President Obama explains why he has a problem with ‘all lives matter’

'The African-American community is not just making this up.'


Aaron Sankin


Published Oct 23, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 6:29 pm CDT

During the first debate in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, a young African-American man asked the candidates a deceptively complex question: “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?”

To racial-justice activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, there was a right answer (the former) and a wrong answer (the latter). The argument isn’t that the lives of non-African Americans don’t have intrinsic value. Rather, the argument is that responding to calls of “black lives matter” with “all lives matter” often feels like diminishing the need for the reforms the movement seeks.

President Barack Obama, who has waded into conversations about race with more eagerness in his second term, explained the significance of the phrase “black lives matter” during a discussion with Marshall Project Editor-in-Chief Bill Keller on Thursday afternoon.

“I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase ‘black lives matter’ was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter,” he said. “What they were suggesting was, there is a specific problem that is happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”

The president criticized opponents of the movement who he said have sought to distort its message.

“It started being lifted up as ‘these folks are opposed to police, and they’re opposed to cops, and all lives matter,’” Obama added. “So the notion was somehow saying black lives matter was reverse racism, or suggesting other people’s lives didn’t matter or police officers’ lives didn’t matter. I think everybody understands all lives matter. Everybody wants strong, effective law enforcement. Everybody wants their kids to be safe when they’re walking to school. Nobody wants to see police officers, who are doing their jobs fairly, hurt.”

Obama concluded by saying that society at large had a responsibility to take Black Lives Matter’s criticisms seriously. “The African-American community is not just making this up. It’s not just something being politicized. It’s real, and there’s a history behind it. And we have to take it seriously.”

Vox has the full transcript of Obama’s remarks about Black Lives Matter.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley had to apologize for saying “all lives matter” at a gathering of progressive activists over the summer.

Earlier this week, the Democratic National Committee endorsed a presidential town-hall event hosted by groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, promising to promote the activists’ efforts to spark productive conversations about racial justice.

H/T ThinkProgress | Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Oct 23, 2015, 5:09 pm CDT