Richmond, California, Police Chief Chris Magnus attending a rally in 2014.
It's a philosophical controversy at the heart of the American experiment, running back to the foundations of Christian theology and, before that, Jewish identity. Christian theologians have called it the Scandal of Particularity; liberation theologians call it the Preferential Option. I can put it in a non-religious frame of reference by calling it Focus. What it comes down to is simply this: In the grand scheme of things, does one life matter?
How about you?
How about your partner, your parent, your child?
Black Lives Matter is a movement founded in the need to translate generalisms into particulars. White American people have been callously killing Black men for centuries. Until the 1960s, hardly any of these murders were prosecuted. The reason: Black lives didn't matter. Collectively, persons of color were given little or no value by the dominant culture. That began to change with the Civil Rights Era, but as recently as 2014, the ongoing frequency of Black deaths from police encounters was met by politicians with shrugs and, at most, hand-wringing. Even in the most questionable of these incidents, police were rarely disciplined, let alone prosecuted. Each death was just another grain of sand in the centuries-wide beach of racial injustice.
It took a technological revolution, growing out of superficial self-satisfaction, to change all that. When every phone is also a video camera, connected to a global social network, anyone can be a crime reporter. Police shootings are now routinely recorded and broadcast by multiple bystanders, and there can be no question but that young Black men are being treated by police far more harshly, and at far greater risk to their well-being and even lives, than their white counterparts. Seizing on this growing awareness, Black Lives Matter has been publicizing individual tragedies, protesting in communities with a history of police abuse.
This makes many white people uncomfortable. It's unpleasant to be reminded of the crimes of our ancestors, some of whom are still alive and present at Thanksgiving dinners. It's even more unpleasant to realize that the feelings and attitudes that give birth to such atrocities still linger within our own privileged psyches.
How to assuage or, better still, dismiss the guilt? How to avoid self-identification as an oppressor, a racist, a genocide apologist? There's no better balm to the pain of particularity than generalization. Conservatives are quick to respond to "Black lives matter" with "All lives matter," as if pointing out generations of abuse is offensive. It's not unusual for Black Lives Matter demonstrations to face counter-demonstrators waving "All Lives Matter" signs.
Another balm to the guilt is dilution, taking the worthwhile concerns raised by Black Lives Matter protesters and insisting they be applied to other causes:
As a liberal, I have a lot of sympathy for this approach. Marginalized Americans abound, and the one thing they all have in common is the source of their oppression: people who look like me. The more of these causes I bring into my wheelhouse, the less chagrined I feel about my cohort's responsibility for any one of them. I can just put it all down to general white straight Protestant male guilt, resolve to be excellent to everyone, and leave it at that. It's the liberal version of "thoughts and prayers."
In fact, it's the particularity of Black Lives Matter that makes the movement relevant, and gives me hope that it can start to turn things around. It's impolite, it's dissonant, it's even rude and in my face, it's tired of being ignored, and it's not going to shut up until I do something about it. Most of all, it's particular in ways that no previous movement for social change could be. Recording abuses and broadcasting them to the world personalize every incident, giving faces and names and stories to the persecuted, giving the rest of us a sense of how many of them there are, how big a problem this really is, and how frustrating it must be that it's still happening fifty years after the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.
Particulars matter. Individuals matter. Black lives matter to America because they built this nation, and did so in chains. For hundreds of years, Black lives were private property. 150 years after the abolition of that system, those Black lives continue to face obstacles unique to them, and their story is intricately woven into the identity of every American. Who I am, what I am, what I am able to do, all of it I have thanks to the involuntary sacrifice of countless Black slaves. That they continue to pay for the misdeeds of my ancestors is an abomination. That white Americans begrudge them their anger over this inequity is obscene. That any of us would try to subsume their suffering into a blanket platitude like "all lives matter" is execrable.
Our national conscience will not be eased until we have heard these very particular cries for justice and answered them. Our guilt will not be assuaged until every one of us is acting, every day, as if every life truly matters, starting with those who most need it. Black lives need a particular kind of justice, a justice that atones for the sins of our forebears, that makes reparations to the descendants of the enslaved who are still suffering for those sins, a justice that affirmatively corrects hundreds of years of imbalance with favored treatment in all the institutions that once banned them from participation, and which continue to treat them unfairly.
You may be wondering if there will ever come a time when we can say that all lives matter without offending the people whose life experience contradicted that sentiment. You won't get an answer from me. I rather think it's up to the oppressed to tell us when they finally feel like the scales have been balanced, that we as a nation are genuinely living the ideal voiced at our founding, that all of us are created equal and are endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I know we're not there yet, and so I'm not going to pretend we are. Surrendering that conscience-soothing sentiment is the very least I can do to start tipping the scales.