This week, as I’m sure has been the case for many of you, the events of Ferguson have been constantly on my mind, as has been the rallying cry that has emerged from the pattern of killings of which it is a part: “Black lives matter.” A slogan that in any just society would be a tautology, I have turned it over in my mind: is it a plea? a cry of pain? a self-assertion? I have been thinking of it in comparison with two older slogans: “Black Power” and “Black is beautiful.” How does it differ, and do those differences teach us something about the present moment?
An almost reflexive interpretation might be one of simple declension: “Black lives matter” is surely the rearest of rear-guard positions one can imagine—petitioning for the right not to die prematurely, a mark of retreat from the larger hopes and assertive agendas of the Black Power and Black Arts movements. This reading would tend to see in “Black lives matter” a posture of acquiescence and desperation.
Yet we also live in an era in which the “right to life” itself has been politicized in increasingly aggressive forms, as in the anti-abortion movement, which has certainly shown that timidity need not be the tone of a claim that “x lives matter.” The crucial distinction, however, is of course the fact that in one case (the anti-abortion movement) the group protesting are doing so entirely on another’s behalf; the vast majority of those marching under signs of “Black lives matter” are speaking about themselves.
But I would say that there is something almost hyper-self-conscious—or perhaps better said, historicist—about the phrase, and I think that self-consciousness or that self-reflexivity is in large part the source of its power. “Black lives matter” intentionally evokes a narrative of decline, of backlash, of regression in the history of race relations in the US. It demands the reader or hearer justify to himself or herself why it is necessary to be saying this phrase at this time, and I believe it does so with the specter of history at its back. Why are things this horrific in 2014? What has been happening since the Civil Rights Amendment, since the War on Poverty, since Black Power that leaves us here, with the bare petition not to die prematurely? “Explain yourself,” is the phrase’s subliminal demand.
But “Black lives matter” is also a self-consciously biopolitical statement: it identifies the terrain (much as the anti-abortion movement does) of conflict as the state. What must be changed is the legal infrastructure which has created entire labyrinths of exceptions and special categories that routinely entrap black women and men. Racist attitudes—such as Darren Wilson’s utter dehumanization of Michael Brown, calling him a “demon” and referring to him as “it” in his testimony—are far from epiphenomenal, but it seems to me that the objective of the phrase “Black lives matter” is not, actually, to change white Americans’ perception of African-Americans, but to change what kind of justice they can appeal to which black Americans cannot. I read “Black lives matter” as saying that, if there is today a recrudescence of open racism in our society, then we should look directly to the legal system as its origin and enabler. The law must say that “Black lives matter,” not just individual people.