In the wake of the killings of unarmed African-American males by white police officers, a new mantra for black life in the United States has emerged: "Black Lives Matter."
It's appearing on placards, billboards, handbills, T-shirts and elsewhere. While it has powerful emotional appeal to us, we need to ask ourselves this: How is our new mantra being perceived by people who aren't African-American? What are they thinking?
We are, after all, trying to convince them that our lives matter.
A white man who's read my column for many years was brutally honest in a letter to me a few weeks ago: "Bill, you people live like animals. You don't care about your own lives. I'll start caring about you when you show me you care about yourself. I don't care about you people. A lot of white people feel this way. Think about it, Bill. Write about it."
Initially, I was angry. But I reread the letter several times and got the message. And, yes, I've thought about it a lot, and I must conclude that evidence in many areas suggests that we don't care enough about ourselves.
Take black-on-black murders. According to the Violence Policy Center, a Washington think tank, although we're only 13 percent of the nation's population we account for half of all homicide victims. More precisely, black males are 6 percent of the U.S. population but we represent nearly 40 percent of those murdered.
Whites aren't murdering us. We're murdering one another, which strongly suggests that we don't care about one another and that our own lives don't matter to us. People who care about one another don't murder one another. My letter writer is right: We need to show the rest of society that we care about our own lives. We aren't doing that.
I've lived in several major cities, including New York, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg, and I've lived in rural areas. No matter where I've been, I've seen too many African-Americans who don't care about the physical conditions of their homes and neighborhoods. Trash and filth abound. Buildings are allowed to deteriorate, all indicating that black lives don't matter. In many instances, a simple coat of paint could make all the difference. Clearing debris could give a street a sense of safety.
But all too often matters remain the same or get worse. Why? It's because too many of our communities lack social capital — that sense of communal bonding and reciprocity. Aside from the church and Greek organizations, we don't have healthy community networks in which good things are shared, in which positive behavior is seen as a strength, in which friendship is nurtured as a source of future well-being.
Where social capital exists, people care about one another. They do good things for one another, not bad things to one another.
I've concluded that aside from stopping the epidemic of black-on-black murders, the best way for us to show that black lives matter is for us to prove that we value education, the great ennobling force.
Let's face it. Too many black children rank at the bottom of every measure of academic excellence, and this poor performance follows most of them throughout their lives. Teachers can't do it all. Valuing learning must start in the home.
Unfortunately, far too many black parents see our schools as places of abuse and bondage. But they're wrong. Our schools are places that foster freedom through knowledge.
In praising her school experience, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker said: "Just knowing has meant everything to me. Knowing has pushed me out into the world, into college, into places, into people."
And "just knowing" — education — changes behavior.
If we want the rest of society to acknowledge that black lives matter, we have to change. We're not going to alter the attitudes and opinions of others if we don't change, if we continue in our refusal to see the consequences of our behavior.
Education is the key.