Why I Can’t Say “All Lives Matter”

Social media allows people to have public arguments. We can observe them and judge the participants and the soundness of their arguments in anonymity. Such lurking on public argument between one who argued “black lives matter” and another countered “all lives matter” motivated me to finally figure out why the “all lives matter” argument has always seemed weak and why I cannot use it.

First, I differentiate the use of “all lives matter” in what are clearly (to me) racist situations from situations in which one is claiming they value all races equally. In my observation of the recent exchange on social media, I believe all participants were not meaning to be racist. Still, arguing “all lives matter” does result in “guilt by association” as one is choosing to use words that have clear (if veiled) racist meaning. Groups in society (ours and others) commandeer symbols and words (such as rainbows, Confederate flags, and pink ribbons) and we must accept those meanings whether we like it or not.    

If I display my middle finger to a driver on the road, I may claim “it is just a finger,” but the gesture has meaning in our culture. I may individually reject that meaning, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist for others (and I might get a punch in the nose for using it). The same is true with the three words “all” and “lives” and “matter.” For some it is interpreted as “your race should not matter” by some; for others it means “I reject black lives matter.” When you use the phrase, I cannot be sure which you mean. To avoid confusion, I argue against using “all lives matter” for any purpose.

Second, I assume we all aspire to the principle that one’s race should not adversely affect their opportunities. In the argument I observed, that was the position held by the “all lives matter” side. Based on the data I have seen—I am not citing evidence here… I am assuming the differing experiences when comparing me and people of color being pulled over by for broken head lights are real… I assume the stories I see in the news accurately represent reality… I believe the stories they tell me—people of color are treated differently than I am (to clarify, I am a white, middle aged, man, who is an atheist, and I have been married to the same woman for almost 34 years).

If we were to make a bar graph with adverse situations on the y-axis and racial identity on the x- axis, the data for people of color would show they experience greater adversity in our society, and I attribute this to race. Now if you maintain “all lives matter” and interpret that as “race should not matter,” then my imaginary graph should cause you distress. Once it has been demonstrated that one’s race affects one’s experience in society, then that must be addressed if you believe “all lives matter.”

For me, it comes down to two reasons that I cannot say “all lives matter.” First, those who hear me may assume I am racist; I have enough to do to recognize and counter systemic racism and to become anti-racist myself without making it worse by my language. Second, I see the evidence. We can no longer abide the racial disparities in our society. We have little hope for a prosperous and content future if portions of our population are adversely affected by their race. The end of my life will be better than the beginning of my life if we reduce the disparities associated with race in our culture and this cannot happen if we gloss over what is happening and counter with phrases like “all lives matter.”