What Is ‘All Lives Matter’? A Short Explainer

Why the phrase has generated so much frustration

This week, the singing group The Tenors suspended a member who added the words “all lives matter” to Canada’s national anthem at Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.

As the debate around race and law enforcement has grown — especially since the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five police officers in Dallas — there remains considerable debate and confusion surrounding the phrase “All Lives Matter,” which appeared often on social media before becoming part of a major sporting event.

How has a phrase that seems to state a non-controversial idea — all life is important — turned into a source of contention? It’s because the phrase doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

What is “All Lives Matter”?

The “Black Lives Matter” movement was first created by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. But as BLM began gaining widespread attention, people started using #AllLivesMatter in response to the movement.

What’s wrong with saying “All Lives Matter”?

One of the largest misconceptions surrounding the BLM movement is that its supporters believe that only black lives are important. Members of the movement say that is not the case.

When the phrase “All Lives Matter” is used in response to the BLM movement, it essentially ignores the systemic racism that black people face, according to Ashton P. Woods, a community activist and Black Lives Matter Houston organizer.

“It started popping up when people who decided that in their infinite white privilege, ‘What about me? I matter too,'” Woods told TheWrap. “These people have no idea what the plight is of a black person.”

Society already values white lives. And as UC Berkley’s Judith Butler explains, universalizing the issue into “All Lives Matter” fails to acknowledge that society doesn’t consider black lives to fall under the same umbrella as “all lives” — which often gets translated into just “white lives.”

Supporters of “All Lives Matter” say they use the phrase because they want to express that not just black lives are important.

But BLM supporters stress that the movement isn’t about believing no other races matter. Instead, the movement seeks to highlight and change how racism disproportionately affects the black community, in terms of police brutality, job security, socioeconomic status, educational opportunities, and more.

“When we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ we’re talking about dismantling the system that has existed for over 400 years and making sure that we build our own table,” Woods said. “We can’t build our own table and supply our own needs and demands without making sure the system that is preventing us from doing it is dismantled.”

“Across the board, when you look at how we’re treated holistically, you’ll see that many of these issues are not indicative of the people who say ‘All Lives Matter’ because they don’t have to worry about that,” Woods added. “Nobody knows what it’s like to be black except for a black person, and that’s culturally and ethnically speaking, because ‘blackness’ is not a monolithic thing.”

I still don’t understand.

Critics of “All Lives Matter” say the phrase takes away from the root of the problem that the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to change and instead supports the system of power already in place.