Why "Black Lives Matter" Because All Lives Don't Matter in America

The insistence that Black lives matter accordingly is necessary only because, unlike "all lives," in this society, black lives are too often taken not to matter. Black lives are presumed too readily in the U.S. not to inhabit the universal.
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Crowd of people.
Crowd of people.

"All lives matter" is a given, a truism, close to a cliché. It is easy to claim, as a consequence. No reasonable person would resist the generalization. Of course, pretty much everyone says, all lives--all human lives, that is--matter (though Cecil the Lion evidences that at least some non-human lives matter too, apparently sometimes more so than human lives).

"All lives matter" is a universal moral principle, a Kantian categorical imperative. Other things being equal, all lives matter, equally. Except when they don't. And they don't when other things are taken not to be equal. Like racial standing in a society such as ours.

The universalizing politics of "All lives matter" is one of racial dismissal, ignoring, and denial.

The insistence that Black lives matter accordingly is necessary only because, unlike "all lives," in this society, black lives are too often taken not to matter. Black lives are presumed too readily in the U.S. not to inhabit the universal.

They are considered too readily not (fully) to belong, indeed by some--Dylann Roof said it explicitly to the Charleston nine he murdered--not to belong at all. Black people are far too readily denied decent education and employment, stopped and frisked, apprehended, incarcerated, criminalized, animalized, killed.

Black lives in America are the objects of social suspicion as their constitutive condition, their very being. Blacks are presumed to be up to no good, to be no good. Black lives are flippantly extinguished, not least by cops, by state representatives, by law and order. For no good reason other than being ontologically suspected, the given objects of suspicion. It is necessary to insist that "Black lives matter," to shout it out loud, to organize around it because this society provides repeated proof--literally on a daily basis--that in the U.S., for it, for many, Blacks don't.

So "Black lives matter" is not a cliché, precisely because the truth it expresses is far from a given, precariously established, if at all. Its anti-truth is evidenced in the constitutively fraught everyday of Black lives: walking while black, driving while black, speaking "as" black, speaking b(l)ack, shopping while black, being at home while black, being black at school, black at the pool, black in the hands of police, black in prison. Just being black.

"Black lives matter," then, because black lives, today, here, in all these ways do not. Black lives matter because black people are as human as any human life acknowledged in the universalization that "all lives matter." In particular, black lives matter because of the labor black folk provided on which this country was founded, on whose enslaved suffering the great wealth of the nation was built. We are a better humanity because of the deep reflection and insight black intellectuals and artists have provided about what it means to survive in the face of repression, humiliation, and death, from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.

Black lives matter because of the exemplification of dignity in the face of its denial, of humanity in the face of humiliation. Black humanity matters because of the celebration of life in the face of suffering, and because of the extraordinary contribution to science, letters, culture and arts. And, black people matter because blacks have represented the country in the highest of ways while yet being maligned in the most malicious of ways. Black lives matter because the struggle for rights, justice, and full citizenship across the history of the U.S. has been America's struggle to fulfill itself, the rights achieved on black backs ultimately the rights of all.

Frantz Fanon famously contra-posed the notion of racialization--of being reduced to the racist characterizations--to being humanized. Black lives matter, in short, because black people continue to exemplify what it means to be human in the face of inhumanity and dehumanization, of living a human life against the constraints of "racialization," in the face of insistent institutional violence and (social) death.

"Black Lives Matter" is gathering steam as the compelling human and social rights movement of our time. The social movement is surfacing rampant subterranean police violence and discrimination toward black people, serving to hold police accountable for the stream of killings suffered by unarmed and innocent black men, women and children at the hands of officers and their surrogates, and challenging political leadership to realize the full rights of black people in the U.S.

Bill O'Reilly, that indefatigable self-proclaimed defender of black civil rights, has called the movement's leading organizers "loons" and called out the movement for "using Gestapo tactics." Conservative commentator John McWhorter, who has repeatedly declared racism in America a thing of the past, has likened the anti-racist movement to a "religious cult." Founded in 2013 following the George Zimmerman acquittal for the Trayvon Martin killing, "Black Lives Matter" clearly has moved from the margins to contest the mainstream. It has done so by a mix of street-wise protest and savvy social media use, legal challenge and advocacy, disrupting, shouting down, and pushing back.

The movement, today, that is "Black Lives Matter" is effectively working to advance the centuries-long struggles of black folk throughout their time in America, throughout American history. Taking its cue from the best of these struggles--from abolition to the Civil Rights Movement, from Martin and Malcolm, "Black Lives Matter" has already built global networks of moral and material support. In the realpolitik of a world in which white people are a shrinking minority, fully recognizing that black lives matter is as much a political as a moral imperative. This is no longer a world, if it ever was, one can militarize oneself out of, at home or abroad.

All this is not to say that the social movement that is "Black Lives Matter" has no shortcomings, is beyond criticism. Spokespeople for the movement have largely failed to link in their analysis the trials of black life in America to a critique of prevailing political economy that produces the structural conditions reproducing inequality for blacks. There are slippages on strategy, sometimes a lack of clarity on what is being demanded of political candidates as a result of BLM interventions, occasionally inconsistencies between various representatives. All of this may be put down to growing pains of a social movement the social media, distributed, and hierarchically flat landscape of which is in sharp contrast to that of the Civil Rights Movement.

Compelling social movements are struggles against entrenched structures and cultures of entitlement, self-protected privilege, and unquestioned institutional access on the part of the anointed to the exclusion of the unbelonging. Everyone is humanized, as a consequence, both by the work of "Black Lives Matter," the social movement, and especially as a result of actualizing the realization that black lives matter as much as those with full social standing. Establishing in full that black lives matter, as social ontology and civil rights commitment, in the final analysis makes for the sort of society we should be striving collectively to realize.

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