Black Lives Matter


When the minister called for a sharing of joys and concerns, a man asked for the families of the slain New York City police officers to be included in the ensuing prayer, and he completed his request with the declaration, “All lives matter.” The man requesting the prayer is black.

If I, being white (as we say, although I’m not really quite that pale), had made the same request and concluded it with the same declaration, would the same meaning have been conveyed? Or might identical words from my mouth have sounded, rather, like a spiteful counter to the declaration made in protest, “Black lives matter”?

All speech is uttered in context, and the context always makes a difference in the meaning, often a great difference. One trick of speech is using a general statement to weaken and almost contradict a specific statement it pretends to cover. For example, when an elected official has been caught in some sort of crooked behavior, many will quickly dismiss concern over the matter by declaring that all politicians are crooked. The generalization is used, not to heighten concern over the official’s behavior or call for change, but to dismiss the flagrant offense as insignificant and certainly not worth prosecuting or even reprimanding. So it is that the worst are excused by the widely accepted generalization, and the state of our nation worsens as crooked behavior goes unquestioned and uncorrected.

Black lives have been an exception.

In protest against the centuries long devaluation of the lives of dark-skinned people and the most recent slayings of black men by police officers, people have put before us the declaration that “black lives matter.” Why single out black lives rather than declare that “all lives matter”?

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