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The problem with ‘all lives matter’ | COMMENTARY

"A protestor chanting "Black Lives Matter" during a peaceful protest at City Hall in Baltimore.
"A protestor chanting "Black Lives Matter" during a peaceful protest at City Hall in Baltimore. (Kianna Wilson)

“All lives matter.” “Not all cops.” “Not all white people.”

The number of times these comments have littered my social media in the last month has made me both tired and angry in equal measures. I cannot begin to imagine how these same comments make my friends of color feel. Especially as people who look like their sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters are shot while asleep and choked in the street killed by the very people tasked with protecting them.

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It is difficult for someone like me to imagine, because episodes of police brutality are overwhelmingly directed toward black men and black women in this country; where black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men and black women, 1.4 times more likely than white women.

And while this reality leaves many of us bone-weary with the shock and frustration that it keeps happening, it is not surprising. We are precisely where our history has led us. A legacy of structural and historically violent racism has achieved exactly what it was meant to: a standard of explicit and implicit advantages for white people at the overt expense of people of color.

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All of that has created the context within which we find ourselves today. And if we are to have any hope in correcting this legacy — in making the country we all love live up to the ideals enshrined in our founding documents — we as white people need to confront our roles in these contexts and structures. But phrases like “all lives matter,” and “not all white people/cops,” undercut any effort to confront or address this reality.

Before getting to why, it is important to note that it’s often the case that when people refer to “cops” or “white people” in broad contexts, they are usually referring to the larger constructs that undergird the racism in our society and the institution of policing itself, not necessarily individuals. These constructs include the roots of American policing, which found its start in slave patrols and night watches, loosely organized groups specifically designed to police the behaviors of minorities. It includes modern-day policing practices like racial profiling and stop and frisks, as well as the prison industrial complex, and the training or lack of training protocols at precincts across the nation. It also includes the institutionalized, structural racism and individually-held latent biases that underlie our daily lives.

However, when white people enter the conversation about these critical underlying issues only to state that “all lives matter,” and that “not all cops or white people” engage in overt racism or police brutality, we not only minimize the broader issues at play, we actively erase the heinous acts that occurred in the first place and, in the process, mitigate our own culpability and accountability. Because in saying these statements, we seek to unburden ourselves of the difficult work of processing our own role (oppressor, beneficiary, complicit actor, silent bystander, etc.), in each of these complex contexts — because in saying these statements, we are saying that we aren’t one of those white people or cops, and therefore we do not need to change.

But the simple act of existing in America today makes us an integral and active component of the context that allows these episodes of racism and racial violence to continue. In denying that, we sidestep the opportunity to be a part of solving the root causes that have brought us here, and worse, we end up smothering the very conversation that could lead to those solutions.

My fellow white people, we do not get to unburden ourselves of this. We must finally begin to acknowledge this. To understand what this means. To educate ourselves about the history of these issues and the systems and structures that history has created. To acknowledge our own role in these systems and structures and our latent biases.

It means acting upon what we learn and using our enormous privilege to stand up to and speak out against racism where and when we see it. And most importantly, it means to talk less and listen more. Listening to those who have been crying out for centuries about the damage these systems have wrought, instead of telling those voices, “all lives matter,” “not all cops,” “not all white people,” and going back to business as usual.

Louise Flavahan (lflavah1@jhu.edu) is a senior public policy analyst in the Krieger School of the Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

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