crowd of protesters holding signs

“Black Lives Matter” Vs. “All Lives Matter”: the contrasting representations and consequences of each term in debates regarding racism

In the framework of the Master in Multilingual Communication, one of the main drivers for discussion and learning – and also one of the specializations – is Multiculturalism.

The text below is an example of a paper written by students from this program during the course Multicultural Discourses (Bloc 1), where they were to apply one of the learned concepts to a current topic that deals with diversity and social conflicts. 

Here the concept of competitive victimhood was selected in the context of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which moved many people in 2020 in several countries for the recognition, valuing and preservation of black lives against police violence.

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–       “Black Lives Matter!”

–       “No! All Lives Matter!”

This dialogue shows conflictual visions and, even though it is short, it is actually very meaningful. If you examine the lexical meaning of both phrases, they both appear as discourses which state that human life should be protected and valued – but, if we look further at the origin and symbolic charge of each term, they have quite different connotations.

The year 2020 has been intense in terms of the level of political debates and human rights demonstrations and one stands out in particular: the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It was created in 2013 by three African-American activists: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. At its base, the movement aimed to protest against the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin in 2012. “BLM” can be qualified as a political and ideological movement, fighting against the systemic oppression black people suffer, which can be seen daily in police and juridical violence.

Last year, it gained significant power in social media because of the large amount of protest marches after the murder of George Floyd, an African American killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, United States, in May 2020. He died by suffocation when the policeman pushed him to the ground, putting his knee over his neck. After the crime, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter gained a very high profile and led thousands of people to protest on the streets – even during a pandemic background.

According to The New York Times the Black Lives Matter movement can be considered as the biggest social movement in the history of the United States. On June 6th, 2020, the movement peaked when half a million Americans demonstrated in different locations.

Source: Los Angeles Times. Protestors in the United States, 2020.

The phrase « I can’t breathe », repeated several times by Floyd before his death, became a symbol of the protests. Several demonstrators wrote it on posters and masks.

It quickly gained global-recognition and demonstrations erupted around the world. The movement has been able to shed light on the universal problem of police violence. The concept of a common fight has been used, where groups decided to gather to fight against what they see as common oppression. However, it is in this convergence of struggles that created a space where members of other socio-cultural groups want to have the floor.

This is how the phrase “All Lives Matter” (ALM) emerged and it has begun to be used by critics of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a way of saying that other groups, from other ethnic-social backgrounds, also suffer from systemic violence. The denotation of the phrase tries to put them in a state of equity even though its connotation is conflicted:

Divergent tweets about the slogans

These different tweets allow us to understand a little about the points of view of the two movements. On the side of All Lives Matter, there is a recognition that black lives are threatened and this situation must be seen and reversed. However, it is also important to raise awareness that other ethnic-social groups’ threats deserve recognition.

On the other hand, the pro Black Lives Matter tweet responds that this is an unfair argument because it is the black community that is largely discriminated against and regularly endangered by systemic racism. It emphasizes that not all ethnic and social groups are on an equal footing.

The difference between these two points of view is actually a well-known sociological concept: competitive victimhood. The researchers Isaac F Young Isaac and Daniel Sullivan state that competitive victimhood is the tendency for one group to compare its sufferings with another group, ending up competing for victim status in different situations and social contexts.

By comparing one group’s suffering to another’s, competitive victimhood creates a conflict of accusations that ultimately drives them apart. For example, the contradiction created by the dialogue “- Black Lives Matter! – No, All Lives Mater!”: people feel voided in their speeches and the debate becomes a dispute over who is right, building opposition and driving away people who might have similar ideas.

Young and Sullivan explain that this can trigger a distortion of what “victimhood” really is, i.e. it creates distorted perceptions about the original motivation of the other group’s social “victimization” process. It is important to say that the word « victim », according to the authors, is not the best choice of groups that are discriminated, they often prefer to use the term « survivors ».

When a black person uses the BLM slogan and a person from some other ethnic group with high-status, i.e.  white, uses the flag of All Lives Matter, the latter is comparing its experience to a social and political process that a high-status group person has historically not experiencing. The cognitive processes, which are the perceptions based on people’s experiences, of a white person and a black person are not the same, because they do not share the same social experiences with regard to racial prejudice.

It could be argued that high-status groups can feel themselves wronged by accusations that they are racists.  Nonetheless, according to research by Young and Sullivan, people who feel this way are more likely to justify the social hierarchy and the status quo (which benefits them). This underlines the importance of the recognition of social privileges and that there is a difference in the treatment offered to people from different ethnic and social groups. The acknowledgment of these differences is the first step in balancing the status quo.

That is why the words « All Lives Matter » actually carry much more meaning than just saying that all lives, no matter what groups of people, matter. The denotation of the phrase, even if well-intentioned, is distinct from the connotations it implies and this can get in the way and have damaging consequences for the Black Lives Matter.

To sum up, it is important to take into account the meaning, reference, occurrences, connotations and possible inter discourses in which the phrase is being used. Understanding each other’s experiences is not an easy process, but can be facilitated through open and informed discourse.

Black Lives Matter’s fight is not over. Racism is a structural problem that permeates Western societies in a deeply rooted historical process. However, changes in the opposite direction must also be recognized, such as the unprecedented number of demonstrators on the streets in the anti-racist struggle and the record number of people online commenting on the issue. This is a demonstration of the power of social organization around a cause.

  •  This text was written by the students Anna Saliba Nogueira and Delara Pouya.