The Meaning of "Black Lives Matter"

I wonder why so many people are incensed by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Or to be precise, why so many white people are angered by the protest -- even those who were sympathetic to the traditional civil rights movement. The addition of the word "white" before people is part of my point. Words matter, especially with sensitivities over race, and it is common for people, not limited to white people, to use the word "people" to refer to white people in particular.

That issue, the distinction between the universal and the particular, is what critics have emphasized. They demand that the BLM activists revise their phrasing. They insist that all lives should matter. They believe the semantics are not subtle.

I am skeptical that the assertion "Black Lives Matter" is intended to imply other lives don't. It could be understood as one of a series of similar declarations. Each ethnic group no doubt believes its members matter. But intent and what is implied also are crucial. There is a reversal here: usually it is non-blacks who resist inquiries into intent and inferences about coded meanings.

I offer another interpretation. The troubling feature of BLM is not that it refers to Blacks, whether to the exclusion of others. It is, instead, that BLM points out our shared failure to live up to our ideals and the undeniable persistence of racial disparities. People of all backgrounds are infuriated more by the observation that they are hypocrites than they are by a direct challenge on their principles.

My reading of "Black Lives Matter" is about another distinction, the difference between descriptive and normative. The former category of statements describe the world as it is. The latter set imagines the world as it should be. The failure to distinguish between them is the source of much confusion, in ordinary conversation, academic research, and political debate.

I hear "Black Lives Matter" as setting forth two separate but related sentiments. The first is universal and normative: all lives matter, and our diverse democracy (indeed, any civilization worthy of the designation) accepts that as an ideal. The second is particular and descriptive: the treatment of Black people, as evidenced by individual cases and overwhelming statistics, indicates in actuality they are treated as less than equal.

That is what makes folks mad, black and white. Blacks are angry about the killings. Whites are angry that they are compelled to confront the phenomenon. Framed in that manner, feelings that may be similar have origins that are not the same at all.

I am not black. I'm not white either. That doesn't provide me any privilege in addressing the American dilemma. But it does mean I navigate the color line on a daily basis.

More importantly, I am a student of rhetoric. I have an abiding belief that anyone who practices law must have: language can be used for positive social change. Our grammar, vocabulary and diction of race is not so much literal as it is figurative, metaphorical, symbolic. What we say is only as important as how it is said -- and by whom.

When Gunnar Myrdal (an outsider, coming from Sweden) and a team of social scientists produced a comprehensive study of race, their title The American Dilemma was about the dichotomy between our principles and our practices. In other words, it was about the normative exceeding the descriptive. Many more were hostile to desegregation than would like now to recall. Yet we have made tangible progress.

I continue to have hope. I propose a compromise. All of us might agree. According to what we say, we already do agree. On the one hand, all lives matter; on the other hand, there is a problem of violence toward Blacks.

Making good on abstract ideals requires starting at concrete realities.