Unpacking “Black Lives Matter” – by Terry Howard

 “The Black Lives Movement wants to see the destruction of the nuclear family.”
     “BLM is a hate group that’s planning to destroy the police.”
 “Let us not be confused. BLM is nothing but a Marxist group.”

These are actual quotes – from politicians running for office (surprise, surprise, surprise) – that typifies how Black Lives Matter has become a convenient boogey man – a political wedge issue – these days. However, the words have moved from baseball caps and posters. They’re now painted in large letters on streets in New York, Washington, DC and other cities. You’ll even find the words on tattoos, and even engraved on protective masks to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Now despite the attacks, recent polls show more than 60% of Americans support the movement, and an increasing number of white Americans agree that minorities are not treated equally by the criminal justice system. Many of these folks have moved from words to action.

So how do we explain the dichotomy? What analogies can we offer to help those who genuinely want to know the “why” behind the movement while not wasting time on those who don’t? Maybe we begin with a 20 second “Black Lives Matter” history lesson in this paragraph:

Black Lives Matter is a movement that got its start in the aftermath of the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin and was first conceived during the days following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Martin. The movement slowly took shape over the course of the following year and picked up momentum when Michael Brown was shot in St. Louis. Today members of the movement intermingle with protesters in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Clearly the image of Black Lives Matter is so common that you’ll find it everywhere across the globe.

Now Black Lives Matter does not mean that other lives matter less. Of course all lives matter. However, Blacks are disparately impacted the most due to systemic racism and bias as evidenced by research and statistics. Plus, Blacks continue to be underrepresented in most organizations and over-represented police stops and in the prison system. The data don’t lie.

Now with that as a background, a new phrase came into circulation as a direct response to Black Lives Matter: “All lives matter.” It is frequently used on social media and elsewhere as a criticism of the Black Lives Matter concept. Some feel that “All Lives Matter” itself is racist.

“When we think about terminology (All Lives Matter), we must think about the words themselves and what the impact of those words are,” said Dr. Katheryn Russell-Brown, the University of Florida. “We can’t disagree with the goal of all lives mattering. But when we look at the context of race relations in this country, not all lives have mattered and not all lives matter the same. So when ‘all lives matter’ is put out there as a response to ‘Black lives matter,’ that erases the reality of Black life, white life, Asian life, Native American life, and Latinx life; everything is not the same.”

“The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ is an inclusive assertion,” says Waldo Johnson, Ph.D., The University of Chicago. “By countering with ‘All Lives Matter’, one misinterprets or completely misunderstands what the original phrase means. People who respond in this way are likely looking at the phrase as if the speaker is saying only Black Lives Matter, which means they belittle its importance. Black Lives Matter has an implicit “too” at the end.

Now because I don’t know Russell-Brown or Johnson personally, I decided to reach out to several folks I know in search for analogies and other answers for how best to respond to those who say, “all lives matter.” Sift through them and decide which one(s) to add to your repertoire:

SaidTonyfrom New Jersey, “I really feel that we need to understand that there are people who really do want to understand. When they say to me that all lives matter, I take those as opportunities to educate. Now some agree and some don’t and I’m fine with that.”

“Think of it this way,” SaidDonnafrom Nashville, “ If you get into a car crash and one person has a serious head injury but the others have a few bumps and bruises, the person whose life is at risk gets first priority when it comes to medical care. That does not mean paramedics will not help the rest of the passengers, but that triage places the direst situation first in line.”

Said “Regina” from Houston, “I’ve heard some use the analogy of the burning house in the neighborhood that seems to work. The firetruck does not spray all the houses on the street. It’s the one on fire that needs immediate attention first for the safety of the entire neighborhood.”

Warns “David” from California, “Be careful that other groups don’t try to hijack the conversation with ‘all lives matter.” I know that other demographics have their issue, and when their turn comes, we’ll focus on them, but right now we must focus is on Black people because that’s where the discrepancies are.”   

“Lilly” from Dallas wonders if personalizing the message would help. “If I said, “Black Lives Matter to Me” would it seem less like I was challenging someone to debate with me?”  I find that there are fewer arguments with “I” statements.” 

Terry Howard

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