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Black Lives Matter and the Struggle for Freedom

Brian P. Jones is a doctoral candidate in Urban Education at CUNY Graduate Center.

This article is a discussion of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket, 2016).

In late April 2016, at a town hall-style event in London, President Obama complained about the rising movement against the state-sanctioned murder of black people often referred to as Black Lives Matter. Activists, he admonished, should “stop yelling” and instead push for incremental change through the official “process.” “Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight,” the President remarked, “and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.”1 The spectacle of the first black president scolding black activists in the context of a rising rate of police murder (as of this writing, the police have killed 630 individuals, at least 155 of them black, nationwide in 2016) speaks volumes about the state of black politics today.2

For those trying to understand the emergence of a new black movement—or, perhaps more accurately, a new phase of a longer, older movement—on the watch of the first black president, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is an essential starting point. In lucid prose, free from jargon and pretense, she renders important historical lessons about how we got to this point, and lays out forceful arguments for the kinds of vision and strategy that can guide the future of this movement.

Anti-black racism in this country has taken many forms, whether pseudo-scientific, psycho-cultural, or both, but what has remained unchanged throughout U.S. history is the need for a system of exploitation and oppression to locate the “problem” with black people themselves. Pathologizing black people is, Taylor writes, “as old as the nation itself.” Thomas Jefferson insisted that black people’s apparent inferiority was not the result of being enslaved; it was, he claimed, “nature, which has produced the distinction.” So, too, in our time, Taylor argues, the widespread ideas about black inferiority—even if no longer couched in “natural” terms—are just as insidious. More than two centuries after Jefferson, liberals love to believe that programs such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and KIPP charter schools, promising to teach “middle class norms” to black children, can “solve” poverty. But just as Jefferson’s ideas served to rationalize slavery, today’s “culture of poverty” trope “politically narrates the necessity of austere budgets while sustaining—ideologically at least—the premise of the ‘American Dream.'”3

Such ideological props are even more essential in times of acute crisis. When millions of Americans lost their homes in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, half of the collective wealth of African Americans was wiped out. “The ‘middle-class norms’ of homeownership,” Taylor writes, “could not stop Black people’s wealth from disappearing into thin air after banks fleeced them by steering them toward sub-prime loans.” In 2016, notions of “culture” and “personal responsibility” pervade mainstream discourse on black poverty, providing a rationale for inequality, just as much as they did three hundred years ago.4

The sharpest edge of American racism, of course, is the U.S. criminal justice system. In 2014, after police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and left his body lying in the street for four hours, Brown’s neighbors and friends took to those same streets to protest. They were soon joined by many thousands of residents from the surrounding area, who faced down tanks and riot police day after day, night after night. The protests forced the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an investigation of the police, which uncovered what local black people had known for years: a pattern of intense police surveillance and harassment of black residents, driven by a strong financial incentive. The police department was essentially shaking down Ferguson residents for petty offenses on a regular basis, and these tickets and summonses amounted to roughly 23 percent of the town’s revenue.5 In a majority-black community, the nearly all-white Ferguson police force were steeped in the “culture of poverty” framework. During the federal inquiry, “several officials” explained to investigators that black people were issued more citations and tickets because of a “lack of personal responsibility.”6

Sadly, it is not an exaggeration to extrapolate from Ferguson to the nation. This is the age of “mass incarceration,” as Michelle Alexander has termed it.7 Today the United States is by far the world’s leading jailer, with approximately 2.3 million people locked away in cages; almost one million of those are African American.8 Cash-strapped cities that struggle to fund schools and social services regularly write blank checks for police brutality. Chicago, for example, paid $50 million in 2014 alone to settle police misconduct cases, and devoted more than half a billion dollars to that purpose over the last decade.9 Taylor, like Alexander and others, sees the rise of mass incarceration as a response to the civil rights and Black Power movements of the mid-twentieth century. The ideological corollary of mass incarceration is so-called “colorblindness,” which “has become the default setting for how Americans understand how race and racism work.” While mass incarceration tries to physically restrain black movements, the logic of colorblindness does so ideologically:

It is repeatedly argued that the absence of racial insult means that racial discrimination is not at play. Indeed, the mere mention of race as a possible explanation, or as a means of providing greater context, risks accusations of “playing the race card”—a way of invoking race to silence disagreement. This is deployed to hide or obscure inequality and disparities between African Americans and whites. It has helped to elevate and amplify politics that blame Blacks for their own oppression.10

These developments are all contingent and contested—that is, they are the result of a struggle. Taylor effectively contrasts the rhetoric of the first black president with that of Lyndon Johnson, a white president from the South. While Obama has fairly consistently hewed to the ideology of “personal responsibility,” readers will be struck by the degree to which Johnson emphasized the need to overcome systemic racism. The difference is not to be explained by their personal proclivities, but by the ability of mass movements to shift the national political context and its assumptions. “The entire dynamic of the black struggle pushed mainstream politics to the left during this period,” Taylor argues, “as evidenced by the growth of the welfare state and the increasing number of mainstream voices that identified racism as a problem.”11

Taylor shows that leading figures and organizations in the 1960s and ’70s moved towards systemic, structural critiques of racism and U.S. society. Dr. King said that the black movement was “forcing America to face all of its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism”; Huey Newton declared that “only by eliminating capitalism and replacing it with socialism would all black people be able to practice self-determination and thus achieve freedom.”12 At their height, these black freedom movements successfully transformed the political landscape of U.S. politics. In their official report, social scientists brought together under the Johnson administration to investigate the riots sweeping U.S. cities concluded, in remarkably unambiguous language, that white people had created the problems plaguing black people. “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget,” they wrote, “is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”13

One of the most important changes to the landscape of the historic black freedom struggle has been the rise of a black political elite. When twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray was murdered by Baltimore police—a cell phone video showed him being “disappeared” into a police van, emerging hours later with his spinal cord cut nearly in half—the city erupted in protest. However, “this was no Ferguson.” “What distinguishes Baltimore from Ferguson and North Charleston [where a black man, Walter Scott, was gunned down by a white police officer two weeks before Freddie Gray was murdered in Baltimore] is that the black political establishment runs the city,” Taylor writes. “African Americans control virtually the entire political apparatus.” Black elected officials were quick to condemn the mostly black demonstrators. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and President Obama both condemned them as “criminals” and “thugs.” Just like the white-dominated political establishment in Ferguson, Baltimore’s black political establishment did not hesitate to call out city and state troops to clear the protesters off the streets. “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a black woman to suppress a black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.”14

How did it come to this? Taylor’s fluency with history is useful here. She takes us through the high hopes the left invested in the election campaigns of the first black mayors of Cleveland, Camden, and Philadelphia, the rise of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the thousands-strong national convention of black activists and elected officials held in Gary, Indiana, in 1972. Tragically, the rise of thousands of highly placed black elected officials since that time—primarily in the Democratic Party—has coincided with the decline of mass-movement organizing and the rise of mass incarceration. These politicians swept into office promising radical change, but have instead become reliable custodians of the system. The black political class “has no fundamental political differences with the status quo in the United States insofar as it does not directly impede their ability to participate freely in the nation’s governing and business institutions.” Mass movements made their careers possible, expanded the political horizons, and created the impetus for reform. But when those movements receded, so did the pressure for real change:

It was the Black insurgency that created the conditions that allowed Black elected officials to become viable politically. But the more the movement on the streets waned, the greater the distance between ordinary Black people and the black officials claiming to represent them. Added to that dilemma were the constraints of governing in a time of budget cuts and austerity that compelled Black officials to act in fiscally conservative ways—just as their base was in desperate need of robust spending and resources.15

The chapters that follow are filled with political and theoretical insights—about the nature of the police, the new organizations that have arisen to challenge police murders, and the strategic challenges ahead. To call this book theoretically rich may puzzle readers accustomed to equating “theory” with vague abstractions and impenetrable prose. Taylor takes the opposite approach, laying out sophisticated ideas in blunt, forceful, and sometimes biting sentences. Her analysis of the police is concise and provocative:

The racism of the police is not the product of vitriol; it flows from their role as armed agents of the state. The police function to enforce the rule of the politically powerful and the economic elite; this is why poor and working-class communities are so heavily policed. African Americans are overrepresented among the ranks of the poor and the working class, so police overwhelmingly focus on those neighborhoods, even as they direct their violence more generally against all working-class people, including whites. But the police also reflect and reinforce the dominant ideology of the state that employs them, which also explains why they are inherently racist and resistant to substantive reform. In other words, if the task of the police is to maintain law and order, then that role takes on a specific meaning in a fundamentally racist society.16

Likewise, Taylor is attuned to the finer points of the U.S. race-class dialectic, often describing it in terms that are counterintuitive to today’s activists. For example, she notes that pathologizing black people and “naturalizing” black inequality have deleterious effects for white people:

The intractability of Black conditions becomes seen as natural as opposed to standing as an indictment of the system itself, while the hard times befalling ordinary whites are rendered almost invisible. For example, the majority of poor people in the United States are white, but the public face of American poverty is Black. It is important to point out how blacks are overrepresented among the poor, but ignoring white poverty helps to obscure the systemic roots of all poverty.17

Taylor contests popular usage of the concept of “whiteness,” arguing that it misrepresents the behavior of elite and ruling class people of color. “[W]hen ‘acting white’ is invoked to explain the actions of reactionary nonwhite political actors, like Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas,” she writes, “it is being used to transpose class and race, further distorting the existence of class differences.” She continues,

In this way, “whiteness” is an adaptation of the American left to the myth that the United States is a classless society. Nonwhite people in positions of power are accused of “performing whiteness” instead of exercising their class power—as if Clarence Thomas or Barack Obama are acting in ways they do not wholly intend to. Moreover, it invariably collapses important distinctions among whites into a common white experience that simply does not exist.18

The murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, was a turning point in the development of this new phase of the black struggle. The first black president warned against letting our “passions” get the better of us, lecturing that “we are a nation of laws.” But what does such talk really mean, Taylor asks, given the dramatically different treatment meted out to African Americans in the criminal justice system? “George Zimmerman benefited from this dual system,” she writes. “He was allowed to walk free for weeks before protests pressured officials into arresting him.” And, adding insult to injury: “He was not subjected to drug tests, though Trayvon Martin’s dead body had been…. Obama’s call for quiet, individual soul-searching was a way of saying that he had no answers.” In the days and weeks that followed, activists sensed the need to concretize new efforts to challenge U.S. racism, and accordingly they created new organizations. Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi teamed up with Alicia Garza to turn the online hashtag Garza began using after Zimmerman’s acquittal—#BlackLivesMatter—into a national organization. In Chicago, youth organizers created Black Youth Project 100, and in Florida, where Martin was murdered, Umi Saleh and friends formed the Dream Defenders.19

In the book’s final chapters, Taylor assesses the ideas and debates that have animated these and other leading activists and organizations, which have collectively come to be called the Black Lives Matter movement. Noting, for example, activists’ frequent references to “state violence,” she argues that use of this language “strategically pivots away from a conventional analysis that would reduce racism to the intentions and actions of the individuals involved.” Many of the people and organizations she highlights are “intersectional” in their approach to organizing. “In other words, they start from the basic recognition that the oppression of African Americans is multidimensional and must be fought on different fronts.”20 The highly decentralized, multifaceted nature of organizing in this movement has been a source of strength—allowing space for new leadership, particularly that of black women, and new organizations to grow.

At the same time, however, some activists raise the model of disruptive actions by small groups to a political principle. Taylor argues instead that genuine liberation requires transcending capitalism, which in turn means building a movement that can, at some point, collaborate in highly coordinated ways on a large scale. She quotes historian Barbara Ransby: “If we think we can all ‘get free’ through individual or uncoordinated small-group resistance, we are kidding ourselves.” And if our goal in the long term is to achieve a mass movement, in the short term, she writes, decentralized and “leaderless” organizing can make it harder for new people to join. As Taylor cautions, “at a time when many people are trying to find an entry point into anti-police activism and desire to be involved, this particular method of organizing can actually narrow opportunities for the democratic involvement of many in favor of the tightly knit workings of those already in the know.”21 Other important debates she takes up include the role of private foundations and philanthropy in contemporary activism and the importance of formulating and fighting for winnable demands, while keeping our eyes on the proverbial prize of black liberation.

Black liberation is essential to the liberation of all people, and impossible without it. While the black elite are steadily working to preserve the status quo, working-class and poor people of all races have an interest in challenging the status quo. The nationwide fight for a $15 hourly minimum wage, spearheaded by low-wage service workers, should be a focus of anyone who cares about black life in the United States. “Twenty percent of fast-food workers are Black,” Taylor writes, “and 68 percent of them earn between $7.26 and $10.09 an hour.… Twenty percent of Walmart’s 1.4 million workers are African American, making it the largest employer of Black Americans. There is a logical connection between the low-wage workers’ campaigns and the Black Lives Matter movement.”22

On May Day 2015, union activists around the country rallied under the banner of Black Lives Matter, and Taylor notes that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 “conducted a work stoppage that halted the flow of millions of dollars’ worth of goods and prevented them from being loaded onto cargo ships. This was the first time a major union had initiated a work stoppage in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.” Others, however, regard gestures of solidarity or connection with suspicion. When activists wanted to highlight racism against Arabs and Muslims by using the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter, some in the Black Lives Matter movement objected that the phrase amounted to an “appropriation” of a cause that rightfully belonged to black people. Taylor disagrees. “It is one thing to respect the organizing that has gone into the movement against police violence and brutality,” she argues, “but quite another to conceive of Black oppression and anti-Black racism as so wholly unique that they are beyond the realm of understanding and, potentially, solidarity from others who are oppressed.”23

Ultimately, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation argues that black liberation requires an intersectional movement for black lives that aspires to challenge the structures of capitalism itself and the U.S. state that upholds it. The historic dynamic of the black freedom struggle has been to raise these large issues again and again, to “force America to face all of its interrelated flaws.” The last great wave of black struggle was crushed with co-optation on one hand and repression on the other. The next, coming wave will inevitably grapple with similar questions, but in new and changing conditions. Taylor’s short but powerful and provocative book is a vital read for those wrestling with how to understand the rise of this phase of the black struggle, and where it can and should go from here. Black people will no doubt lead any movement for black liberation, but in the long run, Taylor reminds us, the question of black liberation should be an urgent concern for all people fighting for genuine freedom, justice, and equality. “The aspiration for Black liberation cannot be separated from what happens in the United States as a whole,” she concludes. “Black life cannot be transformed while the rest of the country burns.”24

Notes

  1. Michael D. Shear and Liam Stack, “Obama Says Movements Like Black Lives Matter ‘Can’t Just Keep on Yelling,'”New York Times, April 23, 2016.
  2. The Counted: People Killed by the Police in the US,”Guardian, http://theguardian.com; Julia Craven, “Here’s How Many Black People Have Been Killed by the Police This Year. Too Many,”Huffington Post, July 7, 2016, http://huffingtonpost.com.
  3. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor,From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), 23–25.
  4. Ibid., 28.
  5. Michael Martinez, “Policing for profit: How Ferguson’s fines violated rights of African-Americans,” CNN, March 6, 2015, http://cnn.com.
  6. Taylor,From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, 49.
  7. Michelle Alexander,The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012).
  8. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” http://naacp.org.
  9. Taylor,From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, 129.
  10. Ibid., 72.
  11. Ibid., 1, 45, 47.
  12. Judson L. Jeffries,Huey P. Newton: The Radical Theorist (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 69–70.
  13. Taylor,From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, 76, 78, 80.
  14. Ibid., 103–04, 106.
  15. Ibid., 108.
  16. Ibid., 49.
  17. Ibid., 210–11.
  18. Ibid., 150–151.
  19. Ibid., 151.
  20. Ibid., 167.
  21. Ibid., 175–76.
  22. Ibid., 183.
  23. Ibid., 185, 187.
  24. Ibid., 193–94.
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