Protestors holding signs crowd together. One sign in the center of the crowd reads, "No lives matter until Black Lives Matter."
Image Source: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash

The Meaning of “White Lives Matter”

Musician Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, appeared at Paris Fashion Week wearing a “White Lives Matter” shirt alongside Black conservative commentator Candace Owens. West later went on Tucker Carson’s Fox News show, saying he wore the White Lives Matter shirt “because they do.” A week later, he was locked out of social media accounts after he threatened to go “death con 3” on “JEWISH PEOPLE,” seemingly referencing the DEFCON military alertness system (USA Today). Unaired footage from West’s interview with Carlson features more antisemitic tropes and perplexing statements that have cast doubts on West’s mental state at the time of the interview. In the aftermath, “both medical experts and advocates have warned mental health struggles and bigotry are distinct problems” (The Guardian). West is far from alone in deploying White Lives Matter or All Lives Matter in response to the George Floyd Rebellion. It’s revealing that support of President Trump and a declaration that White Lives Matter are enough for the right to embrace a man they once denounced for declaring that George Bush’s abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated a lack of care for Black people (Huffington Post). 

Black Lives Matter alternately describes a national activist organization, a loose collection of local organizations, or the slogan that mobilized a diverse social uprising (LA Times). Patrice Cullors first used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter after the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Both #BlackLivesMatter and the associated protests took off the following year after the murder of Micheal Brown and Tamir Rice (Pew). The phrase is “simple and clear in its demand for Black dignity,” an insistence that Black people be socially valued and protected, with the understanding that under current conditions, that is far from the case (History). 

TAKE ACTION

• Take the time to address why “All Lives Matter” or “White Lives Matter” is a problematic response.

Support anti-fascist organizations confronting white supremacists that profit from racist rhetoric.  

Some willfully misunderstood the slogan to mean that only Black lives matter, as if “the goal of our national political conversation were just to ask everyone to list exhaustively all of the things that they think matter” (Slate). These people shot down any discussion of racial injustices with the rejoinder that “All Lives Matter,” a response that “derails the specific conversation about racism against Black people” (The Conversation). This plays into a long-standing narrative that those who discuss racism are themselves the real racists (The Nation). Fighting anti-Black racism is thus framed as an attack on white people, an idea that goes back to nineteenth-century claims that abolition would allow the formerly enslaved to commit an anti-white genocide (Salon). Whenever racial justice advocates (rightly) decry “All Lives Matter” derailing, the right uses it as proof that Black Lives Matter proponents secretly believe that white lives don’t. The idea that it’s actually white people who are under threat feeds white supremacist recruitment.

The “White Lives Matter” phrase on West and Owens’s shirts was popularized by the Aryan Renaissance Society, neo-Nazis fighting “racial integration” and “inter-breeding” to create an “Aryan oligarchy based on genetic aristocracy” (Al JazeeraSPLC). White Lives Matter leader Rebecca Barnette, who also has ties to the Aryan Strikeforce and the National Socialist Movement, declared that white people need “the blood of our enemies [to] soak our soil to form new mortar to rebuild our landmasses” before Jewish and Muslim people kill off white people entirely (SPLC). 

There’s no indication that West or Owens knew of the phrase’s association with outright neo-Nazis. But the “All Lives Matter” and “White Lives Matter” slogans are consistently deployed in such a way that pro-white (read: white supremacist) politics end up seeming reasonable. White lives are “defended” in response to Black Lives Matter, a movement against white supremacy. When it’s pointed out that this is an utterly inappropriate response, it’s taken as evidence that white lives are, in fact, under attack. If white lives are threatened, it makes sense that political organizations be formed to defend them. The protection of white interests in a white supremacist society is the politics of the Nazis and the Klan. 

This issue is much larger than Ye himself. There’s a large community that has embraced and promoted him because he supports the idea that anti-racists are the real racists and white people are truly oppressed. There is a pervasive narrative that anti-racism has gone too far (PBS) and that we must all protect white people against the anti-racist crusade (NPR). This is nonsense. It’s true that people have been “called out” for trivial or nonsensical reasons. And it’s also true that some people weaponize anti-oppressive language and practices in self-serving ways (HBR). But this is the case for any set of practices and beliefs: the existence of immoral driving instructors doesn’t mean we ought to ignore stop signs.

For hundreds of years, white people have imagined that people of color are on the verge of doing away with them entirely. But white people are still here, and white supremacy is, too. What the far right fashions as radical free-thinking and truth-telling is simply rehashing a very old and sad story of imagined white victimhood—one all-too-often adopted to fuel white resentment and terror. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Ye wore a “White Lives Matter” shirt at Paris Fashion Week. 

• “White Lives Matter” was initially popularized by neo-Nazis to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement.

• White supremacists have a long history of positioning racial justice as a physical threat to white people.

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