‘All Lives Matter’ Is Code For “I’m So Privileged That I Don’t Think Black Lives Matter”

Posted on July 14, 2016

By David Mallory

Black Lives Matter‘ arose out of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013 and the, all-too-frequent, murder of people of colour by American police forces as well as the attendant system of institutional racism within which police brutality is situated. ‘All Lives Matter’ and ‘Blue Lives Matter’ arise out of a privileged misconstrual of Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter Demonstrators March In New York City
Source: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

It seems obvious that ‘All Lives Matter‘ is the latter-day version of saying, “I don’t see colour” or “colour doesn’t matter”. ‘All Lives Matter’ is the refusal to acknowledge differentiation of privilege and the ways in which white privilege informs and reinforces institutional racism.

I am free to say that all lives matter when my life has always mattered as a white person.  I can say that colour doesn’t matter when my life chances and choices have not been constrained due to the colour of my skin.  By refusing to recognise institutional racism and its performance by privileged actors on a daily basis, racism is perpetuated.

All too many Americans slam ‘social justice warriors’ for perceived over-reactions on the issue of police violence against people of colour, just as they denigrate the LGBTQ movement or try to turn feminism into a dirty word.   These dismissals are interconnected; however one feels about the cultural trappings of social justice movements or the efficacy of social media activism, to reject them is patently reactionary.  Similarly, pernicious denials of racism aren’t only ignorant, they are nefarious when the outcome is the maintenance of the status quo.

‘Black Lives Matter’ and the multiplicity of ‘New Lefts‘ are pushing against entrenched systems of exploitation and oppression; even if their horizontalism leads to diffusion of focus, they are, nevertheless, fighting the good fight.   Whatever our racial or socio-economic position, we need to answer the very simple question: what side am I on?

It is critical to look at the big picture and affirm the truth that, whatsoever constrains the realm of the possible for the forces of oppression and the state apparatuses, is positive. Tactics and strategies will change but the pressure mustn’t stop. That which forces individuals to examine their own privileges and prejudices is positive.  To be white and uncomfortable means that things are moving in the right direction.

Similarly, if and when there are perceived missteps in such a chaotic struggle, we must recognise that these are small prices to pay for progress. Attempts to reframe the conversation around the shooting of police officers in Dallas or black-on-black crime or to divorce socio-economic issues from the moorings of institutional racism are ways, the forces of privilege are attempting to silence the opposition. Instead, they should be acknowledged as such and rejected as alternative narratives to the narrative of ‘Black Lives Matter’. Those who automatically drift towards the side of the police and are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, when they don’t give the benefit of the doubt to people of colour, reveal their true colours.

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A list of names of black people who have died due to police brutality. Source: Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Institutional racism and personal racism are mutually reinforcing internal relations.  ‘Black Lives Matter’ targets institutional racism by shining a light on police brutality against people of colour and the inaction by the judicial state apparatuses.  ‘Black Lives Matter’ targets personal racism by pushing issues of white privilege into white consciousness.

Racism directly impacts the life chances of people of colour and that’s why we have to say ‘Black Lives Matter’. Institutional racism is most clearly visible in the state apparatuses: the judicial system, the prison system and the police. The facts are overwhelming and belie anyone’s anecdotal complaints to the contrary:  Blacks are three times more likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop and four times more likely to encounter police violence during their interactions with police.  Despite making up only 13% of the US population and 14% of illegal drug users, 37% of drug arrests are African-Americans. African-Americans receive, on average, 10% longer sentences than their white counterparts, for the same crimes. One in three African-Americans will serve time in prison throughout their lifetime. In India, the story is much the same with comparable incarceration rates to percentage of population for Dalits and Muslims. Black college graduates have double the unemployment rates and have twice as hard a time finding employment as their white counterparts.  Black wealth is typically 6% of white wealth. The statistics that demonstrate institutional racism go on and on and are reinforced by personal racism and implicit prejudices. In virtually every measureable category, whites exert enduring and noticeable privilege.

We can also see institutional racism dovetail with the imperatives of capitalist exploitation through black unemployment and under-employment (11.4% unemployed compared to 5.3% for white Americans). Black America serves as a key element of the Reserve Army of Labour. Racism as ideology, serves to justify the narrowing of choices and chances for certain groups of people in terms of employment opportunities, options and remuneration in comparison with the dominant group – White America. This is a parallel process to the way public patriarchy subsidises low wages for working people by viewing the labour-power of women’s domestic work as part of the wage.

Despite these facts white Americans will spout nonsense about ‘reverse racism‘ just as many in India will bemoan reservations. This is the institutional corollary of ‘All Lives Matter’; in the face of the documented existence of ongoing discrimination, there is the insistence to treat everyone equally, where equal means the perpetuation of white privilege. Affirmative action/positive discrimination/reservation is essential to address these systemic inequalities. ‘All Lives Matter’ is the perpetuation of the status quo, an articulation of privilege in the face, to an organised and legitimate challenge to that privilege; privilege never cedes ground without a fight.

Again, we need to ask ourselves which side we are on and why.  Let us recall that in 1963, 60% of the US population opposed Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington. Today only 40% of white Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement. When the underlying causes of racism have not been uprooted then we will see that history runs in the same old patterns.

As we move forward we must put pressure on the state apparatuses that enforce institutional racism but we must also seek to change our interpersonal relationships as those of us with privilege unlearn our conditioning and seek to engage in a more equitable and aware manner. Those of us who are white must realise that we have racist baggage to deal with and that this is a process, not a one-off rectification. Above all else, we must always be on the side of those at a structural disadvantage, especially against the armed and militarised power of the state.

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