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Saying “Black lives matter”

As the political season in the United States heats up, it has become controversial in certain circles to say “Black Lives Matter.” A few (perhaps even many) object because they don’t believe that black lives matter equally. Most, however, it seems to me, are responding out of fundamental misunderstandings of what “Black Lives Matter” means in the USA in 2016. (I will set aside crude partisanship as an explanation that, to the extent that it is true, does not require further comment.)

No serious person seriously believes that what is being claimed is that only black lives matter. The complaint instead is that “Black Lives Matter” implies that black lives matter in a special or privileged way – or even more than other lives. “Black Lives Matter” is taken as a demand for or assertion of “special rights;” a denigration of the lives and rights of members of other groups; or both.

A few (perhaps even many) may be making such racist claims. Most, however, are instead advancing claims of equal value and rights. Black lives matter too – in exactly the same ways that all other human lives matter.

How do claims to equal rights come to be understood as claims for special rights? The answer, I want to suggest, again setting aside self-interested partisan misconstrual, is a failure to appreciate the character of rights. In particular, this (mis)understanding fails to appreciate when rights are claimed (actively asserted) – and when they aren’t.

When a right is secure, a right-holder simply enjoys her right, without any need to claim it (and usually without even a thought as to making such a claim). We claim rights – we say “I have a right to that” – only when those rights are challenged, threatened, or violated. And we do so to demand, as we are entitled to demand, that our rights be respected and protected. As philosophers of language put it, claims of rights are “performative” (rather than descriptive). They aim to make things happen (rather than describe the world).

Do rich lives matter? Of course they do. But no one would say that unless the lives of rich people were being systematically threatened – which certainly is not the case in contemporary America. Although the description is accurate, the performance – saying “Rich Lives Matter” – would be, at best, oddly out of place.

Do white lives matter? Or course they do. But there is no reason or occasion to say that – unless one believes, against all the evidence, that “the white race” is under attack.

Consider, however, the sorry string of well-publicized killings of black men, women, and children at the hands of uniformed public officials; the fact that the names that we do know are only the tip of the iceberg; the obscene murder rates in many urban black communities; and the poverty, unemployment, and infant mortality rates of black Americans. These and similar appalling facts provide a powerful reason to say “Black Lives Matter.” And that reason is to try to better protect the equal rights of black Americans.

Do blue lives matter? Of course they do. And recently there have, sadly, been multiple occasions to say so.

Protest Black Lives Matter Sign Protestor by BruceEmmerling. Public domain via Pixabay.

“Blue Live Matter” and “Black Lives Matter,” however, are not competing claims, as some partisan demagogues have suggested. Quite the contrary, they are closely comparable appeals, in the face of unquestionable tragedies, to protect people who have been targeted simply because they are members of a particular group. If we define hate crimes as crimes motivated by the victim’s membership in a group, both “Blue Live Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” are appropriate, even necessary, protests against (and appeals for protection from) hate crimes.

Such claims by members of hated groups are not demands for special rights. They are assertions of rights that we all have, equally. The only thing “special” is the invidious discrimination that forces these victims to claim their rights. And the ultimate objective of such claims is to change policies and practices so that members of these groups no longer have a special need to make such claims; that is, to realize a world in which members of all groups are equally able to enjoy all of their rights.

“Blue Lives Matter” is a claim for restorative justice: to restore a situation in which the lives of men and women in blue are not threatened simply because of the honorable career that they have chosen. It is not a demand for special rights but an assertion of equal rights. And all defenders of the equal rights of all should both endorse this claim and lament the fact that it needs to be made in the United States of America in 2016.

Similarly, though, “Black Lives Matter” is, at the very least, a claim for restorative justice. (Many see it as a rights-based call for – finally! – establishing the real, full, and practical equality of black men, women, and children.) Rather than demanding special rights, it demands (nothing more, but nothing less, than) the equal protection of equal rights. And all defenders of the equal rights of all – all those who truly believe that all lives matter, equally – should both endorse this claim and lament the fact that today, as in generations past, it still needs to be made in the United States of America.

Precisely because all lives matter, equally, it is important that we say, here and now, “Black Lives Matter.”

Although I have stressed similarities, the differences between these groups are also striking. Race is not an occupational choice. Black skin cannot be taken off at the end of one’s work day. Blacks have been targeted for centuries, systematically, in the economy, in society, and by the state. Furthermore, although progress continues to be made in reducing discrimination, unconscious racial bias remains a serious problem – as even police training programs are increasingly recognizing. In other words, the case for saying “Black Lives Matter” is especially pressing and compelling.

Featured image credit: Protest Black Lives Matter Penn Station by BruceEmmerling. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Carlington Reese

    Thanks for the thoughtful, well articulated defense of the BLM movement. The initial call to action of the movement certainly sheds light on the inequities of law enforcement in black communities. On the other hand, there is a very legitimate criticism of the movement’s growth and focus that we need to discuss, not to squash the ideas that it brings to the table, but to help the movement and its leaders more effectively solve the problems set before it. Unfortunately, critics are almost always handed the racist label, which ends the conversation and what could be a valuable contribution to the BLM idea.

    I think that you get to the heart of the BLM’s focus, but it’s important to point out that the organization itself has lost its focus and has somehow morphed into an umbrella for left leaning political goals, such as in this post to their website: http://blacklivesmatter.com/solidarity-with-standing-rock/

    I addition, there an “About Us” menu item that replaces “History” with “Herstory”. That title and the story told on that page reveals a purpose that is seriously fragmented into every inequity experienced by “race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality and disability.”

    I would love a world where police were trained well on de-escalating situations that could lead to violence and why not advocate for criminal trials to be conducted in a space where the defendant’s racial identity and everything that could give it away were concealed from those who were tasked with judging and sentencing. Orchestra’s did the same thing for their auditions and now we have women playing music alongside men.

    There are concrete things that BLM could advocate for to achieve or at least make progress on its purpose, but we don’t see that. What we see is a regressive movement that frames black people in a state of perpetual victimhood maintained exclusively by white supremacy. What about the fact that all deaths among black males of ages of 15 and 34 are the result of homicides? http://www.cdc.gov/men/lcod/2013/blackmales2013.pdf

    If we want to save black lives then why not start there?

    There are measurable actions we can take to save black lives and lift them out of the shadows, but let’s have some leadership and listen to the criticism, because I believe that lots of the movements critics aren’t racist, white supremacist or dare I say republicans, but they are people who fervently wish to see black lives saved and treated fairly.

  2. pulse

    Black Fathers Matter.

  3. Terrell Carver

    Another OUP book, Karen Zivi’s Making Rights Claims (2011), explains this similarly.

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