Black lives did not matter when they were inhumanely transported like livestock from Africa. Black lives did not matter when they were lynched by the hundreds at the hands of the KKK. Black lives did not matter when they were attacked by dogs as they protested for equal rights.
With the weekly news cycle seeming to, without fail, include the death of at least one black boy at the hands of the police, or the body of a black woman being thrown to the ground by local law enforcement, or a black child being manhandled by the services meant to protect them, my heart sinks as I cling to the desire that black lives will matter.
When Nancy Pelosi, as part of MSNBC’s town hall last year, was asked by student Shelly Ward if she supported the Black Lives Matter movement, Pelosi’s response was an all too familiar Well, I believe that all lives matter. Her statement was to the very obvious disappointment of the young black woman who asked the question, and to the disappointment of an exhausted black community.
As someone who is constantly bombarded with the howling of “but all lives matter”—and the heated conversations that inevitably follow—let me explain. Black Lives Matter is not a term of confrontation or an exclusionary demand. As Columbia Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw explains, saying black lives matter “is simply aspirational;” it's a rallying cry for a shift in statistical numbers that show that people who are black are twice as likely to be killed by a police officer while unarmed, compared to a white individual. According to a 2015 study, African-Americans died at the hands of police at a rate of 7.2 per million, while whites were killed at a rate of 2.9 per million.
Anyone who has kept any type of pulse on civil rights and the black human condition in the United States since the transatlantic slave trade would understand the need to emphasize the protection of black bodies. The people who have had the luxury of ignoring this particular issue is the white community, which has had the privilege of not questioning—on a large scale—whether the systems they live in are detrimental to their livelihoods, based on their skin color.
But as the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, they were all of a sudden jolted into an awareness of the intersection of race and surviving police encounters. Instead of exploring the reasons why a movement like this would even be necessary, many have a knee jerk reaction. “What about me?” “All lives matter,” they cry. “Why be divisive and unfair, what about our safety?” The point these people miss is that the majority of experiences here in America already tend to center and highlight whiteness and cater to its safety. The country was built to function that way. Its roots of white supremacy and the marginalized concern for people of color has remained.
Today, looking at the gross brutality and murders of black American citizens like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we are still aspiring to convince you that black lives matter.
But let's get back to the issue of countering Black Lives Matter with the phrase “All Lives Matter.” I've come to describe this as a collective gaslighting from the white community. Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power (or in this case, keep their own peace), makes a victim question their reality. Why do those who counter black lives matter act as though black people aren't aware of the glaring disproportionate statistics of police brutality, of health care racism, and of mass incarceration? This is our reality. You deciding to ignore it for your own comfort doesn't make it any less true.
If a patient being rushed to the ER after an accident were to point to their mangled leg and say, “This is what matters right now,” and the doctor saw the scrapes and bruises of other areas and countered, “but all of you matters,” wouldn’t there be a question as to why he doesn't show urgency in aiding that what is most at risk? At a community fundraiser for a decaying local library, you would never see a mob of people from the next city over show up angry and offended yelling, “All libraries matter!”—especially when theirs is already well-funded.
This is because there is a fundamental understanding that when the parts of society with the most pain and lack of protection are cared for, the whole system benefits. For some reason, the community of white America would rather adjust the blinders they’ve set against racism, instead of confront it, so that the country can move forward toward a true nation of justice for all.
Let me be clear: our stating that black lives matter doesn’t insinuate that other lives don’t. Of course all lives matter. That doesn’t even need to be said. But the fact that white people get so upset about the term black lives matter is proof that nothing can center the wellbeing and livelihoods of black bodies without white people assuming it is to their demise.
My personal message to those committed to saying “all lives matter” in the midst of the justice-driven work of the Black Lives Matter movement: prove it. Point out the ways our society—particularly the systems set in place to protect citizens like police officers and doctors and elected officials—are showing up to serve and protect black lives. Illuminate the instances in which the livelihood of the black community was prioritized, considering the circumstances that put us into less-privileged spaces to begin with. Direct me to the evidence of justice for the bodies discarded at the hands of those in power, be it by unjustified murder, jail cell, poisoned water, or medical discrimination.
These are the things that must be rectified for us to be able to exhale. Until then, I'll be here, my black fist raised with Black Lives Matter on my lips.