Image Description: A crowd of people protesting in Perth. Many have one arm raised, with others holding signs such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Australia is not innocent”.
By Lachlan Hardman
In the wake of the death of George Floyd and the huge protests which have erupted across the United States (and the world), the slogan “Black Lives Matter” has become part of the public lexicon. The phrase is not new; it emerged as a social media hashtag in 2013 following the police-shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen, the previous year. But once again, it has risen to prominence as people rally against the racial discrimination and inequalities that exist not only in the U.S. but in their home countries as well.
With every movement, there is always a countermovement—the term has been facing increasing resistance and criticism through the use of the counter-slogan, ‘All Lives Matter.’ The argument surrounding ‘All Lives Matter’ relates to an idea that is not new in conversations about racial discrimination. It asserts that, by focusing exclusively on the inequalities of one demographic group, we are unfairly targeting a single set of people and ignoring the challenges that others face in a kind of ‘reverse-racism’.
People posting ‘All Lives Matter’ have faced a lot of backlash, notably from celebrities like Billie Eilish and Ashton Kutcher.
Billie provided an example, asking if someone’s house was on fire and a person was trapped inside, “are you gonna make the fire department go to every other house on the block first because all houses matter???… No, because they don’t f—- need it.”
Admittedly, what Billie is saying isn’t totally fair. Issues like poverty or police brutality aren’t limited to one group, racial or otherwise. 1,100 people were killed by police in the U.S. last year, and only 25% of them were black. Prejudice, discrimination, and hardship are things that many different types of people can experience.
However, the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ implies that the frequency and intensity of discrimination are spread equally amongst all groups and types of people. This is not the case. It is overwhelmingly clear that in places like the United States and Australia, there is one demographic group which is disproportionately affected by experiences of discrimination and highly intense racially centred hostility, as well as experiencing on average lower levels of wellbeing including access to healthcare, education, employment, and opportunity. This group is black people. While 25% of people killed by police last year were black, they only comprise 13% of the U.S. population.
Image Description: An Australian Black Lives Matter protest. Thousands are gathered with stern expressions, holding signs with “Black Lives Matter” written on them.
We know that in Australia, on average, Indigenous life expectancy is more than seven years less for each sex compared to non-Indigenous people, child mortality rates are 2.4 times higher, school attendance rates are 11% lower, there is a greater prevalence of alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence, and 30% of Aboriginal males will come before Corrective Services at some stage in their lives.
Racist rhetoric might put these disparities down to inherent inferiorities; a lack of willingness to work hard where blaming others is an excuse for self-imposed inequality. That’s one argument the ‘All Lives Matter’ slogan implicitly suggests.
But it doesn’t take much mind-power to see that the countries where racially aligned inequalities are most prevalent also have a history of colonial oppression and state-sanctioned racial discrimination policies. They have culturally prevalent racist attitudes which permeate into the mainstream through ‘journalists’, politicians, and other public figures. They have accepted social norms of discrimination where people are more likely to sit away from a black person on a train and are uncomfortable to intervene when they encounter discriminatory acts. They have a system which allows for the continuation of self-reinforcing socio-economic inequality. They label the victims as ‘thugs’, who feel so helpless in their anguish that they resort to protest, refusing to abide by the very laws which entrench their inequalities. And, if they compensate the victims for their mistreatment, they call them “irresponsible and untrustworthy.”
It’s true, we live in a society where you can be seriously discriminated against your whole life for lots of different things: dwarfism, visual impairment, sexual orientation, gender, mental and physical disabilities, religion, being overweight, too tall, too introverted, too extroverted, having a stutter, wearing different clothes—the list goes on. Some are worse than others, but unfortunately, there are only too many roads to discrimination and prejudice.
But the historical deep-rootedness and particularly insidious nature of racial discrimination in the United States, in Australia, and around the world—where just last week a black man was the victim of a modern-day lynching—shows that this is still one of the most pressing and disturbing problems of our times. To go back to Billie: there are a lot of houses on fire, but for black people and people of colour, the fire is burning really bad and has been for a really long time.
That’s why the “Black Lives Matter” slogan is so important – because it appears as if so many black lives don’t. Treating everyone ‘equally’ won’t reverse the racially aligned disparities propagated by our current society – not when they’ve been entrenched for hundreds of years. It takes an effort of targeted positive discrimination, calling out the inequalities, and actively working to repair them.
It’s possible that the protests might not change anything in America, or at home. I can only imagine how the homeless Indigenous people must have felt watching thousands of people come marching into the city chanting “Black Lives Matter!” in Perth last week, only to quickly leave them to go back to their alleyways and shopfronts to sleep that night.
Image Description: A comic about ‘reverse racism’. It depicts a white man gaining status by using a black person, only for them to turn around and state that they cannot help due to ‘reverse racism’ concerns.
We have short attention spans. A 24-hour news cycle. The conversations that do last, about national holidays and Welcome to Country addresses are valuable, but they haven’t changed the numbers one bit. In fact, the inequality is only getting worse.
But if the uproar and the anguish can turn into something real and bring about tangible change for one of the most discriminated-against groups in our society, it is the first step to making the world a better and more welcoming place for everyone.
Images courtesy of Christine Chen, 7news and Barry Deutsch.