His use of the phrase was reminiscent of One Nation leader Pauline Hanson’s failed attempt to have the Senate endorse a motion that “all lives matter” in 2019. As former Finance Minister Mathias Cormann noted at the time, “you have to consider things in their context”.
As a linguist, who has just published On The Offensive, a book about offensive language, “all lives matter” is a phrase that reveals prejudice.
So, where does the phrase “all lives matter” come from? And given it is of course true that all lives matter, why is the phrase so offensive in today’s context?
Black Lives Matter
“All lives matter” was born out of “Black Lives Matter”. This is a slogan and a social movement in response to racism and violence perpetuated against Black people, both historically and in the modern era.
This can be traced back to a tragic incident almost nine years ago. In February 2012, 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin was walking home in Florida, after buying Skittles at a convenience store.
Local resident George Zimmerman reported Martin to police as “suspicious”, then confronted the innocent young man and fatally shot him. Zimmerman claimed the act was in self-defence and was later acquitted.
After this, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began to appear on social media, in support of Martin and in protest against social and systemic racism — that is, racism in society and through institutions. This grew into a movement, co-founded by three Black community organisers, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.
Concerns and anger about racism towards Black people was reinvigorated more recently after several high-profile, racially charged incidents in the US.
These include the murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot while jogging in a south Georgia neighbourhood, and also the murder of George Floyd.
These tragic events inspired worldwide protests against institutional racism. In Australia, Black Lives Matter marches also called for justice for Indigenous people, including Aboriginal man David Dungay Jr, who died in custody in 2015. There have been more than 430 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991.
‘All lives matter’
What does it mean to say “all lives matter”?
When the Black Lives Matter motto arose, some people interpreted the phrase as confrontational and divisive. They took it to exclude other races. The phrase “all lives matter” sprang up in response, ostensibly to argue all lives are equal because we are all human beings.
However, Black Lives Matter was not intended to mean that other lives do not matter. In a world where Black people are stigmatised, marginalised, and discriminated against, Black Lives Matter simply recognises Black lives matter, too.
Not a straightforward phrase
Responding to “Black Lives Matter” with “all lives matter” derails the specific conversation about racism against Black people. The phrase is seen to dismiss, ignore, or deny these problems — it shuts down this important discussion.
Through its use, “all lives matter” has also become associated with white supremacy, far-right nationalism and racism.
A racist dog whistle
Black Lives Matter is intended to promote the peaceful protest of racism against Black people, not only in the US, but worldwide. It also calls for immediate action against systemic and social racism.
When used by Black people, “Black Lives Matter” is a declaration that Black lives do indeed matter. It is a call for protection and recognition.
When said by allies — supportive people outside of the racial group — “Black Lives Matter” acknowledges that Black lives do indeed matter, and says we stand in solidarity with members of Black and indigenous communities both locally, and globally.
So, “all lives matter” can be understood as a racist dog whistle — a direct push-back against the Black Lives Matter movement. It is far from an innocent term celebrating the worth of all humanity.
The recent COVID-19 cases in social housing, which saw nine public housing towers in Melbourne’s north put into hard lockdown, brought this into sharp focus. These tower blocks accommodate some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
People living in these buildings experience high levels of unemployment and job insecurity, generally exist on low wages, have limited access to education, are often from migrant backgrounds, and in some instances are victims of trauma.
The fact we saw the virus spread through these towers should be no surprise given what we know about how it spreads in crowded conditions and shared spaces. Physical distancing is almost impossible when you have big families living in two-bedroom units.
Importantly, for cultural and language reasons, generic health messaging may miss the mark for these groups.
These factors combine to put social housing residents at increased risk of contracting the virus.
Another group this pandemic disproportionately affects is aged-care residents. In aged-care facilities we have a perfect storm: an environment conducive to virus transmission and residents who are among the most susceptible to serious outcomes from infection.
Add into the equation the well-documented system deficiencies and workforce issues that have plagued Australia’s aged-care sector, and we have another situation in which some of the most vulnerable in our society are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
We’ve seen this in Australia and around the world. Once you have community transmission of COVID-19 it’s hard to keep it out of aged-care facilities, and once in, outbreaks in this setting can be difficult to stop.
The disproportionate effect of the pandemic on the most disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalised in society is not just evident in Australia, but throughout the world.
There is perhaps no better example than the plight of African Americans in the United States. Figures released in May reported Black Americans were dying at almost three times the rate of white Americans from COVID-19.
And it’s not only the health effects of the virus which hit the disadvantaged harder. These people are also much more vulnerable to the indirect economic impacts of the pandemic, by virtue of their lower financial resources to begin with.
Looking across the globe
COVID-19’s discrimination against the vulnerable also extends to entire countries. Poorer and less developed nations, such as in Africa and Latin America, will potentially suffer the most in the immediate and longer term.
With weaker health systems, scarcity of medical resources (less equipment such as ventilators, for example) and large, vulnerable populations, these countries are less able to cope with a crisis of this magnitude.
And beyond the demands placed on their health systems, these countries have less capacity to withstand the economic shocks of the pandemic. Its effects could well catapult them into further crises, such as food insecurity.
We know infectious diseases, like other health conditions, are highly influenced by the social determinants of health. That is, the conditions in which people live, learn and work play a significant role in influencing their health outcomes.
Broadly speaking, the greater a person’s socioeconomic disadvantage, the poorer their health.
In shining a light on these inequities the pandemic also provides an opportunity for us to begin to address them, which will have both short and longer term health benefits.
Paradoxically, but perhaps inevitably, as things are getting better in the wake of the COVID crisis tempers – including, it would seem, that of Scott Morrison – are becoming more frayed.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations of last weekend marked a new stage in this strange and unpredictable journey coronavirus has taken us on.
The fallout from the murder of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in the United States dramatically changed the COVID conversation in this country.
The protests exposed limits to the ability of leaders and health experts to persuade people to modify their behaviour.
They unleashed a backlash on the grounds of double standards, with critics contrasting how police had chased minor infringements. Those who’d always claimed the restrictions were too strict became louder in their demands they be lifted more quickly and comprehensively.
The tone of Morrison changed and sharpened, as the government struggles with its exit strategy.
Morrison says if protesters are on the streets in coming days, they should be charged. But the picture is confusing and potentially volatile.
In the Northern Territory, the demonstrators have an official OK. In NSW the police have been actively resisting more protests and are threatening fines and arrests. On Thursday night they succeeded in having the NSW Supreme Court ban a proposed rally organised by refugee advocates.
On another front, Morrison’s frustration with those premiers who are keeping their borders shut has ramped up.
Having managed the crisis very effectively so far, and received extensive praise for his efforts (this week’s Essential poll had 70% rating the federal government’s response as good), Morrison can see the danger of things going awry, either through fresh outbreaks of the virus or the reopening not proceeding fast enough.
On Thursday he was suggesting the protesters were slowing an increase in the numbers allowed at funerals (a highly emotive issue). Asked on 2GB about the NSW situation on funerals he said “the rally last weekend is the only legitimate real block to this at the moment, because we actually don’t know right now whether those rallies on the weekend may have caused outbreaks”.
But the government is sending conflicting messages, on one hand indicating the protests could hold back action while on the other hand saying action must go ahead.
Thus Morrison is insisting premiers nominate a date in July when their borders would be open (a date is important so tourist arrangements can be made).
Although there are multiple states with closed borders, Queensland is primarily in the sights of the federal government and other critics. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, facing an election in October, knows she has to choose the right moment to scrap the border restriction, before her hard line loses favour with her electors. She is now saying July (previously there was talk of later) and declaring she’s on the same page as the PM.
One man who attended the Melbourne rally has tested positive for COVID-19. But it will be more than another week before it becomes clear whether last weekend’s protests have triggered a health problem. And that timeline will be dragged out by protests to come. On the flip side, if there aren’t more cases, this will be a green light to accelerate progress – an unsanctioned large scale trial.
The protests have put new pressures on the opposition.
Knowing there’d be strong support for them among some in Labor’s ranks and base, Anthony Albanese stepped carefully on boggy ground, advising people to listen to the health advice.
Four federal Labor parliamentarians – Graham Perrett and Anika Wells from Queensland, and Warren Snowdon and Malarndirri McCarthy from the Northern Territory – attended rallies. There was a bit of a flurry when they got to parliament so they went for COVID tests (which didn’t mean much given the incubation period).
Despite parliament sitting this week, the opposition is still having a hard time achieving any positive cut-through. It struggles for traction with its attacks on inadequacies it identifies in government’s programs and decisions relating to COVID.
The political climate might change as the months go on; depending on the result, the July 4 Eden-Monaro byelection could affect the atmospherics of the wider debate. But at the moment people still seem turned off by political conflict, or by politics generally.
This week brought updated numbers, from the OECD, on Australia’s way out of the virus crisis. The OECD produced two scenarios, for a “single hit” and a “double hit” of the virus.
It estimated Australia’s GDP would fall 5% in 2020 in the single-hit scenario, which is hopefully the one we remain in.
But the report said: “Should widespread contagion resume, with a return of lockdowns, confidence would suffer and cash-flow would be strained. In that double-hit scenario, GDP could fall by 6.3% in 2020”.
The single hit would see recovery at 4.1% in 2021, but if there were a double hit the growth would be only an estimated 1%.
The OECD also says further policy measures would help the recovery, and notes there is plenty of fiscal room to provide them.
It’s interesting to compare New Zealand, which had a goal of “eliminating” COVID and a draconian lockdown.
The OECD predicts New Zealand GDP will shrink by 8.9% in 2020 under the single-hit scenario – but grow by 6.6% in 2021. If there were a double hit, this year’s GDP fall would be 10% and next year’s growth would be an estimated 3.6%.
New Zealand this week announced it was now COVID-free (while accepting, realistically, there’ll almost certainly be some future cases). Restrictions are now fully lifted, apart from the still-closed border.
The Morrison government from the start rejected “elimination” in favour of suppression (although in some areas elimination has effectively been the result of successful suppression).
So with the shutdown more limited in Australia than in New Zealand but the reopening more gradual, on the OECD figures the economy’s dive is forecast to be shallower here but the bounce back weaker than across the Tasman.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she “did a little dance” when her country became COVID-free.
Morrison isn’t dancing just yet. While compared with many countries Australia’s record has been enviable, the way forward carries a new, and unexpected, element of uncertainty, together with those we knew about already.
FRIDAY UPDATE: More COVID restrictions to be eased; Queensland border set to open July 10
The Queensland government has indicated it will open its border from July 10, while South Australia on Friday said its borders will be fully open on July 20, and Tasmania is looking to a late July opening. Western Australia is still not setting a date for an open border.
Friday’s national cabinet, ahead of a new round of demonstrations, reiterated the health advice “that protests are very high risk due to the large numbers of people closely gathering and challenges in identifying all contacts.”
Scott Morrison again strongly urged people to stay away from rallies, and Anthony Albanese endorsed the health advice.
National cabinet agreed to the easing of more restrictions. The 100-person limit on non-essential indoor gatherings will be replaced by one person per four square metres rule.
For outdoor events including stadiums up to 40,000 capacity, ticketed and seated events will be able to be held with a crowd of no more than 25% of the venue’s capacity.
States and territories will decide when to implement these changes.
Violence has erupted across several US cities after the death of a black man, George Floyd, who was shown on video gasping for breath as a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck. The unrest poses serious challenges for President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden as each man readies his campaign for the November 3 election.
If the coronavirus had not already posed a threat to civil discourse in the US, the latest flashpoint in American racial politics makes this presidential campaign potentially one of the most incendiary in history.
COVID-19 and Minneapolis may very well form the nexus within which the 2020 campaign will unfold. Trump’s critics have assailed his handling of both and questioned whether he can effectively lead the country in a moment of crisis.
And yet, he may not be any more vulnerable heading into the election.
A presidency in crisis?
As the incumbent, Trump certainly faces the most immediate challenges. Not since Franklin Roosevelt in the second world war has a US president presided over the deaths of so many Americans from a single cause.
The Axis powers and COVID-19 are not analogous, but any presidency is judged by its capacity to respond to enemies like these. With pandemic deaths now surpassing 100,000, Trump’s fortunes will be inexorably tied to this staggering (and still rising) figure.
Worse, the Minneapolis protests are showing how an already precarious social fabric has been frayed by the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Americans have not come together to fight the virus. Rather, they have allowed a public health disaster to deepen divisions along racial, economic, sectional and ideological lines.
Trump has, of course, often sought to gain from such divisions. But the magnitude and severity of the twin crises he is now facing will make this very difficult. By numerous measures, his is a presidency in crisis.
Trump, a ferocious campaigner, will try to find ways to use both tragedies to his advantage and, importantly, makes things worse for his challenger.
For starters, Trump did not cause coronavirus. And he will continue to insist that his great geo-strategic adversary, the Chinese Communist Party, did.
And his is not the first presidency to be marked by the conflagration of several US cities.
Before Minneapolis, Detroit (1967), Los Angeles (1992) and Ferguson, Missouri (2014) were all the scenes of angry protests and riots over racial tensions that still haven’t healed.
Trump may not have healed racial tensions in the US during his presidency. But, like coronavirus, he did not cause them.
How Trump can blame Democrats for Minneapolis
Not unhappily for Trump, Minneapolis is a largely Democratic city in a reliably blue state. He will campaign now on the failure of Democratic state leaders to answer the needs of black voters.
Trump will claim that decades of Democratic policies in Minnesota – including the eight years of the Obama administration – have caused Minneapolis to be one of the most racially unequal cities in the nation.
These are not terrible numbers. Yes, Trump’s leadership has contributed to a series of disasters. But if the polls are correct, he has so far avoided the kinds of catastrophe that could imperil his chances of re-election.
Biden is far better than Trump on racial issues and should be able to use the current crises to present himself as a more natural “consoler-in-chief”, but instead, he has appeared somewhat flatfooted and derided for being racially patronising.
The opportunities COVID-19 and the Minneapolis unrest might afford his campaign remain elusive.
There is reason for hope
America enters the final months of the 2020 campaign in a state of despair and disrepair. The choice is between an opportunistic incumbent and a tin-eared challenger.
But the US has faced serious challenges before – and emerged stronger. Neither the civil war in the 19th century or the Spanish flu pandemic in the early 20th halted the extraordinary growth in power that followed both.
Moreover, the US constitution remains intact and federalism has undergone something of a rebirth since the start of the pandemic. And there is a new generation of younger, more diverse, national leaders being forged in the fire of crisis to help lead the recovery.