Why Black Lives Matter Struggles and How to Fix It

Jason Advice, Incentives

Yes, black lives matter, but what’s in it for whites?

Many may view that question as absurd, ignorant, and downright selfish, but that’s exactly what must be asked by the leaders of niche movements like BLM if they hope to spark the kind of radical change achieved by those such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s. While radicalism works well for raising awareness, it doesn’t do so well at actually solving the problems that are raised, unless the movement is willing to eventually adapt its message to embrace wider mainstream acceptance. The way to do this is by understanding the role of self-interest and the incredible power of incentive alignment. I’m using BLM as an example here because it’s a hot-button issue right now, but the ideas apply to virtually any social movement.

As per BLM’s website, one of its stated goals is to create “A world where black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” The corresponding message in that is that this must stop. Both the goal and the message are noble, and any of us not lost in mental or political denial would have a hard time disagreeing with either. However, the problem isn’t the message itself, but a lack of understanding of who that message should be directed at.

Right now the BLM message is clearly directed toward blacks, but all that is doing is preaching to the choir. Blacks already know things aren’t equal. We’re familiar with both blatant and institutionalized racism, with police profiling and brutality, and with “crimes” like Driving While Black. We already know that we live in fear, are often harassed by police officers, and could potentially get shot for nothing. Continuing to raise awareness through rallying cries in communities that are already well aware will not create change. BLM speaks loudly, but is speaking in the wrong language, to the wrong crowd. It’s not lower and middle class blacks that watch CNN that need convincing, it’s middle and upper class whites that watch Fox News. Aligning whites’ interests with that of the movement’s is the only way to succeed.

Civil Rights Incentives

Take a look at the images below, the one on the left of a Malcolm X rally, and the one on the right of a Martin Luther King, Jr. rally. Think about each of their messages. Who were they really being directed at? What do you notice about the crowds?

From what you know about these two leaders, which one encouraged his followers to fight back and which one stressed equality? Okay, it was a trick question. In truth, they both stressed for equality and they both encouraged their followers to fight back– their goals were identical, but their messages and methods of reaching those goals were very different and ultimately led Dr. King to having a larger perceived impact on American race relations. One look at the crowds in those pictures, and at many of their rallies, and the difference was clear– Malcolm X incentivized blacks and demonized whites, creating an “us vs them” environment, which never ends well. Dr. King incentivized blacks too, but also embraced whites, creating a “we’re all in this together” environment, that literally changed the world.

What Dr. King and the other Civil Rights movement leaders understood was that major social change requires the support of those not like you. Getting that support isn’t easy and requires tremendous strategy around framing how the cause is communicated and understood by the general public. Consider some of the key moments during that movement in this light:

  1. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs Board of Education desegregated schools, moving blacks into the same classrooms as whites.
  2. One year later Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus which helped spur the Montgomery bus boycott that began taking a serious financial toll on whites.
  3. In 1963, Dr. King and the “Big Six” organizers of the March on Washington intentionally added four white men to their organizational leadership, showing the world that the movement was far larger than just a “negro thing.”
  4. Finally, in 1964, the passage of the Civil Rights Act ensured that blacks were allowed equal employment opportunities– right alongside whites.

With their schools, transportation, and jobs being directly affected, whites now had a great deal of incentive to help settle things down and one need only compare photos from the early civil rights movement (mostly all black) to photos from the later civil rights movement (whites and blacks together) to see the change firsthand. You won’t find images like those later ones in more militant type movements, nor will you find the subsequent results. While the goal of both movements was the same, racial equality, the messages that each sent out were quite different– one benefited blacks, while the other benefited everyone.

Personal Incentives

While there will always be a few people who join causes just because it’s the right thing to do, most of us rally around things only when we have something personally to gain or to lose, even if we do so without realizing it. It is these positive and negative incentives that ultimately lead us to action. In today’s information overload world especially, focus is a luxury we don’t have much of, so for a cause to compete for our attention, time, and money, it must speak directly to us, and show us how it relates to us personally.

Political Incentives

Blacks lives matter, but we’re still a minority and systemic change won’t occur until whites in America help us put enough political pressure on local, state, and federal politicians to make it happen. Like all of us, politicians are driven by self-interest too, which in their case means doing whatever they need to do to get and keep votes. Politicians don’t do what’s in the best interest of their constituents, they do what’s in the best interest of themselves, it’s just that the latter is intrinsically linked to the former. Thus, it’s the majority of their voters that must be targeted by messages eliciting change. Politics is simple: the more votes you control, the more change you command. Finally, like politicians, voters too are always driven by self-interest, whether consciously or not. So, what’s in it for them? As the recently popular saying goes, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

It’s ultimately the responsibility of a movement’s leadership to ensure that their message is clearly heard around the world, that it’s directed at those who have the power to propel change, and that they are properly incentivized so that it’s in their best self-interest to do so.

Yes, black lives matter, but we must ensure that they matter to all.