Social Justice Usage
Source: Black Lives Matter about page
#BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc. is a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.
We are expansive. We are a collective of liberators who believe in an inclusive and spacious movement. We also believe that in order to win and bring as many people with us along the way, we must move beyond the narrow nationalism that is all too prevalent in Black communities. We must ensure we are building a movement that brings all of us to the front.
We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.
We are working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.
We affirm our humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.
The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation.
New Discourses Commentary
Note well: This entry is meant to refer primarily to the phrase, idea, and slogan, “black lives matter,” not specifically to the movement of the same name, “Black Lives Matter,” though it will discuss the latter in light detail and the relationship between them.
As a phrase, “black lives matter” is a curiosity because it is simultaneously an obvious truth in the contemporary era (which therefore needn’t be said in any but a few contexts) and yet is made of exactly the same three words (usually capitalized) as mark a social movement and network of organizations that one might support or not. Thus, in saying the phrase, which no reasonable person today would deny, one seems to lend more than tacit support for both the social movement and the network of organizations. Normally, this might not be a significant problem because there should be little occasion to say the phrase at all, given that it is nearly universally accepted as obviously true, but the movement and organizations have made it their business to elicit this form of apparent support—and to lead people into genuine support—by testing them on whether or not they are willing to say the phrase. This is both disingenuous and manipulative, yet it is also extremely successful.
The proximate reason for the use of the phrase, which may have began as a hashtag in 2012, is in response to allegedly biased treatment of black people under our policing, criminal justice, and carceral prison systems (see also, abolitionism). It arose, in particular, following the death of the unarmed black teenager Treyvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, who defended himself successfully by claiming self-defense after what appears to have been his attempt to confront Martin in an act of vigilante neighborhood watch. As an affirmation, it arose alongside the now-common watchword “Woke,” in the context of “staying Woke [to systemic and institutional injustice].” The social movement, Black Lives Matter, arose in the following year out of this compelling narrative (again, which may not be truly reflective of life in America in the 2010s and beyond).
The claim at the heart of the phrase, “black lives matter,” is a claim that in a systemically racist society, or at least one with institutionally racist criminal justice systems in place, black lives don’t seem to matter as much as the lives of people of other races (see also, anti-Blackness), especially whites (and, perhaps, Asians—see also, model minority). It therefore presents itself as a call to allyship and solidarity with the oppression of black people who have to live their lives in an allegedly systemically racist society and system (see also, people of color and BIPOC). It is important to note that this use of the phrase proceeds upon the erroneous beliefs that other lives than black ones already and always will matter by default and therefore that black lives “mattering” by the definitions of the activists would imply that all lives matter by extension. It therefore disingenuously elides the fact that it is possible to make black lives “matter” at the expense of the lives of members of other races, which seems to be a recurring problem that arises around the phrase and related social movement (e.g., bullying a North Korean refugee for saying that she was glad North Korean lives matter to people because that elevates North Korean lives in a way that takes the spotlight off black lives). This implied point about whose lives matter how much gets especially complicated for people in groups that are neither black nor white, though they are generally considered by those who support the movement, Black Lives Matter, and critical race Theory to be complicit in anti-Blackness in their own ways (see also, brown complicity, brown fragility, and brown privilege). This is how allyship and solidarity are conceived of within the movement—capital-B Black people (“politically Black” people) are placed at the top of the deference hierarchy (see also, identity, positionality, and Matrix of Domination).
The loose network of formal organizations arose in 2013 from within—and, arguably, co-opted—that social movement when three radical black feminists, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, began to organize around the phrase and make it productive for their style of neo-Marxist and (intersectional, queer, feminist) black liberationist identity politics. Obviously, choosing to support highly radical queer, black, feminist neo-Marxist identity politics is not necessarily implied by agreeing to the blatant truth that black lives do, in fact, matter (see also, Antifa). It is also worth noting that the Black Lives Matter UK organization recently applied for official non-profit status and, in so doing, had to change its name, choosing “Black Liberation Movement UK” for official purposes. “Black liberationism” is a technical name for a rather militant neo-Marxist approach to black identity politics (see also, liberation).
The movement and related organizations took off significantly in 2015 following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by the (white) police officer Darren Wilson. It bears remarking that the narrative employed by Black Lives Matter around this police killing, “hands up, don’t shoot,” is based virtually entirely on a falsehood claiming wrongly that Brown had his hands up in a compliant manner when Wilson shot him dead. In fact, Wilson was acquitted by his grand jury and two separate investigations, one by President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice soon after the grand jury aquittal and another in early 2020 by a Missouri politician who campaigned specifically on revisiting the case. The evidence clearly shows that Brown was attacking Wilson and attempting to take his gun, which resulted in his shooting. Most—if not all—of the “police brutality” narratives of Black Lives Matter (the social movement and formal organization(s)) follow this pattern: rather extreme mischaracterization of the events at hand followed by vigorous disruptive social activism that presumes its truth followed by relatively few people realizing the original narrative was false and misleading.
Brown’s death mainstreamed Black Lives Matter and, in many respects, many of the core claims and assumptions of critical race Theory throughout 2015 and 2016, when it disrupted Democratic political campaign activities, including a speech given by Democratic primary hopeful Bernie Sanders. Its fundamental claim was that America was systemically racist and that this could be seen most clearly in the American police, criminal justice, and penal systems (see also, abolitionism). That none of this was true was irrelevant as Black Lives Matter mainstreamed the idea that “lived experience” and “lived realities” are more important arbiters of “truth” than truth itself. These beliefs are central to the core assumption of critical race Theory that “counterstories” and narratives are more important than facts and truth where systemic racism (and other systemic oppression) is concerned. (This—stortytelling, counterstory, and narrative related in service to “politically Black” identity political goals should be forwarded over truth—is usually listed in the top five cornerstone assumptions of critical race Theory.)
The logic behind this positive statement of affirmation of the value of black lives is explicitly tied into the notions of both institutional racism (obviously) and also systemic racism, which is the contribution of critical race Theory to this analysis (see also, Social Justice). In both cases, a long history of American society undervaluing black people and black lives (see also, bodies), particularly where law enforcement has been concerned, creates a compelling narrative that black lives not only don’t matter as much as other lives in America but have never mattered as much as others (see also, 1619 Project). Of note, that this narrative is compelling does not imply that it is true, which is a point that shouldn’t get lost (see also, lived experience, reality, and realities). Thus, the local claim of “black lives matter” in response to a particular case or series of cases regarding the police and criminal justice systems and their interactions with black people in America is tied into a deeper claim about institutional and even systemic failures that allegedly reach right down into the very fabric of the liberal American system and require critical interrogation.
Critical race Theory is the dominant ideology behind the Black Lives Matter social movement, informs the network of Black Lives Matter organizations, and is infused into the otherwise innocuous phrase, “black lives matter,” in the lowercase. Critical race Theory fits into this role first because it arises from critical legal studies with the explicit aim of finding ways that American law disguises racism in new forms rather than overcoming it (see also, institutional racism, new racism, code, mask, dog whistle, interest convergence, progress, and progressive). It begins from the assumption that (systemic) racism is the ordinary state of affairs in society, not an aberration from them, and explicitly diverges, to paraphrase directly from the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (p. 3), from traditional approaches to civil rights by calling into question the liberal order, equality theory, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law (see also, science and objectivity). The Theory explicitly contends that because the system was not set up with complete black equality from the beginning, it is permanently corrupted by systemic racism that can only be removed by a complete reordering of society on critical race Theory’s terms (see also, revolution, disrupt, and dismantle).
Critical race Theory—thus the Black Lives Matter social movement, etc., as above—would hold that black lives do not fully matter in a system that was set up by white people for white people (white supremacy—see also, whiteness). It therefore views it an act of resistance against the unjust and nearly permanent power dynamics in play to assert that “black lives matter” (see also, strategic resistance). This is why the retort of “all lives matter,” which is also true and perhaps on balance ethically superior, is considered wholly unethical to people who have accepted the critical race Theoretical way of thinking. It is viewed as an assertion of cultural dominance meant to marginalize and exclude black lives yet again. Instead, the critical race ideology, thus Black Lives Matter movement, holds that “all lives will matter when black lives matter” (more or less by default—see also, solidarity). Again, this is based on the erroneous assumption that in the present system and therefore under its systems of power, other lives automatically and always matter more than black lives and always will, no matter how much black lives are believed to matter too. This surprisingly pessimistic view of black people and their lives follows from a central premise in critical race Theory that appears quite explicitly in founder Derrick Bell’s book Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, wherein he contends that anti-Blackness is so profound in American society that black people, and their lives, are permanently valued least of all in the existing system. (He wrote this book, if one can believe it, in 1992, which was not exactly a time wherein black success was rare in America.)
Because of the serendipitous co-optation of the “black lives matter” (lowercase, obvious truth) phrasing into the “Black Lives Matter” (uppercase, social movement and loose network of syndicated organizations with similar, if not common mission statements), it is difficult now to tease these meanings apart. Saying the phrase, “black lives matter,” nearly always will be interpreted at least as signalling support for the social movement, if not the organization(s). Refusing to support the movement or organization when asked or otherwise socially pressured—including by expectations of acknowledging posts on social media and in workplace funds drives—will tend to automatically signal rejection of the most defensible intention of the phrase, thus illegitimately implying those who don’t support the movement or organizations (for what are usually very good, very obvious reasons within a liberal society) also reject the notion that black lives do actually matter. In that regard, the phrase “black lives matter” is a language game and has to be considered as such. In fact, it is very little short of linguistic manipulation, and it should be viewed as highly unethical.
1619 Project; Abolitionism; Ally/Allyship; Anti-Blackness; Antifa; BIPOC; Black feminism; Black liberationism; Bodies; Brown complicity; Brown fragility; Brown privilege; Complicity; Critical; Critical legal studies; Critical race Theory; Code; Counterstory; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dog whistle; Dominance; Enlightenment; Equality; Exclusion; Feminism; Folks; Identity; Identity politics; Inclusion; Injustice; Institutional racism; Interest convergence; Interrogation; Intersectionality; Language game; Liberal; Liberation; Lived experience; Marginalization; Mask; Matrix of Domination; Model minority; Narrative; Neo-Marxism; New racism; Objectivity; Oppression; People of color; Positionality; Power (systemic); Progress; Progressive; Queer; Race; Racism (systemic); Radical; Realities; Reality; Resistance; Revolution; Science; Social Justice; Solidarity; Strategic resistance; System, the; Theory; Truth; White; White supremacy; Whiteness; Woke/Wokeness
Revision date: 11/14/20