A guide to debunking the need for "All Lives Matter" and its rhetorical cousins


It’s summer, you’re at a barbeque feeling really right with your Kool-aid, potato salad and hot dog. You strike up a conversation with a guy about black lives mattering. It’s not an unusual conversation, lots of people are having it. But suddenly, you’re mid-chew and this guy says “Right, but, don’t all lives matter? I’m more of an ‘all lives matter’ kind of guy.”


Last week, close to 200 Philadelphians showed up to protest for white lives. According to Philadelphia’s ABC affiliate, the event was held in response to an alleged “rash” of beatings in a white South Philadelphia neighborhood by four black women. And so the white residents of this Philadelphia neighborhood rallied for white lives.

In December, right when the black lives matter movement was picking up momentum, Kathleen McCartey, president of Smith College, wrote in an e-mail to the college in support of student protest efforts around the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. In it she said: “We are united in our insistence that all lives matter.” After students voiced their disappointment with McCartney’s use of the term, the president apologized.

Fox news panelist Lars Larson was outraged by McCartney’s apology. “In fact. I think the crowds, the mobs, who’ve been making these protests for the last couple of weeks all over America, they owe society an apology,” he said about using the phrase. “Because by exclusion it suggests that others matter less,” he continued. “It’s a bigoted thing to say.”


So, what do you say when confronted with an “all lives matter” enthusiast? And, really, Why is it so bad? Below is a guide to help you through those tricky times.

I asked co-founder of “Black Lives Matter” Alicia Garza to weigh in. She’s a pretty good  reference when you’re in the battlefield:

“White lives matter / all lives matter is like saying ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.’ In other words, it is not only obvious and goes without saying that all lives matter, we also know how much white lives matter—particularly when you are not white. White lives are the standards to which people of color are held accountable, and those to which people of color are taught to strive to obtain. And what’s so fascinating about ‘all lives matter’ or ‘white lives matter’ as a response to black people demanding our humanity be respected and our dignity be restored, is that it makes it that much more obvious that white supremacy permeates nearly every aspect of our social, economic and political conditions. In essence, most of the backlash to #BlackLivesMatter is in fact backlash in response to the fear of a black planet—or at least, an increasingly multiracial one where white people will no longer be the majority.  Hence, the non-movement to re-establish once again that white lives matter and the hasty substitution of all lives matter for people who really want to say white lives matter.”

Semantics matter.  Here’s academic Judith Butler explaining why to the New York Times:

“When some people rejoin with ‘All Lives Matter’ they misunderstand the problem, but not because their message is untrue. It is true that all lives matter, but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter which is precisely why it is most important to name the lives that have not mattered, and are struggling to matter in the way they deserve.

I mean only to say that we cannot have a race-blind approach to the questions: which lives matter? Or, which lives are worth valuing? If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, ‘all lives matter,’ then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in the idea of ‘all lives.’ That said, it is true that all lives matter (we can then debate about when life begins or ends). But to make that universal formulation concrete, to make that into a living formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to mark that exclusion, and militate against it. Achieving that universal, ‘all lives matter,’ is a struggle, and that is part of what we are seeing on the streets. For on the streets we see a complex set of solidarities across color lines that seek to show what a concrete and living sense of bodies that matter can be.”

Read the full interview with Judith Butler.

Numbers don’t lie. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie strengthens the argument for a ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement with statistics:

“The problem with ‘All Lives Matter’—as a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’—is that it doesn’t make sense. As a slogan, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a response to the poor accountability of officers who shoot unarmed black Americans, who constitute the large majority of unarmed people killed in police encounters. If you were to add the unspoken context to the slogan, it look like this: ‘Governments should rein in police violence against black citizens because Black Lives Matter.’

If police shootings were evenly distributed, ‘All Lives Matter’ might make sense as a response. But because they aren’t—it’s a non-sequitur.”

And of course, you need some historical context. So here’s some from Boston.com’s Charlotte Wilder:

“When said alone, ‘all lives matter’ is fine. Of course all lives matter. That should be a given. But #AllLivesMatter minimizes the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Because statistically, some lives are more threatened than others.

A ProPublica report found that from 2010 to 2012, black men between the ages of 15 and 19 were killed by police at a rate of 31.17 per million, while white men in the same age range were killed at a rate of 1.47 per million.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter arose because of these statistics, which have recently been illustrated by the deaths of Freddie Gray, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner (to name but a few).”

Read that piece.

More history, this time from Dream Defenders’ Philip Agnew.

“​One cannot discuss ‘all lives mattering’ without acknowledging that ‘all’ must inherently include ‘black.’ proponents of ‘all lives matter’ are perpetuating a lie. black people’s relationship with this country is one of exploitation, discrimination, and death.  thus ‘alm’ supporters fall, to us, into one or more of the following categories: ignorant of the plight of black americans, in denial of the plight of black americans or the worst: a camp that believes that ‘all’ does not include us and that black lives do not matter.  most fall into the latter, thus reinforcing the urgency of this movement moment.”

It’s always good to give a personal anecdote. Here’s one, from Reverend Dan Schatz!

“As a white man, I have never been followed by security in a department store, or been stopped by police for driving through a neighborhood in which I didn’t live. My African American friends have, almost to a person, had these experiences. Some have been through incidents that were far worse. I owe it to the ideal that we share, the ideal that all lives matter, to take their experiences seriously and listen to what they are saying. To deny the truth of these experiences because they make me uncomfortable would be to place my comfort above the safety of others, and I cannot do that.”

Read the full piece by Schatz.

Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.

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