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Gordon Hodson Ph.D.

Is the “All Lives Matter” Slogan Racist?

Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter. Is either a racist slogan?

This post is in response to
#What Lives Matter?

In response to racism, especially the perception of race-based mistreatment by the police, the Black Lives Matter social movement has gained considerable momentum. Some even refer to this as the second Civil Rights movement.

Following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement was the All Lives Matter movement, particularly among Whites. This slogan, on the surface, appears inclusive and prosocial. But some Whites insist that all lives matter while simultaneously expressing strong resistance to the notion that Black lives matter (captured well on Sam Bee’s show Full Frontal). This begs the question: if you genuinely believe that all lives matter, wouldn’t you have no problem acknowledging that Black lives must matter?

If you’re following the news, you’ll observe many claims that All Lives Matter is a race-based response. It is certainly true that many Black Americans are deeply offended by, and frustrated with, the All Lives Matter movement (for a good explanation I refer you to this article at the Huffington Post by John Halstead). As Halstead points out, All Lives Matter is a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. And it is problematic because it takes attention away from the genuine racism that minorities face daily.

In many ways, the All Lives Matter response is an old communication tactic packaged in a new form. Consider the following anecdote. I recently ran into a (White) neighbor; out of the blue, he started complaining about how our (Canadian) government recently accepted a large number of Syrian refugees when there are so many Canadians who need help. To be clear, I am not disputing the fact that many Canadians need help. Indeed, that is precisely why such statements can be persuasive (i.e., because it contains some truth). But, just as we didn’t hear White people running around saying “All Lives Matter” before the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, I’d never before heard my neighbor complain about the number of Canadians needing help. The problem with his statement is the same as the problem that accompanies the All Lives Matter movement – it takes attention away from a serious problem (in this case, the fact that many Syrians, even women and children, are being persecuted and killed).

As a psychologist who studies prejudice, I’d like to focus on another problem with statements such as All Lives Matter. Publicly endorsing such statements bolsters and gives cover to bigots, even if you are not a bigot yourself. To be clear, if you endorse the All Lives Matter slogan, I cannot know if you are racist (I would need more information from you to make such an assessment). So endorsement does not necessarily mean that you are racist. But if you endorse this slogan, you are undoubtedly sharing an opinion with racists. Not only should that bother you for its own sake, but it should bother you that your endorsement “validates” a slogan for use by racists.

This point is worthy of clarification. In previous postings (here and here) I have discussed the research in our lab on “cavalier humor beliefs” (the belief that jokes are just jokes). There is nothing necessarily racist or sexist in endorsing such beliefs; some people really do just treat jokes as amusing and harmless communications. And indeed, jokes often are precisely that. Jokes. The problem is that racists and sexists can highjack or borrow this jokes-are-just-jokes expression/belief, using it as a means to divert assertions of racism or sexism when they are communicating or appreciating humor that disparages and oppresses other groups.

To recap: not everyone who believes that jokes are just jokes is prejudiced. But this means that bigots can hide behind this belief when expressing genuine bias toward women, Blacks etc.

The same is true of the All Lives Matter slogan. On the surface it seems very inclusive and prosocial. There are, without doubt, people who endorse the slogan and harbor no ill intentions toward Blacks or other marginalized groups. However, someone who communicates the slogan, even if not personally racist, nonetheless provides social validation in ways that allow bigots to more freely express their biases.

If you consider yourself the type of person who is not racist, there are good reasons to stop using the All Lives Matter expression. First, Blacks find it offensive, and if you’re genuinely not racist, stop saying something that Blacks consider offensive. Second, stop providing the cover and legitimacy for bigots by socially validating the expression yourself.

If, after considering my column, you still support the All Lives Matter movement, then the world can presumably look forward to you becoming a strong advocate for the mistreated and downtrodden. Indeed, once you believe that ALL lives matter, you will openly embrace veganism and become an advocate for tackling climate change.

References and Suggested Readings:

Hodson, G., Rush, J., & MacInnis, C.C. (2010). A “joke is just a joke” (except when it isn’t): Cavalier humor beliefs facilitate the expression of group dominance motives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 660-682. DOI: 10.1037/a0019627

Hodson, G., & MacInnis, C.C. (2016). Derogating humor as a delegitimization strategy in intergroup contexts. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 2, 63-74.

Hodson, G., MacInnis, C.C., & Rush, J. (2010). Prejudice-relevant correlates of humor temperaments and humor styles. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 546-549. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.05.016

Hodson, G., Dovidio, J.F., & Gaertner, S.L. (2004). The aversive form of racism. In J.L. Lau (Ed.), The psychology of prejudice and discrimination (Vol 1., pp. 119-135). Westport, CT: Praeger Press.

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About the Author

Gordon Hodson, Ph.D. is a professor at Brock University.