Picture this scenario – Anytown, U.S.A., which has a small population of Black and Brown people who generally try to live by the same rules and regulations that everyone else around them abides by. These are folks who go to work, pay their taxes, try their best with parenting, and even participate in their community. By and large, these are people any community would be lucky to have.
Black and Brown community members are regularly harassed and dismissed (simultaneously!), however, by the white people around them. The same people who are solidly doing their jobs and being good citizens remain in constant fear that some event will befall them that ends their life prospects, their economic future, or their lives themselves for no other reason than being Black or Brown. Some of it is because there are stereotypes associated with being a person of color, such as being historically made out to be a threat or a menace. Some of it is because of pure, irrational racism that drives home unfounded (and normally proven to be untrue) assumptions and beliefs about people of color ranging from them being international terrorists associated with Al-Qaeda to being domestic terrorists associated with the Crips. These Black and Brown folks have become accustomed with this manner of living, with a regular worry that something needlessly oppressive will occur and that they will have no recourse to avenge any wrongs or injustices.
Over time, there was a buildup of these injustices and no reckoning. Black and Brown people (and even some white ones) noticed the pattern of injustice, who it continued to follow and negatively effect, and the policies enacted to maintain and protect oppressive institutions. Rather than remain resigned in their collective disappointment of their local government and community, they decided to engage the public at-large via massive demonstrations and a media campaign to re-educate the masses regarding the plight of Black and Brown people. The best method of quickly explaining that mantle, they decided, was to scream out with all of their souls, “Black Lives Matter!” They were met with a heavy police presence despite the largely peaceful protesting (an oxymoron in itself), something considered appropriate since there were a lot of Black and Brown people who were (justifiably) angry at the continued oppressive state they lived under. Quite frankly, when Black people get mad, white people get nervous.
One way they responded to the nervousness was to claim that “All Lives Matter” in defiance of “Black Lives Matter.” Fortunately, in Anytown, U.S.A., bad things can happen to anybody, and a young white woman met her unfortunate demise in Anytown as a result of police misconduct – she was gunned down needlessly while unarmed and not resisting or posing any danger. One might expect that there would be a response, since she was a victim of injustice. Perhaps a march down Main Street shouting, “All Lives Matter,” holding signs with pictures of her. But in Anytown, U.S.A., there was no march down Main Street. There were no signs with this young woman’s picture on it. There was a news report and a quiet firing of the officer, with rumors of a civil suit emerging in the aftermath. Anytown continued with business as usual, unconcerned with lives mattering as justice has been done (to some degree).
Business as usual in Anytown included regular dismissal and hostility towards homeless people and the poor. It included dismissals of women’s claims of sexual abuse. It, of course, included regular discussions behind closed doors regarding the problems of Black culture and ways to capitalize off of it. But this young woman’s death ended up a quiet nonstory in Anytown, a simple reminder that All Lives Matter only when people yell out Black Lives Matter.
At a recent Democratic Presidential debate, a fan question came in that asked, “Do Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter?” The candidates responded, some saying the former, others the latter. Nobody stopped to address the elephant in the room – doesn’t this question sound like it has to be one or the other, not both? Is it impossible for Black lives to matter…precisely because all lives matter? Better yet, doesn’t all lives matter sound trivially true and practically false? Let me explain what I mean.
All lives matters seems to be obviously true. Everybody matters. Everybody’s special. Everybody’s got a place in the world, right? That really all hinges on what we mean by “matters.” What it means to matter can go a number of different ways based on what kind of criteria it takes for a life to matter, and what kind of mattering is being discussed. Here are a few examples of ways you could matter: to your family, to God, to your community, including your country, with respect to rights, and with respect to justice. This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but should give a pretty good example of the many ways we all could matter in some respect. Some of these collapse upon each other, since rights are usually conferred or protected by governments – so if you matter to your country, the protection of your rights matters as well, being one of the ways a country can show that someone matters to it.
Let’s assume that in matters of justice in the United States, all lives matter. Then Black lives have to matter in terms of acquiring justice when confronted by something unjust, such as voter suppression tactics (which intimidate Blacks from using one major application of being a citizen and participating in the democratic process), a mass incarceration program that is directed towards Blacks (which, again, limits their ability to vote among other rights), and institutional racism that prevents many Blacks from accessing the resources and opportunities needed to flourish. There’s no way to slice it – if all lives matter in terms of justice, then Black lives (which HAVE to be a subset of all lives) matter with regards to the injustices that have happened and rectifying the injustices that have occurred. This claim doesn’t hold up if you have a different view of what All Lives Matter means.
Giving a charitable read of the All Lives Matter argument, I’ve come up with something like this:
1) Everybody deserves justice.
2) By focusing on the perceived plight of Blacks, it ignores that everybody deserves justice.
3) By focusing on the perceived plight of Blacks, it ignores that everyone is the same – color and race don’t matter in terms of justice.
4) Since everyone deserves justice and color and race don’t matter, Black Lives Matter doesn’t make sense.
Conclusion: All Lives Matter, not Black Lives Matter.
If this is the view, then Black Lives Matter doesn’t work at all for a number of reasons, chief among them its divisiveness in a country that is beyond color and race politics. This assumes that this is a country beyond race, which seems to be patently false. The call to be beyond race is often made by those who would stand to benefit from the end of race because it ends any form of historical guilt or those who think they will benefit from the end of race because it ends any form of contemporary discrimination. But if All Lives Matter, even from this particular stance, why hasn’t there been any marches for the dead white woman? Because from this particular viewpoint, there isn’t any systemic problem of police violence, it was one bad agent who happened to be a police officer. This is how any issue such as racism or sexism is viewed – one bad actor who may be in a position of authority.
Crucially, All Lives Matter is a position of critique and, in and of itself, critique isn’t a bad thing. It’s necessary to refine crude ideas into diamonds that our culture live by. Critique done with the purpose of undermining a status quo shaking position, however, doesn’t serve to strengthen our culture…unless you believe strongly that the status quo is effective. As many say, America is the greatest country on Earth, which assumes that because you’re the “best” that you’re not above improvement or that you don’t have to improve until the competition improves. LeBron developed a three, after all.
Here’s another problem with saying All Lives Matter – do mosquitos lives matter? Or the cow and pig that we ate today, do their lives matter? Plants are alive – do their lives matter? It strikes me that if their lives matter, they matter only relationally to ours. Plants should be afforded independent lives as long as their existence is needed or if we can turn them into paper. Bees’ lives matter only because of their relative importance to pollination and creating honey. All lives on this planet don’t matter, even if we said strictly human lives, as there would be much more concern for global politics and deplorable living conditions. All lives certainly still don’t matter if we say humans in the US, as the local homeless person you step over does not matter in terms of their justice claims. These latter two problems can be viewed without a racial lens, which prompts the question: do All Lives Matter or Some Lives Matter?
Without a question, some lives matter. It’s much less illegal to say you’ll kill me rather than saying you’ll kill the mayor of whatever city you reside in because political figures matter more to the community than Joe Schmo’s like me. Rich people’s lives, presumably because of their necessary existence for the success of the capitalist market, matter more than poor people’s lives, who suck on the teat of the rich for their existence according to some. A less abrasive example would be your interest in justice for your loved one or friend if he or she were a victim of an injustice compared to your interest in a stranger across the country being a victim of injustice. Some lives hold more perceived value than others; our decisions regarding who deserves justice are informed by their perceived value to us, our community, or our culture. Assuming this, hollering Black Lives Matter actually makes sense as a program to change the negative perceived value of Black lives. Hollering All Lives Matter is more like yelling, “The world is flat,” something that seems trivially true and yet actually false.