The Significance of ‘All Lives’

I am a white American, and nobody has ever doubted that my life matters.

Look at me. Look at my face. When people ask me what I am, where I’m from, if I say “I’m American” no one will ever turn around and reply, “No, what are you really?” There’s no special name for people like me – African-American, Native-American – there’s no prefix or condition to my American-ness. I’m just regular ‘American.’ No one will ever second guess that. 

My life is the manifestation of our founding fathers’ vision of liberty and justice for the majority. So many great stories are born of a struggle. These stories are forged of all the pain and hardship which has made the path to the American Dream the stuff of legend. I was born without a struggle to my name and I’ve remained the same ever since. Provided I don’t mess anything up too badly, I will go on to have a life of relative ease and success. But some won’t have it that easy simply because the odds were stacked against them from the day they were born – because of the color of their skin, their family income, or their national origin. 

Still, this idea of pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps persists, as the uniquely American strain of individualism has soaked through our ethos. The concept that hard work and sacrifice will bring about a prosperous life has driven droves of new Americans to our shores – but when they get here, many find that this romantic idea is far from reality. Some were even brought to our shores in chains, and this country is yet to truly repay its terrible debts. For many marginalized people, the star-spangled road to the American Dream is riddled with injustices passed down among the generations. But when we wish to remedy these ails, to level the playing field, what do we hear?

‘You are entitled to nothing. Nothing.’

So has said a million people who were born like me, looking downwards from their throne, barely getting the words past the silver spoon jammed down their throat. But we fail to consider that there are socioeconomic inequities deeply ingrained into our society and its institutions that cannot be cured with a little elbow grease.

Like the words inscribed at Lady Liberty’s feet: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free -” so we can steal the oxygen from their lungs as they suffocate under the weight of America on their back. Isn’t that how that one goes?

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask not. Why should you receive special treatment if all lives matter?” People like me have ignored this painfully obvious fact: that we have always been the ones entitled to everything – we’ve always had everything placed before us – just not them. The others. The ones kicked to the curb of society. Those shamed for the egregious crime of being born: born black, born a beggar, born beyond the border.

These age-old injustices in America were put on display over the summer, when the nation was sent to the streets in a reckoning with our identity unlike any other in recent memory. Our eyes were confronted with images of horrific racism and police brutality. It was an infuriating reminder of the seemingly immortal presence of bigotry in our country – no matter how hard we try, no matter how many lives are lost, it never goes away. And it won’t just disappear overnight. The summer of 2020 represented a long-overdue confrontation of the racism that is all too prevalent in our society. Throughout the crowds, three words rang out among every voice, a battle cry for an end to racism: 

‘Black Lives Matter.’ 

Yet, some objected to this highly unobjectionable phrase. Their response? ‘All Lives Matter,’ which, above all else, is profoundly lazy and demonstrates a lack of understanding as to what ‘Black Lives Matter’ really means. 

‘All Lives Matter’ sounds something like this. 

You’re sitting at an intersection when the car in front of you is T-boned by a cement truck. The windows shatter, the airbags deploy, and the engine bursts into flames. The driver crawls out, face bloodied, clothes ripped, and limbs dragging on the pavement. Soon thereafter, an ambulance arrives on the scene and several EMTs jump out. You furrow your brow, exit your minivan, and march over with your back poised in your best speak-to-the-manager stance. “Hey!” you shout at one paramedic, kneeling over the victim’s body, “Where’s my ambulance?”

They stare at you blankly, fiddling with a tourniquet in their hand. “Do you need medical assistance?” they ask. “Yes, I do,” you answer, “so forget about whatever this is, because I need you over here.”

“What’s the problem?” the paramedic inquires as the person below them chokes up blood. “Are you having a stroke?”

“No.”

“Are you bleeding?”

“Not currently.”

“Okay, how are you feeling?”

“Fine, thanks. How are you?”

They don a bewildered look and return to the crash victim, who’s beginning to look like he’s seen better days. Another EMT rushes over and begins spewing off some medical gibberish – something about severe ruptures to vital organs, so on and so forth. They go on about this and that until you’ve had enough. 

“Can’t you people talk about something else for once? I’ve got problems of my own, you know.”

The first paramedic springs up, irritated. “Yeah? Like what?”

“Well…” You tilt your head upwards, searching for a response. “My stomach kind of hurts, and- ”

Your revelation is cut short by the deafening sound of an explosion coming from the crumpled automobile. Flames overtake every inch of the vehicle. In the distance, you hear the blaring of a siren. You glance over to your minivan, still parked at the intersection, with a dent in its bumper. 

As a fire truck screeches to a halt and a dozen firefighters sprint toward the inferno, you tramp over there to give them a piece of your mind.

Likewise, opponents of the modern movement for equality forgo confronting the reality of discrimination in America and obstruct necessary discourse using self-absorbed and irrelevant justifications.

The idea that all lives matter, as a concept, is valid. Those three words, taken out of context, are true. However, when the origins of the phrase are examined, a more sinister nature is revealed between the lines. Before a few years ago, nobody said ‘All Lives Matter.’ They didn’t feel the need to. Then, in 2013, the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ was introduced into the popular lexicon in response to the controversial acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer. As that mantra rang through social media, a subset of frustrated contrarians staged a counter-attack: 

“Black Lives Matter? No. All Lives Matter.”

And thus began the most unnecessary culture war in recent memory. ‘All lives’ do, of course, include ‘Black lives.’ So, as aforementioned, that much is true – but it’s missing the point of saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’ 

Black people saw injustice on a systemic scale; mass incarceration, police brutality, the racial wealth gap, and countless other societal pitfalls prompted an outcry that echoed across America. ‘Black Lives Matter:’ not just a necessary reminder, but also a goal to eventually be reflected in our institutions. 

What others saw was an oppressed minority acknowledging that they were oppressed – and that made them uncomfortable.

Naturally, as this realization was antithetical to the denialist idea that America is already a post-racial paradise, the laziest of rebuttals emerged. ‘All Lives Matter’ is entirely a reaction to the idea that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and therefore should be rejected as a rallying cry for equality. This slogan does not come from a place of virtue, rather originating in feelings of exclusion from those that ‘matter’ or annoyance that they aren’t the center of attention. This is not to say that all lives don’t matter – they do – but rather to say that the two slogans’ implications are identical. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is an endorsement of the value of every life, but specifies where our focuses are most needed. ‘All lives’ is an ambiguous phrase that fails to encompass the intersectionality required to tackle issues of inequality in a diverse society. We’ll never end racism if we refuse to acknowledge its victim. Yes, all lives matter, but the Black lives included in that set are more likely to be marred by bigotry or ended by a police officer. 

‘Black Lives Matter’ should not be a controversial statement. In essence, it’s the bare minimum. To ‘matter’ is to be significant, to be worthy of respect and dignity. ‘Matter’ does not imply any superiority, nor special treatment. It’s the most basic form of humanity, to ‘matter,’ and it should be accessible to everyone. That includes the people society has marginalized, trampled upon, or taken advantage of. This concept, one would imagine, is the intention behind ‘All Lives Matter’ – and yet, if you ask a proponent of this expression to state its implication, that Black lives do indeed matter, they clam up.

That should tell you everything you need to know.

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