The Problem with Saying ‘All Lives Matter’

There's a difference between "true" and "helpful."

Imagine that you wake up late one night to the sound of your home being burglarized. Through the crack in your bedroom door, you see several figures hauling out your television, computers and nice china to their getaway car parked outside.

Thinking quickly, you dial 911 on your iPhone.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“Help!” you whisper. “My home is being robbed!”

“Stay where you are, Miss,” the other voice assures you. “We’ll look into it.”

“Thank you,” you whisper. “My address is—”

“Woah, Ma’am,” the voice on the other end says. “Why are you bringing addresses into this?”

“What?” you say. “My home is being robbed! Aren’t you going to come and stop them?”

“Well, I don’t know why you need to make this about your home, ma’am,” the operator says. “All houses matter.”

By continuing to use “All Lives Matter” to drown out the cry of “Black Lives Matter,” the real problems the movement is trying to address are being ignored.

There is a difference between something being true and something being relevant. In the above conversation with an imaginary 911 operator, what he was saying was very true. All houses do matter. But at the moment, it wasn’t relevant. It wasn’t even helpful. All things considered, it was downright dangerous. You had an actual crisis going on at your house—that’s why your house mattered. While the operator was lecturing you on how important all houses are, bandits were trying to figure out whether they could get all your stuff in one load or if they’d have to make two trips.

It’s the same error people who respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” are making. It’s not that what they’re saying isn’t true. It’s just that it’s unhelpful. It’s an attempt to erase an actual crisis under the guise of being fair. And by continuing to use “All Lives Matter” to drown out the cry of “Black Lives Matter,” the real problems the movement is trying to address are being ignored. “All Lives Matter” is useless. It is destructive. It is hurtful. We need to stop saying it.

Black Lives Matter

Following the death of Trayvon Martin, three women named Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi began tweeting #blacklivesmatter. What started as a hashtag became an ethos, and has transcended Twitter to become a true movement, one of the most forceful and ubiquitous of this young century.

It has no official leaders or spokespeople. There’s no agreed upon charter. The only thing being insisted upon is the value of black lives. As the website has it, it’s “a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-black racism that permeates our society.”

The idea that racism remains a very real reality in America is contentious, but it shouldn’t be. The studies proving anti-black racism remains a common, if not foundational reality of everyday American life are too numerous to cite in one article, so we’ll go with just a few.

We might as well begin with pre-school. Black children make up 18 percent of America’s preschool population, but represent nearly half of all out-of-school suspensions. This treatment continues into the court system, where black children are 18 times more likely to be tried as adults than their white peers. It also extends to the job market, in which white college graduates are twice as likely to land a job as black college graduates. We haven’t even gotten to the justice system yet, in which black people are given 20 percent longer sentences than white people are for the same crimes.

(For more on institutional racism, go read every word of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.")

Context Matters

These numbers could go on and on, but even if they didn’t, it should be clear that the people who say racism remains a real, frequent reality in America have their heads on straight. They are not making this up. Those who suggest that black people are imagining racism aren't just devaluing someone else’s experience—they’re ignoring the plain facts.

It was in the face of these facts that #blacklivesmatter sprung, but now anywhere that cry is heard, you can be sure that someone else will come along with the rebuttal: “All Lives Matter.”

The context of “Black Lives Matter” is not that other lives don’t. The context of “Black Lives Matter” is that the value of black lives remains under assault in the United States.

It certainly sounds reasonable enough and in most contexts, it would be. But the thing is, when people say “Black Lives Matter,” they are acknowledging an important context that involves several centuries of slavery, civil rights, mass incarceration and brutality. It’s specifically highlighting the value of black lives because, historically, this country has often ignored that value.

The problem is “All Lives Matter” is that it ignores context. Like the 911 operator who doesn’t understand why you’re worried about your own house. Or, as The Daily Beast’s Arthur Chu says, like someone who “runs through a cancer fundraiser screaming ‘THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO.’” The context of “Black Lives Matter” is not that other lives don’t. The context of “Black Lives Matter” is that the value of black lives remains under assault in the United States.

Love Matters

When a parent says, “I love my son,” you don’t say, “What about your daughter? Don’t you love all your children?”

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When the president says “God bless America,” we don’t say, “Shouldn’t God bless all countries?”

And when a person says “Black Lives Matter,” we should not say “All Lives Matter.” It is an attempt to to diminish the ongoing reality of white supremacy in America. It’s effectively a way of demeaning other people’s stories, like Job’s friends who kept trying to point to the bigger picture of God’s ultimate plan instead of truly listening to Job and mourning his grief. It is rude. It is hurtful. It is dismissive. And it has to stop.

And yes, some people who associate themselves with #blacklivesmatter have called for police deaths. Some Christians have called for abortion clinics to be bombed. The cries of a few fringe groups do not invalidate an entire movement, thank God.

So when you hear the words “Black Lives Matter,” don’t be so quick to assume it’s a judgement about white lives. Instead, see “Black Lives Matter” for what it is: a rallying cry to make a difference and take down the unjust status quo that holds racial equality at bay in America. You can join the movement and commit yourself to the social and economic liberation of black people, or you can choose to stand on the sidelines. But don’t silence the cry with the words “All Lives Matter.” This is an emergency.

A version of this article originally appeared in October 2015.

Top Comments

Ross Mitchell


Ross Mitchell commented…

I wish black lives mattered when it came to abortion. That's the problem. The #hashtag only comes up when a black person is affected by someone who is not black. Why doesn't the #hashtag come up when there is a black on black crime? There needs to be consistency. Your example of the house being broken into is so silly. Of course, if a black man is shot, people are going to grieve and be hurt because of the situation. If my friend John gets shot, I won't look at my buddies around me and talk about how much their lives matter to me. No, I'm going to be focused on John and his life and how much it meant. It should be John's life matters. It should be Trayvons life matters. Your example is saying the focus shouldn't be on all lives but the black lives that are affected. Well in that case, the focus shouldn't be on black lives but the life that was affected. If we focus on every life individually wether black, white, asian, then unity will exist, but if we only focus on one race at a time, then division will exist. I listen to Urban Family Talk every single day and they talk about this from a black persons perspective in a biblical view and they would disagree with everything that you have said. I say all this because what you are saying will just continue to cause divisiveness. Urban Family Talk would say this movement is actually racist, because it's saying that black lives are more important than white lives, asian lives, latino lives.

Justin Barfield


Justin Barfield commented…

The way I see it, if All Lives Matter, then we shouldn't complain when some of those lives are pointing out the racism they are experiencing.


John Devlin


John Devlin commented…

I am a minister who does a lot of jail and prison visits in our state (South Dakota). The truth of the matter is that our prison population is very "brown". Although only 10% of our state's population is Native American, African American or Hispanic, these groups make up 42% of the prison inmates. I say this to recognize that there is something very wrong with our culture and society when minority populations are near majorities in prison and in jail. Some sincere introspection at all levels needs to be done in order to right this tragic situation. Having said this I DO NOT believe that the "Black Lives Matter" movement helps address the deeper problems facing us. It has a tendency to divide rather than unite - a symptom I see in my own family as my niece, a supporter of the movement, and my daughter, a police officer, won't even speak to each other. They used to be good friends. The United States needs to begin a movement away from the prison and justice system we now have and look to Germany and some of the Scandinavian countries for a lesson in what works in corrections. They have systems that are all about rehabilitation while our's is all about punishment. There recidivism rates are VERY low while ours are very high. Somehow, we need to address these realities and begin assisting rather than arresting our minority populations. If we don't, the same conversation we are having today will still be going on 10 years from now but with much violent escalation.

Carolyn Robe


Carolyn Robe replied to John Devlin's comment

Well said. Excellent and thoughtful response from John Devlin. Why does USA have more incarcerated people than any other country in the world....and how many citizens even care? No, it is more fun to complain about BLM.

Marty Fields


Marty Fields commented…

I think you are equivocating somewhat. The presupposition of the #BLM as it is used now ifs far different from its seminal use.

Carolyn Robe


Carolyn Robe commented…

I would not show up at a march about Breast Cancer with a sign that says "All Cancers Matter!" Why not? Because it would be stupid. Yes there are people who think breast cancer gets too much what should they do? Support the cancer of their choice, I guess. Work on the problems? or is it better to complain
about those trying to raise awareness? One thing is sure, Black Lives Matter has hit a nerve, as can be seen by the defensive comments here.. Mass incarceration, privatization of prisons, gun violence on the part of both citizens and police--These are
things people are working on...rather than whine about BLM....

Amy Johnston


Amy Johnston commented…

Instead of saying black lives matter or all lives matter , why not say black lives matter too?

Kevin Kridner


Kevin Kridner commented…

Black lives matter and all lives matter are both inherently true statements. There is no denying that reality. I think the question that each of us needs to ask of ourselves is whether either of those terms is mutually exclusive. Because an individual proclaims that black lives matter does that automatically mean that they are implying that other lives do not matter as much? Because an individual proclaims that all lives matter does that automatically mean that they believe that certain segments of the population are elevating themselves above other?
The issue is context. As one commentator stated " would you walk through cancer fundraiser proclaiming that other diseases matter"? No, I certainly would not. However, in a one on one conversation with an individual struggling with the diagnosis of cancer for themselves or a loved one I would create context for them by helping them to see they are not alone. Many people are struck with horrific diseases and it is horrific for them to have to go through the pain alone. How much better would it be for us if we could go through a tough time with someone who understands what it is like to have your world turned upside down.
We can't judge either group from a distance. That is a massive issue in this situation in my opinion. Each side is lobbing bombs from a distance via social media instead of engaging in conversations that are productive in an environment where questions can be asked and answered in real time. Its often really hard to be so pointed and demeaning to someone when you are face to face and very easy to be the same way when you are behind the veil of social media.

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