Vicissitudes of Meaning: ‘All Lives Matter’ vs. Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged after the 2013 Trayvon Martin case, has been raising havoc on the presidential campaign trail, becoming the subject of heated debate. Republican candidate Ben Carson complained, “The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is focused on the wrong targets, to the detriment of blacks who would like to see real change.” Said Rand Paul, another Republican candidate: “I think they should change their name maybe – if they were ‘All Lives Matter,’ or ‘Innocent Lives Matter.’” Some are even calling Black Lives Matter a hate group whose rhetoric is partially responsible for the recent shooting of a sheriff in Texas. [*] In contrast, Cornel West, a proud member of the activist group, insists it is fighting a noble battle against state-sanctioned violence against African Americans.

According to the Black Lives Matter mission statement: “#BlackLivesMatter is an ideological and political intervention; we are not controlled by the same political machine we are attempting to hold accountable. In the year leading up to the elections, we are committed to holding all candidates for office accountable to the needs and dreams of Black people…”

So far, the primary methodology of accountability has been to interrupt the public appearances of presidential hopefuls and bombard them with questions about their sense of responsibility for the current state of affairs and their plans to eradicate racial injustice. Black Lives Matter has crashed public appearances by Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley.

At an O’Malley appearance a few weeks ago, lieutenants of the movement leapt to the stage, commandeered the mike, and demanded that O’Malley answer the seemingly rhetorical question, “Do black  lives matter?” With great conviction, the former governor huffed, “ All lives matter.” The duo practicing the politics of disruption were not satisfied and reacted to O’Malley’s answer as if to say “Wrong!”

O’Malley, who has a strong record on civil rights, was profoundly perplexed. After all, you don’t need to be a logic professor to understand that “all lives matter” implies “black lives matter.” But despite his good intentions, maybe O’Malley in his puzzlement was missing something.

There is more to meaning than the p’s and q’s of logical implication. When O’Malley’s  inquisitors pressed, “Do black lives matter?” they were essentially asking: Do you fully acknowledge the unique injustices that have been and are being committed against African Americans?

Recall that from the late 19th century and into the 1950s, thousands of African Americans were lynched. Few, if any whites, served anytime for these grisly race murders. In their recent New York Times op-ed, “The Cold Cases of the Jim Crow Era,” Margaret Burnham and Margaret Russell note that even apart from the officially kept statistics on lynchings, “there were hundreds of blacks who were the victims of racial violence from 1930 to 1960” to which justice turned a blind eye. This week marked the sixtieth anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American who was tortured and murdered in Mississippi. When brought to trial, his killers were acquitted, even though they later admitted to the murder. Mississippian William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” It would be easy to fill pages with this type of statistic but as of 2001, one in six black men had been incarcerated. According to a 2013 Pew Research Poll, in 2010 black men were six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice informs us that the rate of fatal police killings for African Americans is 4.5 times that for other races.

For the young people interrupting O’Malley’s speech, the piety “all lives matter” dropped a few feet short of recognizing the dramatic inequities of current legal and law enforcement realities. While the laws of logic are universal, meaning is individual and has to be parsed.

For example, years ago my graduate advisor confided that more than forty of his Jewish relatives had been consumed in the flames of the Holocaust. I didn’t know exactly how to respond. If I had replied, “ Yes, there have been many such acts of genocide throughout history,” I would have been correct, yet I would have demonstrated insensitivity to the personal and communal catastrophe to which my mentor was trying to give voice.

Execrable as it is, the N word means one thing coming from one person and another coming from someone else. In some mouths, though not O’Malley’s,  “All lives matter” would be an acceptable response to, “Do black lives matter?”  I suspect that if pressed, the Martin Luther King of 1967, the man who was protesting the Vietnam War and fighting the war on poverty, would have echoed O’Malley’s “all lives matter.” Indeed, President Obama has been given to affirming just that.

Then, how could the same words be right from King or Obama and wrong from O’Malley? Again, words carry different resonances depending upon who utters them.

Perhaps the license to answer “all lives matters” would come with having endured being constantly treated as though your life mattered less than a white person’s. Martin Luther King and President Obama have been the objects of looks and patterns of behaviors that shout this twisted sense of priorities.

There are many Americans of all hues who believe that the ire of Black Lives Matter ought to be directed toward, or at least include, the plague of black-on-black crime.  Maybe so. But for many, prayerfully intoning “all lives matter” is an oblique way of muting the hard truths of Katrina, Ferguson, Waller County Texas, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Charleston. It’s a way of dismissing the special burdens that African Americans have endured in the biased, harrowing machine of American justice.

* The original version of this post did not include this sentence, which was added as part of an update.

Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His “The Existentialist’s Survival Guide” will be published by HarperOne in April.  You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/GordonMarino.

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