“All lives matter”

In the United States of America, abstract liberal universalism is objectively pro-white. For instance, take the all-too-common white response to the slogan “black lives matter” — “all lives matter.” Yes, to me all lives matter. To God or nature, all lives matter. But all lives manifestly do not matter to the American law enforcement apparatus. The life of a white cop matters so much more than the life of a black person that the system is willing to let the white cop kill a black person with impunity so long as they claim to have perceived even the vaguest threat. In the face of that, the empty generality “all lives matter” is actively obscuring what is in fact going on.

Similar is the liberal “hypocrisy attack” against the Ferguson PD’s calls for peace while they were clearly planning on committing violence. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think? Well, here’s a news flash: the powerful always define peace as the status quo that empowers them. They regard their power as stemming from the natural order of things, so that any challenge to that power is a violation of that order — hence protestors we recognize as not engaged in any significant literal violence can appear to the powers as “violent.” Meanwhile, for the oppressed, the day-to-day reality of the status quo is the real violence. The implicit claim of the hypocrisy attack is that there is some neutral concept of “peace” that both sides can abide by. There is not. The battle is, in part, over the very meaning of peace and violence.

Another popular hypocrisy attack is that the police are using violence against blacks when they should be “protecting” them. The police in America — the nation that imported slaves, that was founded by giving huge concessions to the slaveholders, that persisted with enforcing laws related to slavery for nearly a hundred years and only gave it up after the most destructive war in human history up to that point, and that then embarked on a centuries-long campaign of legal discrimination and extra-legal terrorism against blacks, and that responded to the modest gains of the civil rights movement with a campaign of ghettoization and criminalization — do not exist to protect black people. They exist to protect white people from black people. The criminalization of black people is not some accidental product of outdated prejudice, but the absolute core of the police’s strategy to maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of the white majority.

That criminalization is figurative, in the sense of constantly portraying every black person as a potential criminal to be feared. It is also all too literal, in the form of systematically subjecting black men in particular to the prison system at a disproportionate rate and a very young age, when it is known for a fact that contact with the prison system increases rates of criminality — not to mention de facto segregation that traps many black people in an environment of greater criminality while depriving them of any other meaningful life alternatives.

Another popular formalism at this point is the invocation of “free choice.” Weirdly, however, this concept is never deployed equally with regard to the oppressors and the oppressed. The oppressors constantly have no choice, and that is what legitimates their actions, however regretable. The oppressed, by contrast, “had a choice,” and hence are blameworthy. In the last analysis, whatever they “choose” to do renders them culpable — as in the incoherent claims that Michael Brown would be alive today if he had not “chosen” to run away from the police officer who was shooting at him for no apparent reason. The only legitimate “choice” is absolute submission. Anything else disrupts the natural order of things and is hence violent, hence a threat, hence a candidate for a tragic-but-not-criminal response.

White people need to recognize that their feeling of safety and security, their sense that the police are “on their side,” requires entrapping blacks in a claustrophobic dystopia from which only the most fortunate and remarkable individuals can extricate themselves. Yet not completely — as Henry Louis Gates saw, even reaching the pinnacle of the nation’s intellectual elite at Harvard doesn’t save you from being viewed as a presumptive criminal. And as a final insult, when a black person does penetrate into the elite, many whites instinctively regard them as a coddled “affirmative action” case, definitionally displacing a “more qualified” white person.

In Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio’s repulsive slaveholder character asks, “Why don’t they kill us?” Tellingly, he doesn’t ask why he enslaves them — that’s taken for granted. If I could venture an answer to his mostly self-serving question, however, it is that blacks have intimate knowledge of what a political settlement based on violence looks like, because they live it every day. Whites like to claim that whoever’s in charge would be just as bad as them, but that just naturalizes their own violence. And let’s look at the evidence: even in the very worst cases, have any post-colonial regimes committed crimes against whites that even approach the level of gratuitous horror that whites have imposed on indigenous peoples throughout the world? Do leaders like Malcolm X and movements like the Black Panthers really measure up to Richard Nixon or the KKK?

They don’t kill us because — regardless of their individual failings — they’re better than us. The black community in America is on the side of justice, objectively. They’ve seen what evil looks like on a systematic level by living in the machine we’ve built around them, and overwhelmingly, they reject it as a model. Hence at the time that the white community had produced the “best and brightest,” the architects of the Vietnam War, the black community produced Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. At the time of the Civil War, when even the most liberal whites were still racist and viewed the abolition of slavery as the end-all of justice, the black community produced Frederick Douglass, who could see beyond his own immediate struggle to advocate for women’s rights.

The real question is why we kill them. And the answer, at the end of the day, is that they represent a standing accusation against us. Their survival against all odds reminds us that even the most powerful human power reaches its limit and cannot fully extinguish the call for justice. We kill them because they are the truth of America, and we hate the truth.

Posted in race. 16 Comments »

16 Responses to ““All lives matter””

  1. Hill Says:

    I found this very powerful.

  2. ben Says:

    I’m not sure I understand the common thread (if there’s supposed to be a common thread) to the examples leading the post off: to say “but all lives matter!” is a namby-pamby point-missing response to black activists that has the effect of attempting to shut them up (point-missing in part because if you really thought all lives mattered, you would think black lives mattered, and if you thought black lives mattered, you’d probably think there was more important stuff to be done than tut-tut that someone’s rhetoric wasn’t inclusive enough (especially when it includes what’s actually relevant!). (Blather about “choice” is just an apologia for murder, as far as I can tell, in this context.) But to say that the Ferguson PD are hypocrites is at least to attempt to support black activists, is something that black activists themselves have said (e.g. on twitter), and isn’t even necessarily bad strategy—pointing out the gap between the ideals the powerful supposedly uphold and the actions they actually take can be effective in narrowing the gap. (Obviously this is not a sure-fire thing, especially not by itself.) Or: to say “black lives matter” is in part to point out a gap between an ethical truth (that black lives do matter) and a practical state of affairs (that in practice they don’t, not as much as white lives). And it seems to me that the hypocrisy attacks are doing, or attempting to do, something similar to that, not something similar to “but all lives matter!”, to press the claim that the police should “serve and protect” all, not act as private enforcers for some. Perhaps it is, as you suggest, no surprise that the police in fact act as private enforcers for some, but that isn’t the point. (Someone who thought it wasn’t surprising that the police act as they do would also be well positioned to say something like: “but it’s no surprise that black lives don’t matter, is it?”. Which is also epic point-missing.)

  3. David Says:

    Thank you for calling the lie on the “all lives matter” bullshit. As every white person knows, but won’t readily acknowledge, they don’t. I would suggest that white people keep black people alive (as a group, not individuals, obviously) to continue the supposed threat and perpetuate the need to keep those in power in power. White people are willing to keep black people alive as long as they stay in their place and don’t protest. (Protest = looting = bad for white-owned businesses.)

    I am not expressing my view of the way things should be, of course. Just echoing your take on the state of affairs, which is both spot on and distressing.

  4. Clifford Owen Smith (@sanzarispetto) Says:

    This post, This post right here.

    That’s all I can say.

  5. Kim Fabricius Says:

    An occasion where “awesome” is not just an inane skinny-jean response. Thanks.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Ben, I suppose it’s a strategic question. I understand the benefits of hypocrisy attacks and have come out repeatedly as an advocate of hypocrisy over naked evil. This is a situation where I believe hypocrisy attacks to be an inadequately harsh response. If black activists disagree with me, I’m doing nothing to stop them from using the strategy they prefer.

  7. mwerntz Says:

    Holy smokes–thanks, Adam.

  8. Ben Says:

    Thanks Adam for the post generally, but also for the specific considerations of various rhetorical ploys racists use to justify Wilson’s crime and the state’s (non)response to that crime. Your counterarguments are succinct and shall be useful for me–and hopefully others–in the future.

  9. David U. B. Liu Says:

    Your brilliant point on “free choice” not withstanding, what this beautifully impassioned analysis will doubtless invite from a white universalist perspective is the hackneyed objection, “but surely you are stereotyping people. There are good and bad white people just as there are good and bad black people. You can’t just generalize like this. You have to judge each case by the specific without prejudice.” This “liberal” view is in turn based on the assumption that moral reality and discourse can ONLY operate at the individual level, and that it’s the individual choice that matters most (forget Althusser and Foucault – and even Girard). So from the outset it discounts institutional and structural inequalities and violence, no matter how many statistics you throw at its “liberal” exponents (which includes most self-identified liberals as well as conservatives in this country). This sort of white individualist apologetics effectively erases history and its persistent effects and permutations, and thus acquits (out of a collective false consciousness) any white actors of any prejudicial disposition while giving every credence to THEIR perceived sense of threat from non-whites (mostly blacks of course) – the threat is always “real” (and yes, the exceptions also prove the rule, both mythically and juridically) but only in this direction, not the other way around. That being the case, the “self-defense” plea is just about always valid for whites – hence also the necessity to protect oneself with firearms, etc. etc., as long as there are blacks around. This is also why, by the way, the NRA platform is not only liberal capitalism run amok; it is inherently racist.

  10. Philippe Says:

    “All lives matter” is a pious statement. It is reminiscent of what Balzac once wrote regarding “equality”: “Equality may be a right, but no power on earth can convert it into fact.” Agamben has clearly shown how “human rights” actually work as an instrument control in the sovereign government of life. As Adam suggests in his text, the claim for “human rights” –as liberal as it may be– actually reinforce the legal framework in which life is captured and managed.

    Can Agamben’s work help us understand the problem at hand here or does it show its limit when it comes to issues of race and colonialism? For example, instead of “all lives”, what would it entail to think of “whatever life”? Is the “black life” the life that can be taken without committing a murder? From the framework of biopolitics, how does the idea of “unqualified life” (Aristotle’s “to on haplos”) apply to this situation?

  11. witchsistah Says:

    I’m glad to see white people can entertain themselves with interesting thought experiments and games while Black people die in the streets. Glad our pain could be of service to you…yet again.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m sorry the article came across in that way to you. If you’re willing to engage further, what in particular made it seem like that? My intention was not to engage in intellectual games at black people’s expense, and you are the first to read it in that way.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t see how the article you linked is significantly different from mine, such that it would be obviously preferable and teach me a lesson about how to engage with these problems.

  14. witchsistah Says:

    It wasn’t the article. It was the comments. A lot of discussing shit folks learned in Western Sociological Theory class. Meanwhile Black people are dying in REAL LIFE and in REAL TIME, and yet again, White people use our suffering 1) to focus on THEMSELVES and 2) as entertainment. I mean, it’s like you all REALLY can’t stop yourselves from this narcissistic, sociopathic, utter lack of empathy towards Black people. It’s like it’s really not in your natures.


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