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POTUS Town Hall

President Obama clarifies his definition of ‘Black Lives Matter’

‘It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter.’

“Black Lives Matter.” President Barack Obama issued an important clarification about the phrase on Thursday afternoon during a town hall hosted by ABC News anchor David Muir.

Almost as quickly as the chant began to ring out among protesters after a grand jury failed to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, and spread through the internet, the rallying cry has been met with the response, “All Lives Matter.” The debate over the meaning of Black Lives Matter is part of a now-familiar cycle that crops up every time a black person being killed by police hits the national news. Most recently, singer/actress Jennifer Lopez was condemned for tweeting a picture of herself with Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda and captioning it, “All Lives Matter.” A letter that Whittier Law School professor Patricia Leary wrote in response to a group of “concerned students” who chided her for wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt went viral.

Here’s what Obama had to say about the phrase and its meaning:

“I know that there’s some who have criticized even the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ as if the notion is as if other lives don’t matter. We get ‘All Lives Matter’ or ‘Blue Lives Matter.’ I understand the point they’re trying to make. I think it’s also important for us to understand that the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African-Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability and so we shouldn’t get too caught up somehow in this notion that people who are asking for fair treatment are somehow automatically anti-police or trying to only look out for black lives as opposed to others. I think we have to be careful about playing that game because, obviously, that’s not what is intended.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.