Black Lives Matter, but only if they're American

Protesters' outrage occurs only when black people are killed in the United States, Vava Tampa says.

Story highlights

  • Vava Tampa asks why we feel so strongly to take to the streets over killings in US
  • But we remain silent about killings of blacks in Congo, South Sudan or Brazil, he says

Vava Tampa is the founder of Save the Congo!, a London-based campaign tackling the human tragedy engulfing the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The opinions expressed in this column belong to the author.

(CNN)Let's be honest: When people say "Black Lives Matter," what they really mean is that Black American Lives Matter.

Not Afro-Brazilian lives, not South Sudanese lives and certainly not Congolese lives. Just black American lives.
    In July, as outrage over the police shooting of Alton Sterling dominated the news -- propelling black protesters across the world to the streets, much as Black Lives Matter protesters shut down London City Airport on Tuesday -- 300 people were killed in Juba, South Sudan.
    Vava Tampa
    That same week, an estimated 8,500 people were also killed in Congo, Africa's largest Sub-Saharan country, where proxy wars over control of its mineral resources that go into our mobile phones killed more than estimated 5.4 million between 1998 and 2008 -- and continue to claim 1,500 lives, with 1,100 women and young girls reportedly raped each day.
    Yet, as with most killings in Africa, there wasn't any international protest within black communities in the diasporas to defend the humanity of these black people.
    I cannot help thinking about this paradox: our preoccupation with the killing of black people in the United States versus our almost overt disregard for the killing of black people in Africa.
    Why do we feel strongly enough to take to the streets over the killing of black people in Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri, or Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but remain silent about killing in the Congo, Brazil or South Sudan?
    Is it because Staten Island, Ferguson and Baton Rouge were flooded with media reporters from almost every major news outlet, with vigorous editorial discussion in the morning, noon and evening for viewers around the globe, while crises in the Congo and across Africa barely receive any airtime?
    Is it because victims in the United States are black and their killers are white, whereas in places such as the Congo both the victims and perpetrators are black?
    Or, perhaps, is it because we still see black people in Africa as primitive, not as fellow humans?
    Whichever way you look at it, it cannot be right that our indignation arrives only when black people are killed in the United States.
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    Friends of mine have offered a predictable rebuttal: Black Lives Matter, I have heard it argued, must remain a US-focused campaign because of the impunity with which white police officers (even in the relatively enlightened 21st century) disproportionately kill black people for, in the words of James Baldwin, no other reason than simply being black: a painful reminder of the compromised existence black people have had in America since 1619.
    My answer to this is simple. Police killing of black people in the United States is a symptom of a structural and systemic problem -- so far omitted from conversations -- that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called white supremacy: the ideology that inspired Nazi Germany, the Berlin Conference, the slave trade, apartheid South Africa, Jim Crow South, the Ku Klux Klan, white privilege, white power and the West's love affair with Africa's strongmen.
    This problem doesn't just trouble America. Every black person lives in constant menace of it -- on both a personal and societal level.
    According to popular culture, to paraphrase Muhammad Ali, Jesus is white, angels are white and Snow White is white. Outside of popular culture all synonyms for "blackness" in the dictionary are nasty and negative, while every synonym for "whiteness" is positive and beautiful.
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    In Brazil, it is a fact that Afro-Brazilians -- people who self-identify as black or brown and who make up 53% of Brazil's population -- are poor, marginalized and almost three times more likely to get killed than their white counterparts, according to the UN Children's Fund.
    At the United Nations, it goes much further. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 is perhaps the most consequential example. At the height of the killing, the UN Security Council decided to reduce its peacekeepers from the meager 2,500 trying to prevent the killing to merely 270, while at the same time sending an additional 6,500 troops to strengthen the already 24,000 UN troops deployed to save lives in Bosnia, where the victims were white.
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    Understanding this (for this generation and for generations to come) is so crucial and critical that it must be emphasized. Police killing of black people in the United States and the West's support for regimes responsible for mass killing in places such as the Congo are practically inextricable. They both kill black people.
    And if our protests in US and UK streets and across the globe on social media are a reflection of our moral outrage, then surely killings in Juba, Congo or Brazil must also be a priority. This means expanding Black Lives Matter from a social policy issue to a foreign policy test in the United States, UK and across the globe. Otherwise our protest looks like a sham and hypocrisy, thinly disguised as moral outrage.