Critical Thinking Note 19: What’s going on with Black Lives/All Lives*


So here’s a now familiar exchange:

  • B: Black Lives matter!
  • W: All lives matter!
  • B: Black lives matter!
  • W: All lives matter!

We pay close attention to logic in philosophy and from a logical point of view this is a sort of non-debate. That’s because “All lives matter” logically entails that “Black lives matter.” If all lives matter, then black lives matter. This is a truth of logic. B and W aren’t disagreeing with each other. So what is going on?

W might say something like this:

W: When you say, “Black lives matter” it sounds to me like you are saying that black lives matter more or that only black lives matter.

But that’s just not what “Black lives matter” says. To say that black lives matter more or that only black lives matter is to make a different claim altogether. In fact in clear headed moments, almost everyone, regardless of color, will say that it’s true that black lives matter and that it is false that only black lives matter or that they matter more. Our language is not such a hopeless mess that a simple clear obviously true sentence also says something false. The words “only” and “more” make a real difference in meaning and if this is W’s complaint, then she is reading something into the sentence “Black lives matter” that just isn’t there.

The sentence “Black lives matter” is beautifully simple and specific. It just says that black lives matter and we’ve already established that B and W recognize the clear and straightforward truth of this simple and specific sentence. So again, what’s going on?

“Black lives matter” says that black lives matter, not something more or something less. But even once we grant this, we might still see a difference in emphasis in the claims made by B and W. As the rallying cry for a movement, “Black lives matter” emphasizes that black lives matter. Emphasis doesn’t entail mattering more. Emphasis here simply draws attention to the fact that black lives matter.

W might feel that she is taking the moral high ground in emphasizing that all lives matter. All lives, after all, is the broadest, most inclusive class of lives. Why not give voice to this? Its truth seems just as compelling and worthy and maybe more so because it is more inclusive than the claim that black lives matter. So, W even has an argument for emphasizing that all lives matter.

All other things being equal, W’s argument for emphasizing that all lives matter would appear to be pretty compelling. But all other things are not equal and that is exactly why B finds it appropriate to emphasize that black lives matter.

When we look just at the content of the “Black Lives/All Lives” exchange, what linguist’s call the semantics and the rest of us might call the linguistic meaning of the claims, it’s hard to see just what’s going on. Yet it is clear that there is a problem. The emotional clash is obviously real. The problem lays in the rhetorical roles the slogans play and particularly how the “All Lives Matter” slogan serves to obscure the very real reasons for emphasizing that black lives matter.

This central question that W needs to consider is why people think it appropriate to emphasize that black lives matter. The rhetorical role of merely insisting that all lives matter is to provide a way of avoiding this question. That is, the rhetorical role of the “All lives matter” slogan is to turn a non-disagreement into an interminable pseudo-debate that leads to emotional conflict based on talking past each other without listening. While we’d all grant the obvious truth of the claim that all lives matter, the role of that claim in this context is to divide people against each other.

Could W reasonably claim that the same is true of “Black lives matter”? Could she claim that it is also divisive? Clearly many white people feel that the “Black lives matter” slogan is devise. But it’s not so clear that this feeling is reasonable. To get some handle on whether it is, we need to consider why people would emphasize that black lives matter. Given a good reason, we can’t dismiss “Black lives Matter” as mere divisive rhetoric.

So why would people feel the need to emphasize that black lives matter? The answer here is that our social practices, the way we roll, sometimes at an individual level but always at a systemic level, treats black people as if they don’t matter or matter a good deal less. Emphasizing that black lives matter is a response to the standing situation, not just an arbitrary shout-out for black people.

The movement and slogan emerged as a response to a pattern of unarmed black men being shot or killed by police officers who were then never held accountable. There is ample evidence for this in the cases of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the list goes on. But this is just one of the more dramatic ways among the great many ways, some large and some small, that our society is hard on black people. Here’s a short list of some of the further ways:

  • The racially targeted way in which the war on drugs has been prosecuted.
  • Racial disparities in administration of the death penalty.
  • Disparities that fall along racial lines in school funding at the K – 12 level.
  • Racial disparities in pay and household wealth.
  • Racial disparities in employment.
  • Racial disparities in access to health care and life expectancy.

There is lots of basic unfairness here and it is systemic. This short list addresses injustices that are well documented with easily accessible data and evidence. A richer understanding of how our society stacks things against people of color really requires that you listen to some of those people. As a white guy, my usefulness is pretty limited when it comes to describing the black experience in America. But telling other people’s story isn’t required for making sense out of what’s going on, what’s going wrong, in America generally, and in the “All lives matter” backlash specifically.

It seems to me that there is exactly one good reason for emphasizing race, skin color, in public discourse and that is in response to the history and ongoing legacy of racial injustice our society suffers from. This one good reason is exactly what the “Black lives matter” movement is about.

Russ Payne

January 11, 2017

* I miss Marvin Gaye. This song, What’s Going On, was among the first hits I can remember hearing on the radio as a child. Now it brings tears to my eyes. It’s not as if the early 70s was an idyllic time of racial harmony. But people like Marvin Gaye infused that time with a sense of hope and joy. What he says remains worth emphasizing, “We got to find a way to bring some loving here today.”

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