After the police killing of two Black men – Alton Sterling, 37, in Louisiana, and Philando Castile, 32, in Minnesota – this week, the rallying cry “black lives matter” has been uttered louder and more poignantly.
As usual, however, following this necessary and humanizing declaration are responses that “all lives matter.” While true – every life, regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, class or ability – is important, saying “all lives matter” ignores a major problem: that it’s Black lives that are made to believe, every day and all across the world, that they are worthless.
The United States is not a racial democracy. The legacy of slavery is alive, and we feel it in our prisons, where people of color make up 60 percent of the prison population though they account for just 30 percent of the U.S., in our justice system, where we are arrested, charged and sentenced more harshly than whites who commit similar crimes, and on the streets, where we are looked at suspiciously, stopped, harassed, attacked and murdered in our own communities by police officers for just existing as Black and brown people.
As Everyday Feminism vlogger Kat Blaque says, "most people who use the hashtag #alllivesmatter strongly believe that we live in a post-racial society.” Clearly, we do not. But, as she continues, “it’s easy to think that way when you’re not the target of systematic racism."
Last year, Redditor GeekAesthete broke it down as simple as possible. He says:
Imagine that you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So you say “I should get my fair share.” And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, “everyone should get their fair share.” Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment — indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad’s smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn’t solve the problem that you still haven’t gotten any!
The problem is that the statement “I should get my fair share” had an implicit “too” at the end: “I should get my fair share, too, just like everyone else.” But your dad’s response treated your statement as though you meant “only I should get my fair share”, which clearly was not your intention. As a result, his statement that “everyone should get their fair share,” while true, only served to ignore the problem you were trying to point out.
That’s the situation of the “black lives matter” movement. Culture, laws, the arts, religion, and everyone else repeatedly suggest that all lives should matter. Clearly, that message already abounds in our society.
The problem is that, in practice, the world doesn’t work that way. You see the film Nightcrawler? You know the part where Renee Russo tells Jake Gyllenhal that she doesn’t want footage of a black or latino person dying, she wants news stories about affluent white people being killed? That’s not made up out of whole cloth — there is a news bias toward stories that the majority of the audience (who are white) can identify with. So when a young black man gets killed (prior to the recent police shootings), it’s generally not considered “news”, while a middle-aged white woman being killed is treated as news. And to a large degree, that is accurate — young black men are killed in significantly disproportionate numbers, which is why we don’t treat it as anything new. But the result is that, societally, we don’t pay as much attention to certain people’s deaths as we do to others. So, currently, we don’t treat all lives as though they matter equally.
Just like asking dad for your fair share, the phrase “black lives matter” also has an implicit “too” at the end: it’s saying that black lives should also matter. But responding to this by saying “all lives matter” is willfully going back to ignoring the problem. It’s a way of dismissing the statement by falsely suggesting that it means “only black lives matter,” when that is obviously not the case. And so saying “all lives matter” as a direct response to “black lives matter” is essentially saying that we should just go back to ignoring the problem.
If one truly believes that all lives matter, they wouldn’t participate in the erasure of one group’s struggle with such a pointless and problematic offshoot. They wouldn’t be offended by a marginalized people’s cry to be seen, recognized and respected. They wouldn’t remind that community, once more, that they, too, deem their existence as less worthy. Instead, they’d understand the profound anti-blackness in saying “all lives matter,” and they’d know that all lives won’t actually matter until Black lives, and all of their intersecting identities, do.
For more, watch Latina's Facebook Live conversation with journalists and organizers of color.