It has now been seven years since Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi created the Black Lives Matter movement and organisation in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. Upon hearing this slogan, some people reacted by wondering “But don’t all lives matter?” As in, if the goal is equality, why are people singling out one particular race? Let’s take a look.
At first, U.S. politicians across the political spectrum used the phrase “all lives matter.” Though it tends to be favoured by Republicans—like U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul—Sec. Hillary Clinton used the phrase when addressing a black church in 2015 (and received backlash). The same year, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said it during a speech. Now, five years later, there is a better understanding of the context of saying “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter,” but many still have questions about the actual meaning behind these slogans. If you fall into that category, here is some background and context.
How did Black Lives Matter start?
As we mentioned above, the Black Lives Matter organisation and movement was started in 2013 by three activists looking to highlight the disproportionate effect of police brutality on the black community. Here is how the organisation describes itself:
Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc is a global organisation in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.
And there is no shortage of statistics to illustrate racial disparities when it comes to police violence. For example, a 2019 study out of the Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice found that in the United States, black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Using verified data on police killings from 2013 to 2018, the researchers found that approximately one in 1,000 black boys and men will be killed by police in their lifetime, compared with 39 out of 100,000 white boys and men.
From a strictly numbers perspective, the fact that so many more black people are killed by police than white people means that in this context, it would appear as though black lives don’t matter as much as white ones.
But don’t all lives matter?
When “Black Lives Matter” first became part of our lexicon, there was quite a bit of confusion around what, exactly, it meant. Some people heard the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and interpreted it as “Black Lives Matter More Than Any Other Lives.” This would come with follow-up questions like, “But don’t Latinx lives matter? What about Asian lives? How about Catholic lives?” While those are valid questions, they are not what’s being discussed when people say “Black Lives Matter.”
Here’s some background from German Lopez at Vox:
But the point of Black Lives Matter isn’t to suggest that black lives should be or are more important than all other lives. Instead, it’s simply pointing out that black people’s lives are relatively undervalued in the US — and more likely to be ended by police — and the country needs to recognise that inequity to bring an end to it.
Along the same lines, as President Barack Obama explained in 2015, all lives do matter, but in this particular context (using “All Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter”), that’s missing the point:
I think everybody understands all lives matter. I think the reason that the organisers used the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter. Rather, what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that’s 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.
So why is saying ‘All Lives Matter’ a problem?
So if all lives do, in fact, matter, why is using this phrase problematic? To get a better understanding of this, let’s check in with Garza, one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. She broke it down at a 2016 event at Portland State University:
We do believe that all lives matter. But we don’t live in a world where all lives matter, so that kind of response really puts on display the very issues we’re trying to address. There’s a part of our country that believes that people are suffering because of their own lack of individual initiative. Then there are a whole bunch of people saying, ‘Yeah, it’s not about the fact that I’m lazy. It’s about the fact that my community’s infrastructure is crumbling. It’s about the fact I can’t drive down the street without being harassed or targeted by law enforcement.’
Some helpful analogies
Here are a few examples of analogies for why people say “Black Lives Matter” instead of “All Lives Matter,” with the aim of providing a new perspective on the overall concept.
The house on fire
In this thought experiment, someone’s house is on fire and they call 911. When the firefighters show up, their neighbours ask, “but what about our houses?” even though their houses are not actually on fire. Allow Twitter user @J1TEAGEGE to explain:
— jite (@JlTEAGEGE) July 7, 2016
All plates matter
A group of activist filmmakers called Peace House created this video using the analogy of eating at a restaurant, where one person doesn’t get what he ordered or anything close to what the rest of the group is served.
The ER visit
Here’s another example from Crangle’s article in Harper’s Bazaar:
If a patient being rushed to the ER after an accident were to point to their mangled leg and say, “This is what matters right now,” and the doctor saw the scrapes and bruises of other areas and countered, “but all of you matters,” wouldn’t there be a question as to why he doesn’t show urgency in aiding that what is most at risk?…There is a fundamental understanding that when the parts of society with the most pain and lack of protection are cared for, the whole system benefits. For some reason, the community of white America would rather adjust the blinders they’ve set against racism, instead of confront it, so that the country can move forward toward a true nation of justice for all.
In a country built on colonisation of lands and bodies, the default setting has always been that the lives of people of colour aren’t as valuable as those of white people. Saying that “Black Lives Matter” simply asks people to rethink that tenet of white supremacy and acknowledge that black people should not be disproportionately killed by law enforcement because of the colour of their skin.
Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources.