Stories from Political Issues

Why the Phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ Is Harmful, Not Helpful

Emily Laurence

Emily LaurenceJune 3, 2020

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Any time that a person says the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” you can bet that there will inevitably be at least one person who chimes in with “all lives matter, too!” Over the past few days, Well+Good has seen many comments to that extent in response to our own Instagram posts referencing Black Lives Matter. It’s often accompanied by claims that a person “doesn’t see color” and calls for unity and equal treatment for all.

But this attempt at being color-blind (which is problematic in and of itself) is more than just short-sighted. The truth is, this language is not only inaccurate and misleading, it’s harmful to the Black community.

People have been speaking out against the use of “all lives matter” for years, and yet it’s clear people are still leaning on this phrase (whether willfully or inadvertently misunderstanding its meaning). Here, race relations experts explain in explicit terms exactly what you need to know, and why the words you choose are so important.

What the Black Lives Matter movement means

“Black Lives Matter was a hashtag started in 2013 in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, following the murder of Trayvon Martin,” says Janell Hobson, PhD, a professor at the University of Albany and the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender. (Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Martin in his Florida neighborhood, claiming self-defense for his actions.) Dr. Hobson explains that after Zimmerman’s acquittal, there were protests across the country, similar to what is happening now in the days after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer.

Coined by three Black community organizers, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the phrase Black Lives Matter was a way to draw attention to Zimmerman being acquitted despite killing Martin, and it grew to become a protest and activist movement to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.

Dr. Hobson says the seven-year-old slogan is a response to centuries of systematic racism against Black people. “What happened with Martin—a young Black boy who was killed because he was ‘suspicious looking’—is embedded in the kind of racism that permits other people who are not Black to look at Black people like they are lesser-than,” she says. “‘Black Lives Matter’ is used to draw attention to the fact that Black lives are not given the same level of concern as white lives.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has continued to grow in the years since its founding, and the phrase has been used as a rallying cry after every high-profile incidence of police killings of Black Americans, from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 to the recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

Katheryn Russell-Brown, PhD, author of The Color of Crime, director at the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations and assistant director at the Criminal Justice Center at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, reiterates that the goal of the Black Lives Matter movement is to bring attention to the fact that Black lives are treated with less value than white lives in this country. “It puts attention on the issue of violence against Black bodies, placing that front and center and not as a marginal issue,” she says. “It’s important to look at what’s happening at the intersections between African Americans and the criminal legal system.”

The roots of “all lives matter” and the harm it brings

However, a new phrase came into circulation as a direct response to Black Lives Matter: “All lives matter.” It’s been part of the cultural conversation since at least 2014, and is frequently used on social media and elsewhere as a misguided criticism of the concept of Black Lives Matter.

People who say “all lives matter” often argue that by calling out Black lives specifically, you’re giving one group preferential treatment over other groups and overlooking their struggles and humanity. However, this interpretation of Black Lives Matter is disingenuous. “When we think about terminology, we must think about the words themselves and what the impact of those words are,” Dr. Russell-Brown says. “We can’t disagree with the goal of all lives mattering. [But] when we look at the context of race relations in this country, not all lives have mattered and not all lives matter the same. So when [‘all lives matter’] is put out there as a response to ‘Black lives matter,’ that erases the reality of Black life, white life, Asian life, Native American life, and Latinx life; everything is not the same.”

“If all lives mattered, we wouldn’t have to say Black lives matter,” Dr. Hobson adds. “Black Lives Matter is a recognition that Black people do not have the same rights.”

Consider some of the following statistics: Black Americans are two-and-a-half times more likely to die at the hands of police than white Americans. Black Americans are four times more likely than white Americans to report racial discrimination when trying to vote, thanks in large part to a new wave of voter suppression laws in various states that target minority voters. Black Americans have higher mortality rates and shorter lifespans than white Americans, are more likely to live in poverty, and face discrimination at work and in public spaces. And we cannot ignore the fact that Black people were slaves in America from 1619 until the end of the Civil War in 1865, and effectively barred from voting until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.

By saying “all lives matter,” a person is dismissing the real, persistent issues that Black people face. As BLM founder Patrisse Cullors told C-Span in 2018, “[All lives matter] is a copout phrase. When people use ‘all lives matter,’ I’m hearing them say that they would rather try to fight against the conversation about racism, that they would rather be complicit…and I hear that people are afraid of being honest and transparent about what this country has done for decades and centuries.” All lives matter doesn’t mean anything; it just gives people (particularly white people) a pass to stop uncomfortable conversations about race before they can really go anywhere.

Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that other lives don’t

Dr. Russell-Brown emphasizes that the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t about minimizing the struggles of people who aren’t Black. “We can and should be having multiple conversations,” she says. “In some ways, the conversations may be connected, but they’re different conversations.”

Black Lives Matter is trying to get solutions and justice for some of the most critical issues that affect a population that has too long been dismissed and oppressed in this country. That’s not to say that the other issues faced by other communities are less important; it’s more about ensuring that the issues Black people face are truly heard and paid the attention they long deserve. “As a matter of fact, Black Lives Matter is a recognition that other lives also matter. It’s just that Black lives matter less,” Dr. Hobson says. “That’s why Black Lives Matter has to be articulated as a way to say that we matter, too.”

Activist and author Rachel Elizabeth Cargle offered an analogy to explain the fallacy of “all lives matter” in a recent essay for 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? At a community fundraiser for a decaying local library, you would never see a mob of people from the next city over show up angry and offended yelling, ‘All libraries matter!’—especially when theirs is already well-funded.”

The sad truth is, we live in a country where many injustices occur, not just in regards to race, but also because of income, gender, and sexual orientation. There are a lot of conversations that need to happen in terms of lives mattering. But Black Lives Matter is the conversation we’re having now—and it deserves our undivided attention.

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