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Given the recent political upheaval and mass protests/riots with scores of people chanting "Black Lives Matter" on the streets, why is it considered white supremacist and racist to say "white lives matter"?

Are the two statements not exactly equivalent from an equality standpoint if all races are to be treated the same?

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11 Answers 11

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The best statement I've seen of the argument for saying "Black Lives Matter" is in a letter to The Columbus Dispatch from Stanley D. Krider, posted July 25, 2020:

I say “Black Lives Matter” because “All” didn’t include Blacks when whites said “All men are created equal.”

I say “Black Lives Matter” because “All” didn’t include Blacks when whites said “With liberty and justice for all.”

I say “Black Lives Matter” because “All” didn’t include Blacks when whites said “All men have the right to vote.”

The point of "Black Lives Matter" is a claim that US policies and practices, especially in policing, do not always treat "All Lives Matter" as fully including Blacks. Saying "Black Lives Matter" is a way of reminding people that the "All" in "All Lives Matter" must include Blacks.

Given the history quoted above of "All" not effectively including Blacks, there are grounds for suspecting that those who push "All Lives Matter" are trying to preserve that exclusion, and support a status quo in which Black lives are not treated as mattering as much as the lives of lighter skinned people. "White Lives Matter" goes even further in supporting unequal treatment, in practice, of Blacks in many situations.

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    Is the capitalisation of B in Black (and the lack thereof re the w in white) significant in those quotes? – Caius Jard Aug 8 at 5:38
  • @CaiusJard You would have to ask either the writer of the letter or the newspaper editor, whichever picked the capitalization. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 8 at 17:23
  • I think this is an extremely compelling argument. However, those quotes seem rather dated. Are there more recent examples? – adhanlon Aug 25 at 15:17
  • rather dated? that was less than two months ago. – yeah22 Sep 7 at 0:20
  • @yeah22, sorry, you've misunderstood me. I meant these quotes: "All men are created equal," which is from the Declaration of Independence (1776); “With liberty and justice for all," which is from the Pledge of Allegiance (1892); and “All men have the right to vote," which I think is from the 15th amendment (1870). My question was: are there more recent examples of when "all" didn't include black people? Because, to me, the argument is less compelling if all examples are 100+ years old. – adhanlon Sep 19 at 1:55
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Compare for example how you'd feel if people campaigning that ‘The Homeless need shelter’ were met with the counterclaim that ‘Home-owners need shelter’.

While that second claim isn't false in itself, it's missing the point so massively that it could only be a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the main point, and effectively deny it without being seen to do so.

Even claims that ‘Everyone needs shelter’, while on the face of it more neutral, would have a similar effect.

Yes, everyone needs shelter, including home-owners — but they already have it, while the homeless don't.  So it's the latter who are in need, and deserve attention and help.

The situation with race is of course impossibly more complicated than that, and as a middle-aged white guy in a not-very-diverse part of the UK, I don't pretend to have any deep understanding or experience of racism; I've never suffered violence or discrimination or hatred or suspicion for my ethnicity, nor even felt excluded or ‘othered’ for it.  But I wonder whether the simplistic analogy above might give us just a hint of what claims that ‘White lives matter’ sound like to those on the wrong side of it.

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    Another analogy is if two children are playing and Riley is hitting Jordan. Jordan's parent tells Riley's parent that Riley needs to be nice to Jordan...and then Riley's parent replies that Jordan needs to be nice to Riley. – user3067860 Aug 5 at 13:09
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    A similar example I’ve heard: A cancer fundraiser asks you to chip in, but you say, “Why just cancer? What about pinkeye?” The point of the fundraiser isn’t that cancer is the only illness. The point is that, unlike pinkeye, cancer is exceptionally common and stubborn, but also deadly. Focus is not exclusion. – Daniel Aug 6 at 6:26
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    Right on. I read it as "Black lives are treated as if they don't matter; black lives matter" (e.g. "The homeless don't have shelter; the homeless need shelter."). Focusing on only the second part of the statement either ignores or dismisses the first part. – Tyler W Aug 6 at 17:15
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    Only a few white live really matter. The one from famous rich people basically whom family are influent enough to ensure the case is solved. For other white people rest assured that they get it too. Actually more white are in that situation than black in US, this is just that black are over represented because racism is added on top that almost no live matter in such situations. – Nicolas Bousquet Aug 7 at 11:59
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    @NicolasBousquet So... Black lives are more impacted than white lives? That's kinda the point. – JS Lavertu Aug 7 at 13:19
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"White lives matter" is considered white supremacist because it was created and is promoted by white supremacists in direct opposition to black lives matter.

It is meant as a contradiction of "black lives matter" and an elevation of white lives over black lives.

Patricia and Ted have already explained well that "black lives matter" is used to point out systemic oppression of black people.

On the other hand, white people are not systemically oppressed, so while "black lives matter" is a response to a society that does not value black lives the same as white lives, "white lives matter" is stating that "(only) white lives matter" or that "white lives matter (more)".

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) states:

“White Lives Matter” is a white supremacist phrase that originated in early 2015 as a racist response to the Black Lives Matter movement [...]

Since 2015, white supremacists in several states, especially members of the Texas-based white supremacist group Aryan Renaissance Society, have promoted the slogan “White Lives Matter” [...]

By 2016 other white supremacist groups, including Ku Klux Klan groups, were also using the slogan, and it soon became a staple among white supremacist mantras

White Lives Matter is the name of a Nazi group. The slogan perfectly encapsulated their goal of "promotion of the white race".

This is the context the slogan was promoted in ("14 words" refers to the white supremacist slogan; the flag is the confederate battle flag):

white supremacists holding up a "#whitelivesmatter" banner, a "14 words" poster, and a confederate flag

Furthermore, the statement "X lives matter" in general implies that someone or something is specifically threatening X. In the case of black lives, this is systemic oppression and police violence. In the case of white lives - given the absence of systemic oppression of white people - this only makes sense in the context of the white supremacist and antisemitic white genocide conspiracy theory in which Jews threaten white lives by promoting miscegenation, abortion, etc.

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Context is important, and the context of these two claims makes a significant difference.

When people say 'Black Lives Matter', the context is a well-documented perception of systematic biases against people of color within the police and justice system, and a long history of racial oppression that extends before that. Civil authority was used to systematically oppress blacks during slavery, to systematically disempower and disenfranchise blacks during the Jim Crow era, and is still used to systematically target blacks for more intense surveillance, more frequent confrontations with police, and more severe penalties for any actual crimes. This much is not really in dispute. Some people argue that that blacks are treated far better now than they ever have been; some argue that black activists overstate the case for political ends; some argue that racial differences in treatment are the result of 'bad apples' and not any systematic bias. But no one argues that blacks are treated fairly or equally. 'Black Lives Matter' becomes a slogan for pointing out that differential treatment.

When people say 'White Lives Matter' (or worse, the occasional 'Blue Lives Matter', where 'Blue' refers to the police), the context is not any history or evidence of whites/police being treated unfairly under the law. There is no such evidence or history; whites in the US have generally enjoyed the benefit of the doubt in their interactions with police, judges, and juries; police are largely immune from any but the most damning cases. Instead, the context seems to be that whites and police are under constant threat from thugs, hoodlums, and criminals, many of whom are black. 'White/Blue lives Matter' become slogans signifying that the unequal treatment of blacks by the police and justice system is justified; in other words, that it is OK that police single out brown-skinned people for harsh (even lethal) treatment because 'White/Blue Lives Matter', and black people are a threat to white/blue lives. These slogans are little more than a sanitized version of the age-old fears that black people are animalistic and incapable of fitting into civilized society, and must be forcefully suppressed and controlled for the good of whites.

Everyone already believes that white lives matter; repeating it as a slogan sounds selfish and entitled, as though one is reminding everyone that 'White Lives Matter First'. Not everyone believes that black lives matter, so it's useful to keep that slogan floating through the public consciousness.

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Black Lives Matter is a prescriptive statement. It's saying that black lives should matter, and shouldn't be treated the way it currently is American society.

White Lives Matter is a descriptive statement. White lives already matter in American society, it's a completely banal statement and the only reason to say something like that would be to trivialize the goals of BLM. The only way for a movement to honestly advance such a slogan would be if they already believed that white lives were specifically under attack even before the BLM movement started (some sort of "white genocide" perhaps), and those people are all white supremacists.

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    Sorry, but the whole point of the question is that "Black lives matter" and "White lives matter" are grammatically and syntactically identical, so I don't see how you can label one as 'prescriptive' and the other as 'descriptive'. – Mike Brockington Aug 6 at 15:03
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    @MikeBrockington the point of the question was asking what makes two syntactically identical statements different. The difference is context, and this answer provides that context, as do others. – Kai Aug 6 at 15:22
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    @Kai But it starts off by stating as fact that there is a difference. – Mike Brockington Aug 6 at 15:39
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    @MikeBrockington English isn't a logic language. Words have meaning because of how people use them – Caleth Aug 7 at 8:36
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    @Teleka Again - your answer says "is a prescriptive statement". That is a reference to the SYNTAX of the English language. Context does not affect syntax to any meaningful extent, and certainly not in this case. The rest of your answer is generally fine, though a little simplistic. – Mike Brockington Aug 7 at 10:08
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I learnt this lesson at about 8 years old, from my grandmother.

It was Mother's Day and she gave me some money to buy a gift for my mother. I asked

Why don't we have a children's day?

She responded

we do! It's every other day of the year.

White lives clearly matter, that is evident through our actions. Black lives have, at times, often not been seen as mattering as much. In case you haven't caught on by now, black lives are the Mother.

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    I hate to be "that guy", but there is a World Children's Day observed by the UN, and a number of countries have their own Children's Day holidays. That doesn't detract from your point, though. It's the same reason we have a gay pride month, but not a straight pride month - straight pride is the other eleven months of the year. – F1Krazy Aug 5 at 15:12
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    @F1Krazy Sure, but that day is to mark the importance of child welfare. As an 8 year old, I was thinking more "give me presents". – Cloud Aug 6 at 16:45
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In order to further understand this, I found the frequently-cited and fairly influential article entitled #BlackLivesMatter: Epistemic Positioning, Challenges, and Possibilities by Catherine L. Langford and Montené Speight helpful. They have looked at particular movements sparked in response to the Black Lives Matter slogan, including 'White Lives Matter', predominantly on social media in the form of hashtags but also where these have spilled over into demonstrations or counter-protests.

Generally, on the subject of counter movements, and in particular on the '#WhiteLivesMatter' movement, they have this to say:

Movements counter to the #BlackLivesMatter movement play upon the phrase, including #AllLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, and #WhiteLivesMatter. These movements engage in a politics of erasure, shifting public focus from violence and discrimination against Black lives in an effort to re-center Whiteness. Each of these hashtags co-opts the #BlackLivesMatter movement by negating the Black race in favor of all persons, police officers, and White people. The first ignores the importance of race, the second rejects race in favor of institutionalized force, and the third decries reverse discrimination.

[...]

#WhiteLivesMatter attempts to re-center White privilege in a straightforward fashion by extolling the White race and denigrating the Black race. Although Nakayama and Krizek tell us that “white” remains “invisible as it continues to influence the identity of those both within and without its domain,” as it occupies “a largely unarticulated position,” the #WhiteLivesMatter does not allow the values of whiteness to remain invisible or unarticulated. Commentary on social media, at counter protests, and on flyers distributed in residential areas, proclaims White Americans need to pay attention to events, stand up for themselves, value their own lives, and realize that the news media will not cover discriminatory acts against White individuals.

[...]

These counter movements are just three examples of rhetorical plays on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Others include: #HispanicLivesMatter, #LatinoLivesMatter, #BrownLivesMatter, #AsianLivesMatter, #FetusLivesMatter, #BabyLivesMatter, #UnbornLivesMatter, #EveryoneMatters, #PoliceLivesMatter, #SouthernLivesMatter, #AmericanLivesMatter, #ChristianLivesMatter, #LGBTLivesMatter, #MuslimLivesMatter These are only a few. Not all riff on the hashtag in an effort to erase race, reify institutional violence, or declare reverse discrimination. Many plays upon the hashtag advance racial rights, pro-life beliefs, and people of different identities.

The ones discussed above, however, seek to invalidate the #BlackLivesMatter movement by re-centring whiteness. Whether by triumphing the value of all life, asserting the importance of the police, or decrying reverse discrimination, the rhetorical consequences of each is the same: to ignore, and thus to invalidate, the grievances of African Americans. The use and proliferation of alternate hashtags attempts to shift the focus from #BlackLivesMatter to maintain whiteness as a centralizing epistemology because no one critique can be sustained long enough to challenge it.

They argue, then, that the use of the term 'White Lives Matter' seeks to co-opt, and, perhaps, to minimalize the Black Lives Matter movement by re-centering 'Whiteness'. They argue that this attempts to frame the systemic oppression that Black people have faced in the past, and still face today, as equivalent to that faced by White people - something which is disingenuous at best.

In addition, they examine the actual movements and demonstrations that have spawned from the use of this phrase and find dog-whistle propaganda attacking Black citizens, the media, and calling on White people to 'be proud of their "people" and heritage' - something which out of context sounds fairly innocent. The argument that the phrase is racist because someone who is racist uses it is possibly an example of an association fallacy, but especially in a highly charged situation like this, it is necessary to take this factor into account.

The use of #WhiteLivesMatter on Twitter rearticulates the negative stereotypes of African Americans presented in media. Black citizens are characterized as “thugs,” “racists,” unintelligent, and “terrorists.” White citizens are “under attack,” “oppressed,” and should be proud of their “people” and their heritage. The media are “hypocrites” for covering up crimes against White individuals by Black perpetrators. Most of these appeals rely upon the false dilemma fallacy, contending that one group is good and the other is bad, or that to advance the rights for one group means that you do not value the rights of another. Following an incident in which #WhiteLivesMatter flyers were distributed to personal residences in Connecticut, for example, one blogger posted, “Black lives matter, and White lives don’t. The sentiment has been noted,” and, “Black lives matter. No one else’s lives matter. If you dare to ask why this is or disagree in any way, you are evil.”

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You need to look at the purposes behind the various slogans. When I hear these slogans, this is what I imagine those people are thinking:


"Black Lives Matter"

Society has been acting as if black lives don't matter. We need to protest to point out that black lives matter as much as all other lives. We're tired of having video proof of police executing unarmed black people and not facing any kind of punishment for it. We want the system to change, the police should at least be held accountable when they kill unarmed black people.

"All Lives Matter"

Of course black lives matter, but all lives matter. I don't see the problem. I don't understand why there are protests. Police are nice and good and they don't treat black people any differently. Maybe I haven't seen all the videos, but the black people that died in the ones I did see were criminals, and maybe criminal lives just don't matter as much. There's no systematic discrimination against black people, white criminals would be treated the same.

"White Lives Matter"

Option 1: I don't know any black people or think about their problems. Racism doesn't exist, everyone is treated equally. BLM are a bunch of trouble-causers and the movement should just go away. Those people that were killed by cops were criminals and had it coming. My slogan is a statement on how unnecessary and ridiculous I think the BLM movement is.

Option 2: I'm a neo-nazi. A race war is coming and "Black Lives Matter" is a shot in the war for public opinion. This statement is my retort. There is no problem with cops killing black people, those people were dirty criminals as are most black people.


"Black Lives Matter" came first. The other two are simply responses to the "Black Lives Matter" movement. As responses, both other statements are trying to silence or weaken the arguments behind "Black Lives Matter", they don't represent a greater cause in an of themselves, or at least I have yet to hear them espoused in that way. If there was a protest of the shooting of Daniel Shaver and people were holding 'All Lives Matter' or maybe even 'White Lives Matter' posters to protest police violence against all or other races that would be different.

From what I've seen I am pretty much on the "Black Lives Matter" side. I've generally had good experiences with cops myself. I got stopped walking home one late winter night because I had to get my car towed and the shop was pretty close to my house. The cop asked me where I was going and asked for my ID, I told her and gave it to her. My address was just a couple of blocks away and she told me there were reports of 'suspicious activity' in the area was why I was stopped. It was like 3:00 am and nobody was out. Would she have treated me differently if I was black? Did she stop because she couldn't tell I was white with my winter clothing on? I don't know. It was probably just because I was out late, but I've heard many stories where similar situations went down very differently for black people. Cops either drawing their guns or at least putting their hand on them and unbuttoning the holster in preparation to draw.

If you're in one of the other camps, try to listen to some stories from black people about their treatment by police. The Seth Meyers Show has a video of the openings of their show for a week where each night Amber Ruffin (a writer) tells a story of her interactions with police. It's very interesting to hear not only her stories, but her thoughts. And how she was treated differently when white friends were present.

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I'll make no commentary on whether WLM is racist or not, but I'll explain where the notion comes from.

"White lives matters" wouldn't be racist without the BLM movement.

Once "black lives matter" was coined, "white lives matter" was considered a commentary on that slogan - one that, arguably, wants to criticize the movement. It gained a connotation beyond the literal meaning.

Now criticism in itself is not inherently racist, as you can criticize any movement based on public relations (communications), goals, the pursuing of those goals (actions) and many other factors; and naturally even members of the movement might have slightly deviating opinions on those.

However, as with most emotionally charged movements, there is a strong "with us or against us" perception.

So the reasoning is this: "White lives matter" is against the BLM movement. The BLM movement stands for anti-racism. WLM must be anti-anti-racist, hence racist."

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  • I think this is the most accurate answer. Outside of emotional responses, 'black lives matter' and 'white lives matter' are both correct, and simply instances of the more general true statement, 'all lives matter'. However, once one phrase became associated with a movement, and hence emotionally charged, the other variations became viewed as deliberate signs of dismissiveness or opposition. – Ask About Monica Aug 18 at 17:31
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"Black" and "white" are not natural kinds, they are sociopolitical constructs. Their specific history in the United States was to establish two mutually exclusive groups, one of which was given rights and privileges denied to the other.

Many aspects of that persist into present day. Among those is the fact that "black" lives are not treated as having equivalent value to "white" lives by the police. This is systematically and persistently true across the entire nation. Black Americans are frequently killed by members of the police, who typically face few or no lasting consequence.

"Black Lives Matter," therefore, as a phrase, is a way of directly addressing the unspoken but pervasive definition of "black lives" as the "lives that do not matter." "White Lives Matter," on the other hand, is a reinforcement of the widespread idea that "only white lives matter," that whiteness is a prerequisite to having human worth. Finally, "All Lives Matter," while it may seem inclusive, is in the tradition of statements like slaveholder Thomas Jefferson's "All men are created equal," where "all" is treated, functionally, as equivalent to an unspoken "all white."

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I'm white, so obviously my white life matters very much to me. However, up to a few months ago, I regularly walked past police officers armed with machine guns on my way to work most days, and didn't feel in any way afraid. But I personally know black people who have been regularly harassed by police for no reason whatsoever. So it is entirely inappropriate for me to shout "White Lives Matter". Because it is much less likely that I meet some police officer to whom my life doesn't matter than a black person in the same position.

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