Why saying ‘All Lives Matter’ denies the Black Lives Matter message

Tomos Owen

Following the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been reignited, arguably reaching a greater number of people worldwide than when the movement was first initiated. It has led countries across the world to reflect on their own issues of systemic racism, police brutality, and in the case of the UK, their colonial past. What has been particularly harrowing is the response of many people in power that have dismissed the protests as having nothing to do with racism in the UK or denying altogether that the UK is a racist country. The rhetoric that has been associated with these sentiments is nothing less than dangerous.

‘All Lives Matter’, whether said naively or with a more sinister intention, consistently causes harm to the BLM movement and has rightly been met with cynicism. I recently witnessed this myself when attending a socially-distanced Black Lives Matter protest in Cardiff. Standing on the outskirts, it was particularly hard to distinguish every word of the numerous speakers, but they were invariably met with admiration and applause. However, one speaker, who had up to that point been met with applause, ended his speech by shouting ‘All Lives Matter’. I can only assume that this was said naively, but it attracted a unanimous groan followed by chants of, ‘off, off, off!’ Even if he had wanted to take back his words, he wasn’t going to be given a chance.

The question is, why does ‘All Lives Matter’ garner such a negative response? The phrase suggests that all lives matter equally, which at face value seems sincere, but when you actually consider the phrase it is both careless and false. It is beyond doubt that all lives should matter equally, but to suggest all lives do matter equally is frankly naive. When looking at the statistics for the UK on ethnicity across education, employment, crime, living standards and healthcare, this is laid bare. These are just a few from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 2018 Race Report Statistics:

  • 6% of Black school leavers went to Russell Group universities in comparison to 11% of White school leavers;
  • Black people who leave school with A-Levels get paid 14.3% less than White people in the same situation;
  • 26.8% of Black people live in overcrowded accommodation in comparison to 8.3% of White people;
  • The mortality rate for Black African women in the UK was four times higher than White women; and,
  • Black African women were seven times more likely to be detained than White British women.

Unfortunately, these statistics go on and on and point clearly towards why the Black Lives Matter protests are warranted. They also highlight that all lives do not matter equally and that there are stark differences in the way people are treated in the UK based on ethnicity, invariably seeing White people fare better. The response of ‘All Lives Matter’ therefore works to deny the issues facing Black communities and attempts to devalue the message of BLM. This is best summed up using the burning house analogy which surfaced when the BLM movement began and was turned into a comic strip by Kris Straub. Imagine that there is a house on fire in my street and people have gathered to help put it out. A passerby asks what everyone is looking at to which I explain that there is a house on fire. The passerby responds by asking, “What about my house? Doesn’t it matter?”. I ask whether their house is on fire when they respond, “No. But, it still matters”. I explain that no one said that their house didn’t matter, but this one is on fire and we need to put it out. Their response? “All houses matter!”. 

The analogy is outlandish, but it does sum up the issue with the ‘All Lives Matter’ rhetoric perfectly. The BLM movement is not out to suggest that certain people’s lives do not matter; they are simply bringing attention to racial injustices in our society and how we can seek to address them. The BLM movement is about equality and hopefully in future we can say that all lives matter equally. Equality is fundamental to our society and no one should be automatically disadvantaged due to the colour of their skin. We must all get behind this movement and push for change. On an equal footing we can then collectively address other problems that affect everyone. 

As I have said, I do believe that in most cases ‘All Lives Matter’ is used naively and is not intended to cause harm. I admit that even having studied human rights, I was shocked by the level of inequality that still exists in the UK. However, by educating ourselves on the issues and assessing the true meaning of our words we can better assist the BLM movement towards equality. This understanding will allow us to focus solely on the mission to eradicate racism in the UK and avoid further distractions. Racism is the fire burning in our society and we all must work to put it out. 

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