Obama Acknowledges ‘All Lives Matter,’ Then Explains Why That’s Not the Point

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President Obama Hosts Panel On Criminal Justice Reform
President Obama hosts a panel on criminal-justice reform on October 22, 2015. Photo: Mark Wilson/2015 Getty Images

President Obama stood up for the Black Lives Matter movement on Thursday, defending it from critics who claim that it is divisive, hostile toward police, or racist against white people. Speaking at a White House forum on criminal-justice reform, Obama explained why those who retort “all lives matter” to the movement’s slogan are missing the point.

I think everybody understands all lives matter,” he said, but “there is a specific problem that is happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”

That issue, of course, is that African-Americans are stopped, frisked, harassed, brutalized, and killed by police at rates far higher than other racial groups — not to mention incarcerated en masse — an outcome that nothing other than systemic racism can adequately explain.

In his typically measured style, the president also offered some advice and criticism for activists organizing around this issue, urging them to back up their arguments with data rather than anecdotes, and to recognize that “the overwhelming majority of law enforcement is doing the right thing and wants to do the right thing.”

But he concluded his statement by emphasizing that “the African-American community is not just making this up. It’s not just something being politicized. It’s real, and there’s a history behind it. And we have to take it seriously.”

Obama has made criminal-justice reform a focal point of his remaining time in office, now that he has no more elections to win and can speak frankly about issues he used to tiptoe around. In July, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, where he spoke about the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws that can ruin the lives of nonviolent criminals, often picked up for petty drug crimes.

A sentencing reform bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, but despite a growing bipartisan consensus around the need for such changes, Congress probably won’t vote on a final bill before the end of the year.

That Obama felt the need to point out that the black community “isn’t making this up” is in itself a sad comment on how unwilling America is to cop to its problems with racism and police violence. But naturally, impugning Black Lives Matter has become a feature of Republican rhetoric in the silly season — right up there with Holocaust revisionism and pledges to criminalize Islam.

Just last week, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz accused Black Lives Matter activists of “literally suggesting and embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers.” That’s after his rival Ben Carson called the movement’s motto “sickening” and Donald Trump said they were “looking for trouble.”

Of course, to many in those audiences, Obama’s statement will only serve as further evidence that he is a dangerous racist who hates white people and especially cops, but hey, he can’t please everybody — and in this case, he definitely shouldn’t.