There is No “All Lives” Without “Black Lives”

Black woman holding a protest sign. Photography Credit: Johnny Silvercloud
Written by Guy Nave

In 2016, a standup comedian named Michael Che did a skit that grapples with the question, “WHY is MATTERING so controversial.” While the skit is more than 6 years old, to me it is still one of the most relevant (and funniest) explorations of this question.

Excerpt from the standup routine “Michael Che Matters.”

“Black Lives Matter” and White Hallucinations

I recently read a powerfully poignant and insightful 2020 Medium article by Johnny Silvercloud entitled, “Does the Phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ Cause White People to Hallucinate?”

Silvercloud’s premise is that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” causes many white people to hear (or see) in the phrase something that does not exist in the phrase. For some reason the phrase causes many white people to hear (or see) the word “ONLY

While the word “only” is not part of the phrase, what many white people hear is “ONLY Black Lives Matter.” Silvercloud argues that because many white people hear the word, “ONLY,” they feel compelled to respond, “ALL Lives Matter.”

While I agree with Silvercloud’s assessment, I believe there is another factor at work as well.

When Have ALL Lives Ever Mattered in America?

Are people who say “All Lives Matter” simply offended because they think black people are suggesting that ONLY black lives matter? Do these people really believe ALL lives matter?

What evidence do these people produce affirming that ALL lives matter? While ALL lives SHOULD matter, what evidence can be presented showing that ALL lives really do matter?

When in the history of America has this nation demonstrated that “ALL Lives Matter”?

  • Was it when European colonizers arrived and engaged in the slaughter of millions of indigenous people?
  • Was it in 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to America?
  • Was it in 1776 when the Constitution counted enslaved people as 3/5 a person?
  • Was it in 1857 when Chief Justice Roger Taney issued the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case? In the majority opinion, Taney asserted:

[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect;

  • Was it in 1865 when the nation went to war because several states wanted to defend slavery?
  • Was it during the post-war period of Reconstruction?
  • Was it during the period of Jim Crow segregation?
  • Was it in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon put an end to the National Institute of Mental Health researching racism as a public health issue?
  • Was it during the racist tenure of the beloved Republican icon, Ronald Reagan, whose racism helped paved the way for Donald Trump’s racist “Make America Great Again” rhetoric, practices, and policies?

Our nation’s history is full of evidence that black lives have not mattered to many (and at times most) Americans.

So when black people — from a place of frustration, pain, anger, and disappointment declare that our lives matter — WHY do so many white people respond with a knee-jerk and unproven assertion that ALL lives matter?

We Can Only Arrive at Universals by Recognizing Particulars

The phrase, “Black Lives Matter” represents what some scholars call targeted universalism.”

Targeted universalism asserts that while we should be universal in our goals and aspirations, we often have to be targeted in our strategies based on where we are situated in our structures, our cultures, and our environment.

There is a common aphorism, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” The idea is that an improved economy will benefit all participants and that economic policy, particularly government economic policy, should focus on broad economic efforts. The problem, however, is that some folks may not have a boat; the rising tide, therefore, does not lift them but instead drowns them.

Targeted universalism acts like the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”: drawing our attention to structures and how different groups are situated within structures so that we can develop targeted strategies and pathways that get ALL of us to universal goals.

While the phrase, “All Lives Matter,” might reflect a goal (or aspiration), simply proclaiming the phrase does not get us there. If all we do is declare, “all lives matter,” we are actually ignoring the reality in America.

All lives have not (and do not matter) in America, which has resulted in a difference regarding how white people and black people are situated — not only in our geographic and psychic structures — but also in relation to institutional structures like the police and the so-called “legal justice system.”

Replacing the TARGETED phrase “Black Lives Matter” with a so-called universal phrase, “All Lives Matter”, causes us to slip into a false assumption that we are all similarly situated.

Black People and White People are not Similarly Situated in America

As Silvercloud rightly points out, “The problem is that the phrase all lives matter assumes all lives are under the same threat, which in turn ignores the exact statement black people are saying” when we say, “Black Lives Matter.”

Black people and white people are NOT similarly situated in America. Everyone is NOT under the same threat of state-sanctioned (or at least state-permitted) violence.

When I was a child, the situation in America did require any of my 6-year-old white friends to get up every morning at 3:00 am with their father to remove burning crosses off their front lawn so their mother wouldn’t see them when she woke up to go to work.

None of my white childhood friends had to experience their father getting frustrated with them for repeatedly asking why they couldn’t go inside and eat at particular restaurants where other families were eating because their father didn’t know how to tell them they weren’t allowed to go inside and eat because they were black.

None of my white schoolmates had to get “the talk” regarding how to conduct themselves in public because one socially “unacceptable” action could result in their lives being ended.

As it relates to the experiences of black people in America and the goal of creating a world where ALL lives really do matter, targeted universalism acknowledges that while ALL lives should matter, the lived experiences of black people in America make it clear that black lives have never mattered as much as white lives.

While my experiences as a black child do not deny the reality that white children also experienced difficulties growing up — (e.g. being bullied in school )— their difficult experiences were not the result of 400 years of anti-white hatred.

Their difficulties were reflective of the difficulties everyone experiences as a part of life — as a part of the personal and often unique life circumstances everyone experiences.

On top of regular life experiences, however, black people ALSO have to deal with a legacy of 400 years of anti-black hatred in this country. Black people and white people are NOT similarly situated in America.

“Black Lives Matter” Forces White America to Acknowledge the Long History of Anti-Black Hatred in America

Black people have only truly had civil rights in this country for the past few decades. It is so recent that it is within my own lifetime. I would argue that much of the resistance to the BLM movement is rooted in the fact that the movement (like most social justice movements throughout American history) undermines the way many white Americans want to see themselves and their country.

The BLM movement, like many black civil rights movements of the past, threatens white people’s conception of themselves. Saying “Black Lives Matter,” forces a reckoning with the racialized violence of America’s past (and its present).

I believe many white Americans respond negatively to the phrase, “Black Lives Matter”, not simply because they are hallucinating and seeing the word “ONLY”, but because they want to ignore and/or deny the reality of anti-black hatred in this country. They want to be “colorblind”

Anti-black hatred in America is as old as America itself, and it serves as one of the pillars of white supremacy. Not until the anti-black hatred in America is honestly acknowledged and confronted will black lives ever REALLY matter in this nation.

Rejecting the History of Anti-Black Hatred in America

The resistance to the teaching of the 1619 Project in America is NOT about resistance to critical race theory; it’s about resistance to honestly acknowledging the anti-black hatred upon which this nation has been built.

Teaching history is not about teaching critical race theory. It’s simply about teaching history. And if we as a nation refuse to acknowledge and grapple with the “anti-black” hatred that is part of this nation’s history, Black Lives will never matter in this country. And if Black Lives do not matter, then All Lives do not matter.

State legislatures across the U.S. are condemning the 1619 Project as “divisive.” Many state legislatures argue that the 1619 Project seeks to disregard the history of the United States and the nation’s journey to becoming a “pillar of freedom in the world” by attempting to reeducate children into the belief that they need to be ashamed of or limited by their race and ethnicity.

The 1619 curriculum, however, simply seeks to make visible the anti-black hatred upon which this nation has been built so that we can actually become a nation in which ALL lives actually do matter.

Living in Iowa, I am acutely aware that the Iowa legislature passed a law banning the 1619 Project and 10 “specific defined concepts.” The banned concepts include ideas such as the notion that the U.S. or Iowa are “fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.” The law bans suggestions that someone of any race or sex “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past” by members of their race or sex.

Teaching about systemic racism or slavery, however, is not about suggesting anyone today “bears responsibility for the past.” It’s simply about acknowledging the past honestly and recognizing the harmful legacies resulting and continuing from that past.

Among the banned concepts IS any assertion that might make any individual feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of their race or sex.

For the most part, the bill is meant to protect cisgender hetero-normative white people (especially white men) from feeling discomfort or guilt. Schools have rarely cared that school curricula in America make black people, women, or members of the LGBTQIA+ community feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of their race, sex, or sexual orientation.

Bans against the 1619 Project are not about banning “critical race theory”; they’re about banning accurate depictions of black experiences in America. They are about denying and even erasing the history of anti-black hatred upon which this nation has been built.

Anti-Black Hatred Prevents Many White People from Imagining “Black Lives” as Representative of “All Lives”

I believe it is the refusal to acknowledge and grapple with the anti-black hatred upon which this nation has been built that prevents many white people from embracing the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”

This refusal to acknowledge the anti-black hatred upon which this nation has been built helps explain WHY a common white instinctive response to black injustice is not to declare “Black Lives Matter,” but to say, “All Lives Matter.”

The history and legacy of anti-black hatred in this country have created a situation where the nation’s moral imagination simply cannot hold a vision in which black lives matter as much as white lives, nor a vision in which Black Lives serve as a symbolic representation for ALL Lives.

When black people say, “Black Lives Matter,” we are saying “ALL Lives Matter.” In this context, Black Lives are representative of All Lives.

Unlike many white people, most black people understand that ALL lives will NEVER matter until Black Lives Matter. And that is simply a hard reality for many white people to get their minds around or to accept. That is why they respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter.”

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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.

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