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Black Lives Matter

A good slogan is hard to find, but easy to misconstrue.

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If racial stereotypes and misconceptions about urban violence had a baby, it would look like the billboard that black businessman Fred Davis erected over his insurance office last month. It reads: "Black lives matter. So let's quit killing each other."

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Davis insists he's not mocking the Black Lives Matter movement, which was born in 2013 after neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen.

With each extrajudicial killing of an unarmed black man, woman, or child by white officers, the slogan gained traction, growing into an indictment of structural inequality that accounts for poorer outcomes for African Americans in every measurable way.

"Black folk should be reminding white folks all the time that black lives matter and [to] stop the legal lynching," said Davis, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. But, he added, "all over the country, we are marching and saying that black lives matter, and black people didn't get the message. Why aren't Chinese killing Chinese in large numbers or Italians killing Italians in large numbers?"

Because Davis is 81, he can be forgiven for equating nationalities — such as Chinese and Italian — with races. But he does not get a pass for perpetuating the lie that blacks are inherently criminal, and, therefore, fundamentally inferior, so much so that they need to be reminded that homicide is bad.

Although the myth of "black on black crime" has been thoroughly debunked, it's worth noting yet again that homicide is a function of proximity.

In segregated areas (read: every big city in America), it follows that the victim and assailant will be of the same race. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, most homicides are intraracial: Ninety-four percent of black homicide victims were killed by black people, and 86 percent of white homicide victims were killed by white people.

Davis presupposes that black Memphians are unmoved by murder. This surely comes as news to the dozens of anti-crime, anti-gang, anti-violence organizations in Memphis, including FFUN (Freedom From Unnecessary Negatives), founded by Stevie Moore, a black man whose black son was killed by a black man.

Critiques of urban violence almost always ignore the problem of easy access to guns, which are used in 92 percent of gang-related homicides and 68 percent of all homicides. Countries that have stricter gun laws have fewer homicides, but there's no political will in the United States to adopt even modest gun control measures.

Sadly, Davis conflates police brutality — implicitly sanctioned by the state, funded by taxpayers and rarely punished — with violence committed by individuals. This isn't the first time Davis has been guilty of respectability politics, which glosses over systemic failures to instead chastise people.

Two years ago, he put up a billboard that read: "Show your mind, not your behind." The sign juxtaposed a photo of a black man wearing a cap and gown with a photo of a black man wearing pants that dipped below his waist. 

I wrote then: "Black men could cinch their pants around their necks and the systemic bias against African Americans would still remain."

"I was given an award by the Church of God in Christ for that," Davis said proudly. He reminded me that his philanthropic endeavors include a scholarship fund at Manassas High, a program that helps ex-offenders get jobs, and his role as a founding board member of Christ Community Health Center, which provides health care to low-income Memphians.

But what he doesn't explore are the reasons why Manassas' virtually all-black student body needs financial help to go to college. He doesn't denounce the prison industrial complex that disproportionately sucks black men into its clutches. He has no public criticism of the legislature's refusal to expand health-care access for low-income Tennesseans.

The cure for urban violence is complicated. It demands good jobs that pay enough to make illegal means of making money unattractive and not worth the risk.

It requires public investment in neighborhoods of color so that children can find a safe haven in libraries and community centers.

It calls for an end to mass incarceration, which strips communities of fathers and stability and has not been proven to make neighborhoods safer.

The solution doesn't lend itself to slogans, and it certainly won't fit on a billboard.

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