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Why “All Lives Matter” is Unhelpful

When the Black Lives Matter movement first started in 2013, the trailing “All Lives Matter” trend was quick to reach prominence. In the years since, I’ve seen the phrase decline pretty precipitously. I kinda thought we’d come to an understanding. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, though, “All Lives Matter” has made a resurgence, and I can tell I was wrong.

I understand why some of us want to say “All Lives Matter”. At face level, it seems so benign; it’s a way for some of us to explain that we all matter, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, religion, etc. That’s admirable. But anyone who’s ventured forth with the phrase online knows there’s more to it than that, even if you can’t see it.

The phrase “Black Lives Matter” can be misleading if you’re not entirely in on its history. With no context, I think some folks read the phrase as a claim that black lives are the only lives that matter. But going in without context is a luxury, one that most black people don’t have. To them, “Black Lives Matter” is an appeal to recognize something they think goes unrecognized.

When black people are bombarded with stories of their fellow men and women being repeatedly and carelessly killed by police officers, and then they’re hit again with follow-up stories of those officers not only going free, but remaining unpunished, it feels like, in the eyes of the law, black lives do not matter. 

Our society places a significant amount of importance on human lives. To take away another human’s life through murder is among the most serious offences we can commit. The punishment for murder is likewise significant, because we have agreed that the value of a human life matters. When a murderer is convicted and imprisoned for taking that life, we are enacting justice, because that life mattered. When a black man or woman’s murderer is allowed to forgo that conviction and is neither imprisoned nor punished for taking a life, we are ignoring justice, and we have decided that that life does not matter.

You’ve probably heard the house fire analogy before. On a residential street, a house is burning. The fire department arrives and begins to put out the fire, because that house matters. Nearby, one of the neighbors emerges from his house and corrects the record; all houses matter. That’s true. If his house was on fire, we should agree that we would be invested in extinguishing it. Indeed, we should agree that we would put the same effort into extinguishing any fire that occurs on that street. All of the houses do matter. But only one of the houses is on fire right now.

The house fire analogy isn’t perfect. For one, these are people we’re talking about, not houses. But it’s a decent analogy for the problem at hand. All lives do matter. If white people were experiencing the same problems black people were right now, we should do everything we can to fix those problems. But right now, it’s not white lives that are in the most critical danger. “Black Lives Matter” is an appeal to a system that treats black lives as unimportant and lesser. It’s not a boast.

To some, this is all obvious, but if it was widely understood, we wouldn’t have seen a resurgence of well-meaning “All Lives Matter” posts. With chaos and devastation in their communities, it’s hard to ask America’s black folks to focus their efforts on explaining this problem to white people. For us, though, informing our own communities is the least we can do.

If all lives matter, black lives should too.

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