In conversation: Christopher Lebron on the making of Black Lives Matter

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Christopher Lebron, assistant professor of African American studies and philosophy, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Making of ‘Black Lives Matter,’” which takes a look at the history of the ideas behind the Black Lives Matter movement, and of “The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice in Our Time” (2013), which explores the morality of racial inequality in the United States.

The Yale scholar recently met with YaleNews to talk about the “elegance” and the “tragedy” of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan, how he will integrate the research that he has done for that book into his teaching this semester, and what is “unsettling” about the decades that have passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What have you learned while working on “The Making of ‘Black Lives Matter’”?

One of the most interesting things about those three words — black lives matter — is that they are so elementary and alone are themselves a political and moral claim. There is a very peculiar relationship between the elegance of the phrase and the tragedy in the fact that it needs to exist at all. I chose leading thinkers in the black American intellectual tradition who moved me the most as I thought about that phrase. I began in antebellum America with Frederick Douglass when he gives his speech [in Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852] about what it means to be a slave on the Fourth of July. In his speech he tells Americans that here we have a wonderful holiday about independence, meanwhile he has to ask to have his family freed from slavery. The intellectual history of those three words is so fascinating because that sentiment has been around as long as the fight against slavery has been. It has just developed and evolved over the decades.

My book is intended to give a bit of intellectual heft to the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” Despite the impact of those three words, there is a flip side to any slogan. They are so often repeated that we take for granted what the message really is. My job as a philosopher and my aim in writing the book is to take a step back and look at those three words as a kind of container, and I am trying to fill that container with an intellectual history to give it even more power. I am trying to make that contribution.

Did you encounter anything that surprised you when you were researching this topic?

The thing that surprised me the most was actually something really quite tragic. It was a deep sadness when I read about someone like the civil rights activist Ida B. Wells having to flee her hometown after she spoke out against lynching. These kinds of tragic events happened decades ago but the really difficult thing to face in this kind of work is that sadly I am still writing about this topic today because this is still happening. I am surprised at how sad you can be over something that you know so well. It just keeps coming back to you. There are many promising and hopeful things about this nation, such as the fact that I am sitting in this seat as a professor at Yale and that Barack Obama has been our president for eight years. But it is nowhere near enough.

How did you choose “The Color of Our Shame” for the title of your first book?

One of main ethical terms in the book is shame. The reason that I used the word shame goes back to social reformers like Douglass. Shame is a moral notion. If I say that I have a particular commitment but then act in the opposite way, the revelation that there is a great discrepancy in my actions should invoke in me the moral emotion of shame that I am failing myself. That is the history of this nation with respect to race. That is why it is the color of our shame. The history of America has been failing itself on the questions of race. No society is ever perfectly just, but in this society the very basic empirical fact is that systemic racial inequality in this nation with respect to black Americans is a failure of our most basic democratic ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is the color of our shame.

In “The Color of Our Shame” you argue that despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, America continues to be mired in racial inequality. How so?

During the Civil Rights Movement understandably the big fight was for the laws to be changed. The very basic intuitive idea was that if we can get the laws to apply to black Americans equally then we have a wedge for fighting against other injustices. It turned out to be much less useful than I think was hoped for, even though it is still better than nothing.

More than five decades later we are still facing a situation in which black folks make less money working at the same jobs as white Americans, have less access to basic healthy foods and quality medical care, and their life chances from cradle to grave are systemically worse. All of these things coalesce into a social framework in which — despite the laws — society keeps on failing when it comes to basic forms of acknowledgement and respect for black Americans. If you can find a way to tell the stories about what has been happening the past two years and write about it in such a way that you leave out the technology aspect of it, you would often not be able to tell if we are in 1948 or 2016. The only thing that would give it away would be the name of our president. You might not be able to even tell that 1964 happened. That is so unsettling.

Why is racial inequality in the United States a failure of national character?

The idea is that this is America. It is a great nation because we fought for our liberty. Now look around and tell me: How is this all playing out? The fact is that there isn’t some inequality, or even a lot of inequality. There is categorical massive inequality. This is not the function of just one person’s doing. It is the everyday kind of things that add up to what it means to be black in this nation. It is the persons and the institutions that come together top to bottom and bottom to top that give America the quality of its character. And when that character is looked at in the light of its failings with respect to racial justice for black Americans, it is a failing of national character.

How do you integrate your research on race and social justice into teaching in your classroom?

I am quite excited about this upcoming semester. It will be the first time that I will be teaching a course on a book that I wrote — “The Making of ‘Black Lives Matter.’” The course will be structured on how I wrote the book. I will have the students read what I read to do my research and writing for the book. Over the course of the semester, we will be exploring how our current social reformers have been trying to make the same argument about Black Lives Matter that others like Douglass and Wells were making decades ago. My students are going to walk the path with me as I wrote the book.

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