Is the phrase “All lives matter” an appropriate response to the phrase, “Black lives matter”?
As you are probably aware, all over the U.S. right now, there are people protesting George Floyd’s recent police-related death, as well as reported disproportionate violence against black people (especially black men) at the hands of the police. You can read more about this here.
As I have watched these events unfold, I feel greatly concerned. That is because in listening to my black friends, students, and professors over the years, I have become increasingly aware of how very much alive and real racism still is in our country. I have also become aware of how racism is not just an attitude that individuals hold.
It is also an attitude that can become unconsciously ingrained in our social institutions such as our schools, our churches, our judicial system, and our police force.
As I have learned these tragic and important lessons about racism, I have developed a strong desire to do all I can to combat racism, to become an ally to People of Color, and to become a co-laborer as much as I am able in their struggle; and to work for racial reconciliation.
How I am Working to End Racial Injustice
Here are some of the things I have done on behalf of this endeavor:
One: When I was in college, I majored in secondary English education. And I did my student teaching in Guatemala for a semester because I wanted to live in a different culture.
Two: My husband and I moved to a racially diverse neighborhood. There were many reasons for this, but one reason is because we know that it is much easier to hold unconsciously racist and prejudice attitudes when you do not know, live by, or talk to people from other races. We don’t want to hold such beliefs.
Three: I put myself in situations where I am likely to make friends with folks from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.
Four: I read literature by People of Color. Some of my favorite authors are bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Cornell West, and W.E.B. Dubois.
Five: I listen to the experience of People of Color and refuse to tell them how they should feel about their oppression. My job is to listen and understand. I also, as much as possible, put myself in positions of learning from People of Color.
Black Lives Matter
A natural outgrowth of the items I have listed above is that I take movements like Black Lives Matter seriously. Today, in solidarity with Floyd’s death and my black friends, I changed my Facebook profile picture to a picture with the phrase Black Lives Matter.
When I did this, I was certainly aware that when people use the phrase “Black Lives Matter”, someone often responds with the counter-phrase “All Lives Matter”.
And I think that sometimes when people use the phrase “All Lives Matter”, they are well-meaning. Unfortunately, I think many people who use the phrase are not. Whether people who use this phrase mean well or not, the phrase is unwise and unhelpful. I want to write about why this is so.
In order to illustrate this point, I would like you to imagine three different scenarios:
Scenario #1—The Funeral Scenario: Imagine that your friend has died, and you arrange her funeral. During the funeral, as you are all lamenting the death of your friend, an acquaintance of yours whose friend died the previous month, stands up and says, “But what about my friend? Doesn’t she matter, too? Doesn’t her death mean anything to you?
Scenario #2—The Fire Scenario: Imagine that one night, your house catches on fire. It is in full blaze as the firefighters arrive. In fact, the blaze is so out-of-control that all the firefighters in the city arrive at your house, which is a very large house, and focus on extinguishing your fire. Meanwhile, your neighbor, whose house is not on fire, walks up to the firefighters and says, “But what about my house? Doesn’t it matter? Aren’t you going to pay any attention to my house?”
Scenario #3—The Hospital Scenario: Imagine that you are a nurse in a large hospital. In the course of your work, you realize that an unusually large number of elderly patients die under one certain doctor’s care under circumstances that appear very suspicious to you. Through further investigation, you discover this doctor has publicly expressed uncharitable views of the elderly and the drain he believes they are on society.
In addition, you discover that some other medical workers in the hospital share your same concern. You decide to bring your concerns to the appropriate people at your hospital. One of the people you report to, who happens to be friends with the doctor you are concerned about, says, “Well, what about all the other people dying at the hospital? Aren’t you concerned about them, too? Don’t their lives matter to you?”
What is the Point?
Now let’s look at each of these scenarios to determine what exactly is wrong with some of the concerns expressed in each of them.
Scenario #1—The Funeral Scenario: In this scenario, we immediately understand that there is something wrong with the acquaintance who stands up in the middle of the funeral and says, “But what about my friend? Doesn’t she matter, too? Doesn’t her death mean anything to you?”
Certainly, the acquaintance is grieving the loss of her friend, and she is permitted her grief. However, we understand that a person’s funeral is a special observance of one person’s life. The focus on that one’s person’s life is not a negation of the deaths of other people. Rather, it is a way that we draw attention to the loss of a person important and dear to us. In fact, if we tried to grieve the death of everyone at each funeral, we wouldn’t be doing justice to anyone.
Therefore, while the acquaintance’s grief is understandable, her concern, “Doesn’t my friend matter, too?” is not appropriate. The purpose of a funeral is to focus on one person’s death, not the demise of every single person.
Scenario #2—The Fire Scenario: In this scenario, we understand that there is something wrong with the neighbor who says to the firemen, “But what about my house? Doesn’t it matter? Aren’t you going to pay any attention to my house?” The purpose of the firemen in this scenario is to put out a fire that is immediately endangering the house.
The fact that they aren’t paying attention to other houses that aren’t on fire does not mean those other houses do not matter. Rather, it means that they need to focus on their job, which is to attend to houses that are on fire.
Now, it could be that other houses are on fire, too. If that is the case, it would be appropriate for the firemen to divide themselves among the various houses to try to fight the fire. In this scenario, if someone were to suggest that the firemen fighting the fire in House A did not care about House B, we would recognize that this was an inaccurate and even ridiculous claim because the firefighters have been assigned to focus on the fire in House A while other firefighters focus on the fire in House B.
Furthermore, if someone who lived in House A was trying to help the firefighters put out the fire in their own house rather than another, it would be inappropriate and even obtuse to accuse them of not caring about other houses. It is reasonable and responsible to focus on putting out the fire in your own house first.
Scenario #3—The Hospital Scenario: In this scenario, we understand there is something wrong with the friend of the doctor who says, ““Well, what about all the other people dying at the hospital? Aren’t you concerned about them, too? Don’t their lives matter to you?”
The concerned nurse in this scenario is not raising a concern about death in general, as of course people do die in hospitals. Rather, she is raising a concern about a pattern of deaths that appear to be untimely, unnecessary, motivated by prejudice, and causes unnaturally by one certain doctor. She is concerned about unjust death.
When the doctor’s friend says, “Well, what about all the other people dying at the hospital? Aren’t you concerned about them, too? Don’t their lives matter to you?”, we recognize that he is using this question as a red herring.
He doesn’t raise the question because he cares about people’s lives. Rather, he raises it to deflect attention from the misbehavior of his friend, whether he does this consciously or unconsciously. After all, nobody like to think their friend is capable of murder.
What Does This Have to Do with Black Lives Matter?
I would like to relate these scenarios to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and the counter-phrase, “All Lives Matter”.
Please consider that Black Lives Matter is like the funeral, fire, and hospital scenario rolled into one.
The Funeral: When people say, “Black Lives Matter”, they are holding a metaphorical funeral for the black people, especially black men, who have died because of police brutality. (You can read more about this here.) They are not negating the lives of other people who have died. They are mourning a person or group of people with something in common: death due to police brutality. For someone to say “All lives matter” in this case is like suggesting that people are responsible to mourn all deaths that have ever occurred at a friend’s funeral, This is patently false.
The Fire: When people say, “Black Lives Matter”, it is like they are calling for help to put out a fire—namely, the fire of police brutality and racism that results in black death. They are not saying that other people and other deaths don’t matter. They are saying, rather, that they need help putting out this fire.
For other people to respond “All Lives Matter” in the scenario, especially people who then fail or refuse to address racism, is like suggesting that firefighters should ignore a house that is burning or that they should pay as much attention to a house that is not burning as they do to a house that is burning.
The Hospital: When people say, “Black Lives Matter”, they are bringing to our attention a legitimate concern about inappropriate behavior of an authority figure—the police in this case—just like the nurse brought her concerns about the deadly doctor before the hospital authorities.
When people say “All Lives Matter” in this case, they are refusing to examine legitimate claims about repeated patterns of deadly prejudiced behavior.
What is the Motive Behind These Actions?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I think sometimes when people say, “All Lives Matter”, they have benign motives. They might be like a friend in the funeral who was grieving the loss of her friend. Or they might be like someone in the fire scenario who was worried about their house burning down.
Whether their motives are benign or not, the people are still behaving in an unwise and helpful manner, whether consciously or not, for the reasons I have mentioned above.
Too often, however, when people say, “All lives matter”, their motives are less benign. Quite frequently people use this phrase, not because they care about anyone’s lives but because they want to silence discussion, protests, and grief over racism. They may even want to shut down the idea that racism still exists in this country.
And it is not surprising that people would do this. No one likes to think they might harbor racist attitudes or that they may benefit from a society or social institutions that suffer from systematic racism. That’s how racism maintains its deadly grip on individuals and societies. If people begin to reflect on racist attitudes in their own life or social institutions, this will likely require them to change and will require them to give up some of their power and privilege. This can be scary for anyone.
So here is a parting challenge for you, and this is a challenge for white folks like me: If you are a white person and are still not sure if the phrase “All Lives Matter” is a problem , I would ask you to consider talking to some of your black friends about why it is a problem for black people. And I encourage you to listen to their response without trying to justify or defend anything.
And if you are a white person and don’t have any black friends, I encourage you to work on remedying that. One way you can do that is to read one or several of the books mentioned in the reading list in footnote #1.
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