Why ask the question?
The question, ‘Why do black lives matter?’ seems a redundant one because surely it is self-evident that everyone, regardless of ethnicity, is worthy of life. Our shared humanity is enough to answer this provocative question. And yet, it is clear that there is more to it; there is something prompting the inquiry, ‘Why do black lives matter?’ Our common humanity, or the fact that ‘all lives matter’ is indeed true, but is there something about the way our society operates which gives the impression that black lives don’t, in fact, matter? It would be dishonest to wilfully ignore and not explore why we might pose the question in the first place.
Often when we are confronted by the problem of racism in the UK, we can be quick to point a condemnatory finger at the US or some other part of the world, because the issue isn’t that bad here. However, some disturbing statistics suggest we should be alarmed. Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women . Black children are more likely to be strip-searched by police. Black Caribbean children are more likely to be permanently excluded from schools. And by their own reporting, police use greater force with black and Asian suspects than white suspects. One live example of disproportionate use of police force upon ethnic minorities is the tragic case of Chris Kaba.
Now we might respond, as the 2021 Race and Ethnic Disparities Commission did, by citing factors other than racism as the cause of these inequalities. For example, in response to disparities in education, the report says, “If there is racial bias within schools or the teaching profession, it has limited effect and other factors such as family structure, cultural aspirations and geography may offset this disadvantage.” The point is, issues within certain ethnic minority communities may hinder their own progress. Well, this is certainly one way to interpret the picture.
Memories and Meritocracy
Growing up black in Britain, my experience presents a different view. I remember my parents telling me that I would have to work twice as hard as my white peers to be taken seriously. I remember my dad telling me how to conduct myself if I ever got stopped by police; he had been stopped several times, including one time on his way to church! I remember teachers scoffing at my ambition to apply to Oxford University and saying, “You’ll only get in because of positive discrimination.” I remember being asked if I was the candidate at an interview or the speaker at an event when institutions had received my CV or bio, but not seen or met me in person. Whilst teaching in multicultural London schools, I remember going over and above in my duties to show that black women could lead well. But all of this hard work didn’t stop white colleagues who struggled with their own classes telling me, “The kids listen to you because you’re black.”
The thing is, working twice as hard does help to overcome some barriers but it’s incredibly exhausting. It is a relentless cycle of seeking worth from individuals and systems that set a higher bar for faces that don’t fit. And this is not to disregard disadvantages which people experience because of class. Not at all. During my years of teaching, I have seen the struggle of white working-class boys in education and the research which highlights their particular situation. Since leaving teaching, I have set up a charity which supports them and other underrepresented groups in aspiring to higher education. However, I am also keenly aware that racism compounds class disadvantage.
A Faulty Metric
Even if we’re not convinced that racism is the cause of disparities for ethnic minorities in the UK, we must admit that there is something much deeper to consider: what are the implications of a society in which black people must prove they’re worthy of being treated with dignity, that their lives matter? If black lives only matter if they perform well or if we measure black life by what individuals contribute to society, we are setting everyone up for failure. Why? Because this kind of metric makes us all into objects which can be used, rather than people with inherent dignity. Regardless of ethnicity, we will all face limitations when we age, get sick, lose our jobs or some other tragedy strikes. Do our lives cease to matter then?
I have been alive and black for 35 years and I can tell you that this type of thinking doesn’t work. It’s dehumanising to both black and white lives. How so? In his strident narrative denouncing slavery, Frederick Douglass describes how slave buyers came to inspect enslaved Africans in a prison. He says, “A swarm of imps, in human shape the slave-traders, deputy slave-traders, and agents of slave-traders… watching for chances to buy human flesh (as buzzards to eat carrion) flocked in upon us… Such a set of debased and villainous creatures, I never saw before, and hope never to see again.” The objectification of Africans in this scene is horrific and it also reveals how the slave-buyers were dehumanizing themselves with this behaviour. Something of our humanity is lost when, and if, a person views someone else as a thing or a product. When someone exploits other people, their sense of respect for and dignity of others slowly but surely becomes warped.
A Better Way
Christianity subverts this idea completely. Firstly, human dignity is grounded upon the claim that we are made in God’s image. Like a Banksy piece, which is beautiful in its own right, the value of the art is ultimately determined by the acclaim of the artist. In the same way, we are God’s masterpiece, and he delights in us, painting a diverse palette of people across the globe. My life matters, not because of achievements or when others think I’ve done enough as a black person. I matter because in my very blackness, I reflect something of God himself. In a future picture of the world restored by God and all injustice done away with, people from every “nation and tribe… and language…” will be united in worship. This is a vision of hope where God doesn’t erase but instead celebrates ethnic diversity. Secondly, the Christian faith is hinged upon the concept of grace. Getting to know God is not about the things we can do but about what he has done for us. We can’t earn our way into relationship with God. Our skin colour cannot give us special privileges or access to God. No. Christianity says that we are all broken and in need of a saviour. The good news is that an unlikely saviour has come in the person of Jesus.
 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
 Genesis 1:27
 Ephesians 2:10
 Revelation 7:9
 St John 3:16