Why we say Black Lives Matter and not All Lives Matter


Black Power salute in front of Black Lives Matter banner outside GPO in DublinThere's a funny glitch in both US and Irish society that whenever 'Black Lives Matter' (BLM) is said, inevitably there's an echo of 'All Lives Matter' (ALM). Like good social technicians let's try and fix that glitch.

Black Lives Matter is variously accused of being 'racist', 'divisive', and 'distracting' from what's 'really' happening and 'real' issues. But this is mistaken.

'Black Lives Matter' is not a statement made in a vaccuum, out of nowhere - 'Black Lives Matter' is a response. It's a direct response to every killing of a black person by the police, as agents of the white supremacist state. Every killing, and the subsequent indifference of (white) society and impunity of the killers, is a message: BANG, BANG, 'Black Lives Don't Matter'. 'No' is the reply, 'Black Lives Matter'.

It's a response to hundreds of years of brutal domination of black people in the US which never ended. First there was slavery, now there is wage slavery. Black people are kept in poverty, are ghettoised (segregated), are marginalised, stereotyped, and maligned in the media, are fed through the school to prison pipeline, are harrassed and profiled, are paid less for the same job, are terrorised by crime caused by a drug war which was designed as a weapon against black people, and are generally denied the same opportunies as white people.

So it is in this sea of racist oppression, where black people who are drowning cry out 'Black Lives Matter!'. And here is the question: when you see someone drowning, and they scream 'I don't want to drown!', do you shout back 'nobody wants to drown!' or do you throw them a buoyancy aid so they can return to shore? Only the greatest miser would reply by correcting the person, but this is what's happening every time someone decides to intervene and 'set the record straight' with 'All Lives Matter'.

But who could disagree with the thrust of 'All Lives Matter'? After all, it's lowest common denominator morality, right? Once again, it's the context that determines meaning. We can't treat statements as if they are magical objects which float about in concept-space totally apart from how they are used in the real world. If someone out of the blue says 'all lives matter. Let's make it so that every life is as good as it can be', that's one thing. But that's not what ‪#‎AllLivesMatter‬ is. #AllLivesMatter is a response to ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ (and that matters).

In fact, it's 'All Lives Matter' that's racist, divisive, and distracting. This is the objective reality, despite some people's subjective good will.

All Lives Matter is racist because it denies black people's first hand experience of life, and condescends to them from a white perspective. I think black people bloody well know what they're going through, and are articulating that very clearly. All Lives Matter very frequently accompanies a denial that racism or white supremacy exists or that the realities which motivate BLM are just a distortion of 'the facts' (naturally and expectedly, since black people are too 'biased').

Actually, ALM has become the weapon of white supremacists, fascists, and boneheads of all stripes to undermine and discredit BLM. Over and over you'll see ALM followed by phony and diversionary statistics that show that these misguided blacks and witless white supporters are labouring under a false pretence.

ALM is racist because BLM is treated as playing 'the race card', rather than being 'neutral'. How dare black people be as shit-stirring as to refer to their oppression as black people, and, heaven forbid, the role of white people in creating and maintaing that. It is not racist to talk about racism. Without talking about a problem, it can never be dealt with. As such this idea is a tool of the racist system.

(As an aside, there is no symmetry in any oppressive system between oppressor and oppressed. Black people can be individually prejudiced against white people, but black racism cannot exist as there is not a system which embodies this racism (for instance, through state violence). But anyway, BLM has nothing to do with black people being prejudiced against white people).

All Lives Matter is racist because it puts the sensitivities of white people as the priority rather than the actual lives of black people. Yes, of course, ultimately a movement against and honest conversation about racism is going to make some people uncomfortable. If you are white and think that your feelings are what matters most, that is objectively racist. Even if you won't admit this outright look at your actions, since that is what counts.

All Lives Matter is divisive because rather than supporting a movement for freedom, it is a move by white people which marginalises black people – deliberately or not - yet again. Rather than being comradely, it comes across as a snarky and sanctimonious correction, a bit like someone writing '*you're' under your comment. Except unlike that, All Lives Matter makes black people out to be self-centered, splitters who aren't cognizant of the fact that 'we are all one race, the human race' (as if BLM isn't agitating exactly for a world where that is true in practice). In this context, true unity means mututal support – critically, white people getting out of black people's way and giving real solidarity.

All Lives Matter is divisive because it frames 'Black Lives Matter' as 'Only Black Lives Matter', something no one in BLM has said, implied, and something that is completely extraneous to BLM. This narrative of division is only being introduced by people who say ALM.

All Lives Matter is distracting because it constantly draws attention away from the real plight of black people. If poverty, mass incarceration, and murder aren't real issues, what are? Rather than amplifying black voices ALM shouts them down. Rather than highlighting the truth of racist America it drags the conversation back to the point of justifying whether people of colour have the right to say 'Black Lives Matter' at all.

All Lives Matter is a redundant platitude. It will never be true unless black lives matter. Just like 'All men are created equal' in the US constitution is a cruel and hollow lie, and was especially when millions of black people were subjugated as chattel slaves. And in order to make black lives matter, white people need to stop hindering black people in their struggle for liberation.

It should now be clear that if you believe #AllLivesMatter, the best thing to do is stop repeating that right now and start saying #BlackLivesMatter.