When I march in protest with my peers and say “black lives matter,” I do so because there is no shortage of Americans who believe that black lives are disposable. The wanton use of excessive force by police officers against young black males is well-documented: despite comprising 13 percent of the national population, black Americans are victims of roughly one in four police shootings. In our own community, we have seen one of our black students, Martese Johnson, bloodied by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents whose racial biases, implicit or explicit, likely affected their ill disposition towards him — and even if they didn’t in this instance, the possibility of prejudice alone illustrates just how heavily race hangs over the heads of those who regularly run into racism. I say “black lives matter” because America has declared open season against young black males, and I am embittered by disrespectful University students who insist on replacing “black lives matter” with “all lives matter.”
“All lives matter” masquerades as a good-natured mantra that unites different communities against injustice and all of its manifestations; beneath a superficial level, it is an insensitive appropriation of a phrase created by black Americans in search of solidarity following the tragedies that have befallen young black males. A friend explained it to me as analogous to an individual approaching a charity bake sale for cancer and imploring the organizers to consider the struggles that other patients face. Those who say “all lives matter” hijack an expression that affirms black lives in a world where cultural and institutional practices disadvantage them. These individuals subsume struggles specific to black Americans under a broader, whitewashed vision for equality and racial colorblindness that is more palatable to non-black Americans.
I don’t mean to accuse all who have said “all lives matter” of co-opting a phrase that does not belong to them. Those who say “all lives matter” may not be aware of the implications of those words and may have just picked up the phrase from social media, unlike those who pretend racism in law enforcement does not exist. The latter are the kind of people who say that they “don’t see race,” the kind of people who rear their ugly heads each time a black body bears the brunt of violence. These are the people who drown out black voices through whitewashing; by saying “all lives matter,” they create a more sanitized view of social inequalities.
Expressing the slogan that emerged from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson as “all lives matter” places non-black Americans at the center of a tragedy that does not bear any consequences for them. “All lives matter” diminishes the racial element of the issues that permeate the American criminal justice system. The application of justice in our nation is unequal, so it only makes sense that we direct our concern towards affirming the value of black lives. “Since this country's founding the law has been used to protect the life, liberty, and property of white men, yet that same law has been warped and manipulated to disenfranchise black people from those basic rights,” University NAACP Chapter President Vj Jenkins said. “While [some white men and women] see the police and see safety, a person to call to for aid, so many of my people see the lessons history has taught them. They see Brown v. Mississippi where police officers hung a man by a tree and beat him until he confessed to a crime he did not commit.”
Injustices associated with law enforcement affect all, but black Americans are by far the greatest victims. It would be dishonest to neglect differences in the way black and non-black bodies are treated by American institutions. The very fact that certain people are able to ignore racial disparities and declare that all lives matter demonstrates that not all lives matter the same. According to Jenkins, “[Black Americans] have been brutalized in a manner not befitting of wild animals. History has told us that our lives mean nothing.”
I would love to live in a racially colorblind world where all lives matter. But this world does not exist. Race matters, and so for as long as injustice threatens justice, I will choose the side of the oppressed. For as long as strange fruit continues to hang from America’s poplar trees, I will assert that black lives matter.
Nazar Aljassar is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.