Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?
That’s a question left hanging disturbingly in the air after Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential contender, spoke at a Florissant, Mo., church on Tuesday. She made news by joining the call for removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, and for her sensitive and resonant reflection on the slaughter of nine innocent black souls in a historic Charleston, S.C., church: “Let us be resolved to make sure they did not die in vain — not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.”
But Clinton pushed some other buttons in a way that bears further examination.
The site of Clinton’s speech, of course, is just down the road from Ferguson, where the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer erupted into street protests and launched a movement, linked by a Twitter hashtag, #blacklivesmatter.
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That movement led to a backlash, especially among those who challenged what appeared to be a populist rush to judgment and who feared that white police officers don’t get enough respect for putting themselves in harm’s way. Thus: #alllivesmatter.
Here’s the problem. Many people might assume that “all lives” includes “black lives.” But if you’re African American or have a real understanding of the course of America’s shameful racial history, you know that for far too long and far too often “black lives” do not fully fit within the Venn diagram of “all lives.” The hashtag #blacklivesmatter is meant to emphasize this point. It’s not meant to suggest that other people’s lives don’t matter. It’s a cry of civil rights. It’s a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” It’s a voice to stand up against the ache that blows in the wind among those Confederate flags.
So when Hillary Clinton faced a congregation of Florissant churchgoers, her intention was to talk frankly and smartly about race in the age of Ferguson, the era of Charleston and the nagging American struggle of identity.
“I know this is a difficult topic to talk about,” she said. “I know that so many of us hoped by electing our first black president, we had turned the page on this chapter in our history. I know there are truths we do not like to say out loud or discuss with our children. But we have to.”
So far so good. Then she made it personal.
“We should start by giving all of our children the tools and opportunities to overcome legacies of discrimination to live up to their own God-given potentials,” Clinton said. “I just saw some of the young people attending camp here at church down in the basement. And I was thrilled to see that because that is the kind of commitment we need more of, in every church, in every place, until every child is reached. And I hope we can take that as a cause for action.
“I learned this not from politics but from my mother who taught me that everybody, everybody needs a chance and a champion. She knew what it was like to have neither one. Her own parents abandoned her. By 14, she was out on her own working as a house maid. Years later when I was old enough to understand, I asked her. What kept you going? Her answer was very simple. Kindness along the way from someone who believed she mattered. All lives matter.”
There was faint applause. Then a Twitter storm. Clinton had stepped in it big time. (“All lives matter? Hillary...sit down now. You're embarrassing us” — this was one of the milder tweets by offended African Americans who weighed in.)
You would think that Clinton and her speech writers would have known how to parse the language of the moment. You would think they would have it down by now, this far into her second campaign for the presidency. But a nagging truth about Clinton lingers. She can come off as tone deaf. It’s a sign of inauthenticity. And she needs to get a handle on it. A fleet-footed politician would have recovered instantly and voiced what the mostly African American audience before her would have expected to hear: Of course, black lives matter.
Words do matter. All words matter, even when it seems like, in the age of Twitter, words hardly matter any more at all.
When President Barack Obama voiced the N-word the other day, he knew exactly what he was doing and it was highly effective.
The conversation on race must continue. And it needs to take place in an atmosphere of respect and at decibel levels conducive to conversation. And people need to listen to one another and understand the meaning of their words and the meaning behind their words.
In a time of instant response, politicians are swiftly pilloried for slips of the tongue and rhetorical missteps. I know I can be guilty of hastily penning (old technology) the wrong word at the wrong time. But we expect more of those who would be our president. And in the minefield of racial politics, we can all agree that there is much work left to do, and many more lessons to learn.
Steve Paul, editorial page editor: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter: @sbpaul.