One item that survived my recent wardrobe clear-out is a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Refugees are welcome.” Taken at face value, it’s a lie. In the UK, refugees are decidedly not welcome, and never have been. Asylum seekers’ applications are readily rejected, many are detained and deported, and an alarming proportion of refugees are homeless. Yet the statement is meaningful as an expression of hope: I want to live in a world in which refugees are welcome. It’s a message of protest, a provocation, an objective.
We often use slogans that aren’t strictly true in the hope that stating them publicly prompts a moral conversation which might culminate in their truth. Like “girls can do anything” (in our sexist societies, they clearly can’t), or “all love is equal” (again, not without marriage equality, or if homophobia prevails), or the fact that we hold “Pride” marches even though internalised homophobia and transphobia means many people aren’t proud. These are rallying calls around which people organise their resistance to injustice. To see their sense, you have to step back and take in their social context: widespread sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
What do we mean by “Black Lives Matter”?
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement grew out of a hashtag that trended in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder, having shot dead a seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin when he was walking back from a corner shop in Florida, sweets and drink in hand. Seven years later, there has been a new surge of outrage and energy following the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by US police.
The tagline of this growing global movement against anti-Black racism operates similarly to those described above. It expresses mournfulness and anger, but also yearning.
“Black Lives Matter” points to two things:
- As far as various major social institutions are concerned—the police, the criminal justice system, medicine—Black lives don’t matter as much as other lives.
- Black lives should matter as much as other lives.
The first point is a descriptive statement. It describes the world, and its truth can be verified through data based on observations. In the UK, Black people are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white people, and Black infant mortality is twice as high. Black people are twice as likely as white people to be unemployed, and almost half of Black households live in poverty. Black people are ten times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and four times more likely to be arrested. They constitute 3 per cent of the population, but 8 per cent of deaths in police custody. Black lives are deplorably under-valued.
Black is not a scientific term, it’s a social one: there is no genetic basis for “Black” as a category, and two Black people chosen at random are likely to have less in common genetically than either has with any given white person. What Black people do have in common is the racism they face, which produces the discrepancies just described.
Turning to the second claim, “Black lives should matter” is what we call a normative statement. It's a moral proclamation, stating it's wrong that Black lives are under-valued. Moral statements cannot be verified by observations; they’re based on particular values that must be argued for. (I won’t argue that Black lives should matter. If that’s not a value you already hold and find obvious, this article is not for you.)
Why not “all lives matter”?
Soon after the inception of the BLM movement, it was itself thwarted by baffling accusations of racism, often accompanied with the rejoinder: “All Lives Matter.”
Clearly, as a descriptive statement, this isn’t true. Not all lives matter. (Consider the way Black people, other people of colour, refugees, Gypsies and Travellers, and homeless people are treated.) We could instead interpret it as normative statement: all lives should matter. Agreed. Yet context is very important. Note that nobody was saying “All Lives Matter” before 2013. Rather, it’s a direct response to BLM, and has no life outside that. And that's a problem, because if BLM is understood as a commitment to urgently tackling the violence and brutality of anti-Black racism, then blurting that “All Lives Matter” is at best, tangential, and at worst, a malevolent distraction.
Its effect is to stall conversations about anti-Black racism and instead either pretend that all lives do matter, or talk about everybody’s lives all at once, whether or not particular groups are subject to particular, potentially fatal injustices right now. This leaves no bandwidth to address the particularly brutal injustices that Black people face. Saying “All Lives Matter” violates the concept of triage in medical ethics, which demands that we address the most troubling or life-endangering issues first.
“All Lives Matter” is therefore an obstacle to tackling anti-Black racism. Sometimes, it’s a result of ignorance, a misinterpretation of BLM. More often, it's intentional; a filibuster, bent on derailing anti-racist work.
From bad to worse
Last week, a group of British football fans paid for a banner stating “White Lives Matter” to be flown over a football match in Manchester, right after the players had taken the knee in solidarity with BLM.
Given my arguments for “Black Lives Matter,” you might infer that the reasoning carries over to “White Lives Matter” with just one word substituted. Yet white lives are already valued, so what’s the fight for? Why fly a banner? White people earn more, are most likely to be employed, and least likely to be arrested. Consider that CVs headed with “white British” names are significantly more likely to get a call-back by UK employers than if they bear names associated with people of colour, even if the text is identical. There's no empirical evidence that white people struggle specifically because they are white. Being white is something that works in a person’s favour, even if their life might be hard for other reasons.
And here's the punchline. Many of those defending the football stunt claim to interpret “Black Lives Matter” to mean only black lives matter. They're wrong (see above), but if we follow this logic, it seems reasonable to assume they also think “White Lives Matter” means only white lives matter. That amounts to a statement in support of white supremacy. Anti-Black racism is not a mysterious, hidden phenomenon. Racism does not get more obvious than a person being shot while jogging, or a woman being killed in her bed by police. To send a "White Lives Matter" banner into the sky pushes beyond ignorance towards something far more threatening.
As BLM continues to gain momentum and institutions are compelled to change, we’re likely to see more reprisals of this sort. It’s a time for hope, but also for vigilance and continual solidarity. Those of us who are allies to this struggle have a duty to make sure the reasoning behind BLM is as clear as possible, so we can push this movement forward through the force of argument as well as the force of justice.