White House spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that “all lives matter” when pressed by a journalist on the perception that African ones did not — invoking a controversial phrase that’s associated with downplaying racism.

Kirby, taking foreign affairs questions at the daily White House briefing, made the politically incorrect faux pas when Today News Africa’s Simon Ateba pressed him on the fact that most African victims of al Qaeda bombings at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were not compensated.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed Saturday in a US drone strike, “killed more than 200 people in Tanzania and in Kenya in 1998 and right now, even though the US compensated US citizens who were victims of those bombings, the people in Kenya and Tanzania received nothing,” Ateba said.

“What message do you have for them now?” the Cameroonian reporter asked, referring to the fact that $335 million paid by Sudan in 2020 in exchange for removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism went to Americans or locally employed embassy staff, who made up a small share of the 224 dead and more than 4,000 wounded.

NSC Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby
NSC Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby stated “all lives matter.”
Susan Walsh/AP

“I’d say the same thing I told Mr. [Peter] Doocy [of Fox News] here, that this is not just a good day for the United States of America. It’s a good day for the world,” Kirby responded at first.

“The families of the victims of those bombings were not compensated by the US. What message do you have?” Ateba pressed.

“I don’t have any compensation policies here to speak to. Again, Mr. Zawahiri’s death is good for everybody around the world,” Kirby repeated. “He was a killer. And it’s a good thing that he’s no longer walking the face of the earth. It also means that we’re going to have to stay vigilant to this threat going forward.”

The exchange grew heated when Ateba appended, “So are you saying that the lives of Kenyans and Tanzanians don’t really matter?”

“Wow, I got to take issue with that. I did not say that. And I don’t even know where you came from on that one. Of course, all lives matter,” Kirby said.

“I didn’t say that, sir,” Kirby added tersely. “And I really, really take exception to the tone and the implication in that question. Of course their lives matter. Every life matters, particularly a life taken so violently as by the hands of a terrorist. If those live didn’t matter, sir, we wouldn’t have taken the action that we took this weekend. And if those lives didn’t matter, sir, we wouldn’t be staying vigilant to the threat going forward, which we will do.”

The phrase “all lives matter” grew controversial during the Black Lives Matter movement, with activists slamming politicians of both political parties, including 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Vice President Mike Pence, for using the term.

Protestors argue with a counter-protester holding an "all lives matter" sign during a Black Lives Matter rally.
Protestors argue with a counter-protester holding an “all lives matter” sign during a Black Lives Matter rally.
John Tlumacki/Boston Globe via Getty Images
Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrate in London in March 2021.
Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrate in London in March 2021.
May James/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Then-President Barack Obama said in 2015 during anti-police brutality protests that using the term “all lives matter” was distasteful because it de-emphasizes the fact that some groups of people have been treated worse than others.

“I think everybody understands all lives matter,” Obama said at the time. “I think the that reason that the organizers used the phrase ‘black lives matter’ was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s life matters. Rather, what they were suggesting was 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.”


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