In the past month, police shootings of black men and the subsequent shooting of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have revived conversations about police brutality and racism in the US. From NYC to LA, protesters are carrying signs and chanting “black lives matter” and in many instances, especially on social media, they have been met with the controversial response “all lives matter.”

The fact is, all lives do matter. So why is responding to “black lives matter” with “all lives matter” problematic? Because the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement is to highlight the way in which black lives are not currently being treated as though they matter. Black Lives Matter aims to draw attention to a specific problem — the discrimination and social injustice that black Americans have suffered and endured for hundreds of years.

Former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani said that Black Lives Matter is “inherently racist” because it narrowly focuses on problems that affect one group of people; however, Black Lives Matter aims to spark social change and remedy a larger systemic problem. To do that, it necessarily singles out black Americans and their plight.

Read more: Why Black Lives Matter Is a Global Issue

In doing that, Black Lives Matter’s approach to creating social change is not unlike that of the UN’s Global Goals.

These goals aim to tackle the world’s biggest problems — poverty, hunger, education, gender inequality — by focusing on specific problems that impact specific populations. The ultimate aim of the Global Goals (the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development) is to eradicate “poverty in all its forms and dimensions” and to “realize the human rights of all.” Yet the Agenda specifically mentions “extreme poverty” when talking about freeing the human race “from the tyranny of poverty.” It emphasizes the “empowerment of all women and girls” when mentioning “the human rights of all.”

Does that mean girls and women and those in extreme poverty deserve special treatment? Perhaps. Does that mean boys and men and those who live on more than $1.25 a day are excluded from the agenda? Not at all.

Put it this way: you go to the doctor because you have a pain in one particular organ — let’s say, your heart — aside from this heart problem, you are relatively healthy.

In terms of keeping you healthy as a whole, all of your organs matter. But the doctor treats your heart because that is where the present problem is. Once your heart problem has been solved, she may mention that your body needs some TLC overall, but she likely didn’t extol the benefits of sunscreen while you were clenching your chest in pain.

Saying “black lives matter” is like telling the doctor “the pain is in my chest.” The goal is to draw her attention to a particular problem that urgently needs to be addressed so that your whole body will feel better. But just because you tell her you’re having heart troubles doesn’t mean there aren’t other things happening in your body. Saying “all lives matter” is akin to telling the doctor “my chest hurts, but all of my organs are important — so go ahead and give me something for each of my organs on top of those heart meds.”

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Well why not just treat all your organs while you’re at it? Because equal treatment does not lead to equal outcomes.

Image: Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

If we don’t address the most urgent problems first, then the larger system is likely to deteriorate. Neglecting to address the social injustices that black Americans experience hinders the progress of the US as a whole. If the agenda didn’t specifically target extreme poverty and challenges faced by girls and women, it would be extremely difficult to fulfill the broader Global Goals.

That’s why it is important, in this moment, to focus on black lives and not all lives, and why the Global Goals focus on ending extreme poverty and not making the whole world a little richer. Saying “all lives matter” is optimistic at best. It presumes that everyone has been, up to this point, treated equally. In the image above it would mean that everyone started out the same height and needed to be equally elevated above the fence to see. But that’s not the case.

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In theory, all people have equal claim to all human rights. But in actuality, there are groups of people who experience systemic discrimination, which disadvantages them from the outset.

When we talk about female genital mutilation (FGM) is it not to the exclusion of other harmful bodily practices. When we talk about equal access to education for girls, it does not inherently mean that we’re taking education opportunities away from boys. When we say “black lives matter,” we in no way negate the value of other lives.

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A photo posted by Global Citizen (@glblctzn) on

Approximately 10.7% of the world’s population lives below the extreme poverty line ($1.25 a day), that’s a relatively small minority. So why do they deserve special mention if the goal is to eradicate poverty overall?

People living in extreme poverty — like girls and women, and black men in the US — have been discriminated against and excluded by societies and institutions that sought to treat everyone equally without recognizing pre-existing inequalities. They are, through no fault of their own, starting life at the “bottom.” The discrimination and unequal access to opportunities these groups face mean they not only start at the bottom, but if there’s no conscious effort to change the systems that reinforce these inequalities, they are likely stuck there.

By singling out certain sets of people like those who live in extreme poverty, we’re simply drawing attention to problems within our society that need to be addressed to raise society up as a whole. We’re talking about treating heart problems to restore health to whole bodies.

The solution to the problems pointed out by Black Lives Matter and recognized by the Global Goals is not necessarily equal treatment — but rather treatment that makes us all equal.

To say “all lives matter” to people who are starting at the bottom does not help them “move up” or improve their situation. It merely shifts the whole system — relative inequalities and all — up (recall the illustration from above).

The Global Goals are presented in broad terms, but the accompanying written Agenda specifically mentions the “needs of the most vulnerable” when it talks about making the world a better place for all. Because some of the world’s biggest and most pressing challenges affect the most vulnerable — that’s where the “pain” is. The Global Goals aim to elevate those who have been systematically kept down — starting the most disadvantaged, those who have been pushed to the very bottom — to the top. Not to create a new upper echelon, but to equalize circumstances so that everyone has the same initial opportunities.

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The ultimate global goal is equality, but in order to achieve that some problems will require more attention and resources than others in the present.

The Black Lives Matter movement is highlighting a problem that requires special attention and resources today, so that we can not only boldly proclaim that “all lives matter,” but we can also proudly practice it tomorrow.

We focus on ending FGM and other barriers to girls education because girls are disproportionately denied their rights. We do that today, so we can talk about providing equal access to quality education for all — and know that everyone will be starting at the same point — tomorrow.

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We talk about the particular needs of refugees today, so that tomorrow we won’t call them refugees — just people.

“All lives matter,” that goes without saying. Fundamentally, we know that all people are equal and equally deserving of human rights. Unfortunately, many people are still prohibited from exercising their human rights.

In order to get to a point where we are all truly equals who are free to exercise our rights, we sometimes need to put the spotlight on one particular issue — but that does not automatically negate the importance of other issues.

“Black lives matter” is not a step away from “all lives matter,” but a step toward it, and a step toward fulfilling the Global Goals.


Demand Equity

What Black Lives Matter and the Global Goals Have in Common

By Daniele Selby