are trying to improve. These traits communicate nothing about the merits of the movement itself. 

Even if this critique wasn’t devoid of substance, I cannot stress enough how often anti-racists debate and refine each other’s ideas. Arguably the most academically rigorous critiques of the 1619 Project were presented by Black anti-racists, among them Stanford Professor Clayborne Carson. If Professor Carson, a man who was at the March on Washington, willingly questions modern anti-racism’s supposedly foundational mythology, perhaps it is not scripture after all. 

Unsurprisingly, the video omits a hefty dose of nuance, like the fact that, in a country occupied by more guns than people, officers have reason to fear for their lives during arrests. Though this reality doesn’t excuse excessive use of force, this fear is still part of the equation. 

Police officers have significantly less reason to fear for their lives than loggers, truck drivers or construction workers, yet these professions manage to hold off on carrying out extrajudicial executions. 

And for all its attention to the white supremacy and racism that ostensibly underlies these statistics, BLM pays far less heed to much more deadly forms of crime. In 2017, 304 Black people were killed by police. 9,908 were victims of homicide. A Department of Justice report found that “Based on victims’ perceptions of the offenders, the offender-to-population ratio shows that the percentage of violent incidents involving Black offenders (25%) was 2.1 times the percentage of Black persons in the population.” Homicide is also the leading cause of death among Black males age 1- 44 years, which is not the case for any other ethnic group, but these numbers never seem to make it into BLM talking points.

Portraying Black people as a disproportionately violent, apathetic racial group is racist. In a conversation about police murders of Black people, it is also irrelevant and callous. I don’t feel the need to further address this whataboutism because it has been debunked so many times in so many ways that its reiteration can only be viewed as a sign of willful ignorance. 

Given the number of people who have been fired, doxxed, harassed and slandered for opposing BLM, I can’t help but wonder how many of us are remaining silent about our concerns for fear of being ostracized. I have yet to hear any Stanford student voice dissent. 

Since May 25, 2020, the Stanford Review has published 27 articles by current Stanford students. Seven implicitly or explicitly criticized Black Lives Matter. In that same time period, eight of the 14 Instagram posts by the Stanford Colleges Republicans have done the same. Both SCR and the Review still exist. Maybe, then, these ideas are unpopular not because they are censored but because they lack merit.

A summer of protesting, rioting, looting, arson and iconoclasm has raised plenty of awareness and initiated many conversations. It has also resulted in damage that may cost insurance companies up to $2 billion.

Personally, Black liberation is more important to me than the bottom lines of insurance companies. If this is not true of you, I encourage you to put that scary-sounding number into perspective: The very article you cite acknowledges that Hurricane Isaias alone resulted in $3-5 billion in damages. 

Homicide rates have spiked in major U.S. cities, calling into question the prudence of reducing police presence during an ongoing pandemic and economic downturn. 

Increased policing will not remedy rising homicide rates; on a national level, there is essentially no correlation between police spending and violent crime levels

Meanwhile, election results point to a widespread rejection of identity politics that challenges BLM’s approach to race-based grievances. Amid all this chaos, I can’t help but wonder if BLM has done more harm than good.

I am unsure how an electorate’s disapproval of a movement translates to it causing harm. In any case, widespread rejection is a hyperbolic characterization at best. 76% of prospective 2020 voters for president-elect Joseph Biden said that “racial and ethnic inequality [were] important to their vote” and 74% said that “it is a lot more difficult to be a Black person in this country than a white person.” Considering that only 24% and 9% of Trump voters, respectively, agreed with those two statements, it’s clear identity was key to the winning presidential campaign. 

Black lives matter and racial inequalities should be addressed with thoroughly researched, thoughtfully implemented initiatives that expand beyond the issue of police violence to address education, poverty, crime and family structure. When BLM puts forward such initiatives, I would be glad to support the movement. 

As discussed before, Black Lives Matter is a decentralized movement, not a think tank, and as such different activists will have different perspectives on the initiatives you are looking for. But the publication your op-ed was featured in may be a good place to start. 

Malaysia Atwater’s coverage of an event featuring Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi outlines systemic steps that reinvest capital in Black communities. It also provides a short introduction to BLM at its beginning, which may prove helpful in clearing up your confusion.

Kory Gaines puts forth abolitionist steps that can be taken on both national and Stanford-specific scales in an op-ed. Gaines also cites abolitionists like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore; you can look to these thinkers for a more in-depth examination of prisons’ past, present and eventual demise. 

Departmentalizing African and African American Studies continues to be a demand of Stanford students and faculty combating anti-Blackness. Specifically, this op-ed by the Black Graduate Students Association outlines why departmentalization is so essential. 

Finally, Professor Hakeem Jefferson’s letter to his students may not be a policy proposal, but it is a vulnerable expression of grief, anger and solidarity. I do not know if your heart is open to that at this time, but I encourage other Daily readers to revisit Professor Jefferson’s letter.

In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and prison abolitionists everywhere,

Olivia Lamberti ’23

Contact Olivia Lamberti at olivlamb ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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