Editorial: Toward a day when black lives really do matter in US

Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2014

What’s in a hashtag? When it comes to the current furor over the killing of black men by police officers, the answer is nothing less than the history of racial violence in America and our failure to create a justice system — and a society — in which “all lives matter.”

Smith College President Kathleen McCartney learned how explosive those three words can be when she used them to conclude an email to Smith students, faculty and staff members on Friday. “The failure of grand juries in Missouri and New York to indict two police officers for their use of excessive force, resulting in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, has led to a shared fury — and a deep sorrow,” she wrote to Smith students, faculty and staff.

McCartney pledged to support and expand the college’s efforts to join the push for justice, ending with this sentence: “We are united in our insistence that all lives matter.”

While intended as a statement of solidarity with those who have taken to the streets to voice anger and frustration, McCartney’s email drew protests of its own. Students pointed out to her that on the Internet — the 21st century’s public square — the “#AllLivesMatter” hashtag had been used by some to undercut the power of a campaign featuring another hashtag: “#BlackLivesMatter.”

Six hours after sending her initial email, McCartney sent another in which she said, “I regret that I was unaware the phrase/hashtag ‘all lives matter’ has been used by some to draw attention away from the focus on institutional violence against Black people.” She quoted messages that she had received from Smith community members, including one in which a student wrote: “Yes, it is very true that all lives matter, but it’s not the value of all lives that are being questioned. Social media has taken to the hashtag blacklivesmatter because it is black lives that seem to be undervalued.”

The student is right. African-American men aged 20 to 24 are six times more likely to be killed by police than an average American, according to an analysis of police shootings from 1999-2011 by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The recent police killings of Brown, Garner and a 12-year-old black child wielding a toy gun in Cleveland show that the pattern has yet to be reversed.

McCartney displayed leadership by embracing the struggle for racial justice and pledging to help Smith do its part. After students correctly pointed out the unintended import of her word choice, she took responsibility and amended her message. But then came a final sentence that at least some might interpret as an apology: “I am committed to working as a white ally, to learning from the lived experiences of people of color, and to acknowledging mistakes, despite my best intentions.”

Yes, McCartney’s use of the words “all lives matter” failed to take into account the destructive role its Internet hashtag has come to play. But in the end, we hope her original words will end up being seen not as a mistake, but as the opportunity for an important — and nuanced — conversation.

In fairness to McCartney, anyone who’s tried to keep up with Internet memes while leading a busy life can empathize with the college president’s unawareness of the “#AllLivesMatter” controversy now raging online. Once she became aware, she appropriately distanced herself from those who would use those words to deny the undeniable reality of police discrimination.

Having acknowledged that reality, McCartney — and the rest of us — can now reflect on an additional point: that the overarching goal of the current struggle should be to move beyond a time when protesters need to use “#BlackLivesMatter” to counter a system in which black lives too often don’t. While the “all lives matter” hashtag is a counterproductive force in today’s debate, the words themselves should represent our nation’s fervent hope.


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