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

1

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

2

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.

128 Comments

Katara Colls

8

Katara Colls commented…

It bothers me to see that people think the All Lives Matter statement is somehow trying to undermine and belittle the plight of black people. It always came across as a defence mechanism to me, more than anything else. When you talk about how blacks are targeted, there is also the implication that it's whites doing the targeting, and that systemic racism is employed by white people. It almost assigns the blame to whites, which carries a high risk of the Black Lives Matter movement becoming racist and prejudiced itself - which we can see coming to fruition in the shootings of cops, the violent protests and calls to harm *all* and *any* police (not just the ones involved in these questionable activities), the transportation of the movement into Canada (where black people don't face any special levels of discrimination - if anything, it's Natives that get it the worst there)... those are the circumstances under which people say All Lives Matter. Cop lives matter. White lives matter. And while blacks in the US do face some additional hardships as a group due to their history, that doesn't excuse the behaviour and manipulation of many people in this activist group.

Pardon the pun, but it isn't as black and white as the article makes it out to be.

David Randall

15

David Randall commented…

The statistics in this article are also devoid of context. E.g. that blacks get longer sentences than others for the same crime. This is not in itself evidence of racial bias, unless we also consider that the participation of blacks in violent crime is double that of others on a per capita basis. This is a complex problem and I don't imply that being black in itself makes one crime prone (which it doesn't). However, the justice system is not at the heart of the problem. If the black community wishes to "matter" more, they need to take the lead in reversing this trend. If black lives are "under attack" it is primarily from other blacks who disproportionately much more likely to be murdered by another black. The problem with "Black Lives Matter" is exactly the issue that this article raises. It is a true statement that is out of context. Black lives certainly matter, but the problem with the campaign is that it points the finger in the exactly the wrong direction; at law enforcement and the courts. The very institutions that are dedicated to PROTECTING those lives. It also implies that in all confrontations between a black person and the police, the black person is always innocent. Studies indicate that blacks have bad outcomes when in conflict with the police at a higher rate per capita, but when compared based on rate of participation in violent crime (rather than per capita) they fair no worse than others. In other words they fair worse in the same proportion that they put themselves in confrontational situations with police in the first place.

Again I wish to emphasize this is not evidence of racial tendency toward crime, but it is evidence of complex problems in the black community that will not be resolved by misplacing the blame on the police, which seems to be the only concern of "Black Lives Matter" by focusing on a few instance of fatal police encounters (which may or may not be justified), and ignoring that blacks murder blacks at a staggering rate. "Black Lives Matter" is, to use the authors words "true but not helpful" as it only serves to incite anger and distrust. Why do black lives seem to cease to matter, when it is a black police officer who is killed? Until all lives matter, no lives matter..

Henry Platsky

15

Henry Platsky commented…

Here are some reasons why I believe All Live Matter is more appropriate. An article in the July 15th New York Times titled "Latinos Seek More Public Scrutiny Of Their Encounters With the Police" explains how Latino political activists are looking to make known to the public abuse suffered by Latinos at the hands of the police. In my personal case I can show anyone who cares to see a stack of complaints to the Office of the Chief of Department of the New York Police Department complaining of harassment and menacing by police. There has been no serious investigation of my allegations (by the way I am Caucasian). Anyone who like myself was an activist in the '60's knows that the police can be equal-opportunity abusers. This is not to deny racism amongst many police officers and departments but Black Lives Matter with its' racialist (please note that word is not "racist") obsession is failing to make common cause with all of those who are suffering from police abuse and, in fact, perpetuating a myth that only blacks suffer such abuse. Quite honestly a true movement to end police abuse will never be built that way.

Daniel Justin Franz

1

Daniel Justin Franz commented…

See my problem with Black Lives Matter, is unintentionally (as it maybe) is feeding the lie that we are different because of the pigment of our skin, I hate to break it to you but no matter what skin color you are human...there is no race people! (talking to everyone on that bit)

And also if BLM says they know all lives matter, why don't they ever show it? Was the hashtag they came up with when Paris was bombed compassion? And now they are also doing almost the same thing to Nice, France- making it about themselves. How compassionate...

John Devlin

4

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.

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