If the last couple of weeks have taught us anything in America, it's that we still have a lot of work to do to address racism in this country. While the protests across the nation may have been sparked by the senseless deaths of Black citizens like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Sean Reed, law enforcement's treatment of Black civilians is not the only issue.
White people must confront their own learned and unconscious biases, and one very simple way to start is by eradicating the impulse to respond to the chorus of "Black Lives Matter" with the refrain "All Lives Matter."
While many who utter this phrase may not consider themselves racist, they need to understand why saying "All Lives Matter" is considered racist and harmful.
Why "all lives matter" is considered racist:
Before tackling the problem of this phrase, which on its face seems uncontroversial, we need to talk about the intent behind the phrase "Black lives matter" — what it means and what it does not. When people say "black lives matter," they are not saying "only Black lives matter" or "Black lives matter more."
They are asserting the value of Black lives specifically because our history and current events illustrate that many institutions in this country to not tell us that they value Black lives equally.
When you say, "all lives matter," assuming the best intent on your part, you're probably trying to communicate a genuine personal belief that you value all human life equally. And that may even be true, but it also means you are failing to see the ways our society and systems show Black people that their lives, livelihoods, and well-being are not valued equally.
One way this is reflected is in the way police interactions ending in civilian deaths are distributed among demographics. Although Black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represented 24 percent of total deaths in police custody in 2019 and 25 percent of those who were later confirmed to be unarmed.
The data clearly reflects that Black people face higher risks when interacting with police.
In fact, according to further data from the advocacy group Mapping Police Violence, public data and law enforcement records show that Black people are nearly twice as likely to be killed during a police interaction than a Latinx person and nearly three times more likely than a white person. And the National Safety Council found that Black men have a 1 in 1,000 chance of dying at the hands of police at some point in their lifetime.
So essentially, as Columbia Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw puts it, black lives matter is an "aspirational demand" meaning that the people who are saying it are calling for society to show through their actions and policies that they agree because that is not what's reflected currently.
It extends beyond the issue of police violence, too. The COVID-19 pandemic's disproportionate impact on Black lives is not because Black people are more vulnerable to getting ill, but because they are more likely to be employed in professions that put them at risk of exposure and more likely to live in areas with insufficient access to healthcare, among other factors.
These analogies and memes more simply explain the problem with "all lives matter."
Putting aside all the data and statistics, the fact is that Black people in your community are hurting. They feel unsafe when police are in their communities, and these recent incidents continue to tell them they have cause to feel unsafe.
So to answer their cries with "all lives matter," it's kind of like telling somebody whose house is on fire that your house matters, too.
Even closer to home, imagine, as this person asks us to, that you show up to a child's funeral and tell the mourners that all children are special. Of course they are! But sure you can see that saying so while folks are grieving a specific child who is dead is not a kind message.
If Bible verse feels helpful to you, many are pointing to chapter 15 of the Book of Luke. The Parable of the Lost Sheep perfectly illustrates why "All Lives Matter" is not a helpful response to "Black Lives Matter."
And really, you should ask yourself why it bothers you to say or hear "Black Lives Matter" if you truly believe in your heart that all lives matter. Interrogating that impulse could be a big step in helping you understand why people are protesting right now.
The books on this reading list may also help you better understand.
If you are looking for ways to donate your time or money to Black Lives Matter and other antiracist organizations, we have created a list of resources to get you started.