YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
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February 2015

By Paula Penebaker, President & CEO, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin

"Black lives matter."

Consider what Carter G. Woodson would think about that statement just shy of 90 years since creating black history week in 1926 - a week to acknowledge the contributions of black people to US history.

At that time, many black people were living in the Jim Crow South where black men, whose lives meant nothing, were hanged with impunity. Since that time, many things have changed for the better, but to paraphrase Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep, miles to go to show that black lives matter.

The black-lives-matter “movement” was born in 2014 after a seeming spate of high-profile police killings of unarmed black men. Hundreds of thousands of people of all hues across the country demonstrated, carrying signs with the phrase.

In Milwaukee, we had our share of demonstrations, including one on Mayfair Road where predominately white demonstrators carried signs with “All lives matter” held high.

Who would ever deny that?

How does the near obsession with the need for fairness and parallelism when it comes to issues of race thwart thoughtful discussion and subsequently, problem solving?

It seems that the all-lives-matter debate is about the need to support police.

It is unfortunate that the majority of good, effective police officers who have had exemplary careers, conducting themselves as stand-up men and women are maligned by the actions of a few. The profession, however, has been historically tainted because of the likes of figures that loom large in the minds of many black people. The movie Selma depicts that in living color. Chief Jim Clark and others of his era did not serve the profession well.

In recent weeks, we have seen a lot of positive, warm tributes directed to police officers across the country on social media and in the news. (The dash cam video of the officer rocking out to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” is hilarious!) The positive attention is great to see and police officers are very appreciative. But, will the discussion and emphasis on the black-lives-matter movement be lost amidst the need to ensure that police don’t feel undervalued?

Woodson wanted to counteract the negative imagery of blacks with information about positive, scholarly contributions of black people to that point in history. It is still important in 2015 to do the same thing. A by-product of reflection is the reminder that, in spite of overwhelming negative press, black people—in particular, black boys and men—are doing great things, today.

To any person who believes in the inherent value of human beings, of course, all lives matter! To say that, only serves to deflect how little value we place on black lives, still, in 2015.


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