Why “Black Lives Matter” Matters

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The Black Lives Matter movement has the true potential to do what no other protest against inequality has managed: end in liberation.
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“From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

There is a history of Black oppression in America that dates back to the founding of our country. And while racial inequality seems to inch toward solutions every year, it is never enough to quell the injustice, never enough to bring the racism to an end. In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2015), author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor traces this inequality from its beginning, shows its deep roots on display in today’s society, and proves once and for all why Black Lives Matter is such an important, far-reaching movement.

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A Culture of Racism

“Negro poverty is not white poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences — deep, corrosive, obstinate differences — radiating painful roots into the community, and into the family, and the nature of the individual.
These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice … For the Negro they are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white they are a constant reminder of guilt.
Nor can we find a complete answer in the experience of other American minorities. They made a valiant and a largely successful effort to emerge from poverty and prejudice.
The Negro, like these others, will have to rely mostly upon his own efforts. But he just cannot do it alone. For they did not have the heritage of centuries to overcome, and they did not have a cultural tradition which had been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness, nor were they excluded — these others — because of race or color — a feeling whose dark intensity is matched by no other prejudice in our society.
Nor can these differences be understood as isolated infirmities. They are a seamless web. They cause each other. They result from each other. They reinforce each other.”

— President Lyndon Johnson, Howard University commencement speech, June 4, 1965

“I understand there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.” Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned. Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hard- ships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.”
— President Barack Obama, Morehouse University commencement speech, May 20, 2013

On the same day that the Ferguson Police Department finally revealed the name of Darren Wilson to the public as the police officer who killed Mike Brown, police chief Thomas Jackson simultaneously released a grainy video that appeared to depict Brown in the act of stealing cigarillos from a local convenience store. Jackson later admitted that Wilson did not know that Brown was suspected of having stolen anything. But the real work of the tape had already been done. Brown had been transformed from a victim of law enforcement into a Black suspect whose death was probably justified.

Brown’s depiction as a possible criminal did not derail the fight to win justice for him, but for the mainstream media and other political elites who had stuck their toes in the waters of social justice, Brown’s possible involvement in a criminal act in the moments before his murder cast doubt on his innocence. The New York Times ran an unwieldy story about Brown’s interest in rap music and reported that he had occasionally smoked marijuana — hardly alien activities for youth of any color, but the Times declared that Brown was “no angel.” Months later, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted that twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, killed by police in Cleveland, was a better face for the movement because his death was more “clearcut [sic] and likely to persuade people of a problem.” The attempt to differentiate between “good” and “bad” Black victims of state violence tapped into longstanding debates over the nature of Black inequality in the United States. Was Brown truly a victim of racist and overzealous police, or was he a victim of his own poor behavior, including defying police? Was Brown deserving or undeserving of empathy, humanity, and ultimately justice?

There are constant attempts to connect the badges of inequality, including poverty and rates of incarceration, to culture, family structure, and the internal lives of Black Americans. Even before emancipation, there were relentless debates over the causes of Black inequality. Assumptions of biological and cultural inferiority among African Americans are as old as the nation itself. How else could the political and economic elite of the United States (and its colonial predecessors) rationalize enslaving Africans at a time when they were simultaneously championing the rights of men and the end of monarchy and establishing freedom, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness as the core principles of this new democracy? Thomas Jefferson, the father of American democracy, spoke to this ironically when advocating that freed Blacks be colonized elsewhere. He said of the Black slave:

His imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is the course of a meteor through the sky … Upon the whole, though we admit him to the first place among those of his own color who have presented themselves to the public judgment, yet when we compare him with the writers of the race among whom he lived, and particularly with the epistolary class, in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to enroll him at the bottom of the column …

The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life … It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction. Whether further observation will or will not verify the conjecture, that nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head.

This naked racism flattened the contradiction between enslavement and freedom and, in doing so, justified slavery as a legitimate, if not natural, condition for African Americans. This, of course, was not driven by blind hatred but by the lucrative enterprise of forced labor. Historian Barbara Fields reminds us that “the chief business of slavery,” after all, was “the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco,” not the “production of white supremacy.” The continuing pursuit of cheap and easily manipulated labor certainly did not end with slavery; thus, deep-seated ideas concerning the inferiority of Blacks were perpetuated with fervor. By the twentieth century, shifting concepts of race were applied not only to justify labor relations but more generally to explain the curious way in which the experiences of the vast majority of African Americans confound the central narrative of the United States as a place of unbounded opportunity, freedom, and democracy. This observation challenges the idea that race operates or acts on its own, with only a tangential relationship to other processes taking place within our society.

Ideologically, “race” is in a constant process of being made and remade repeatedly. Fields explains the centrality of ideology in making sense of the world we live in:

“Ideology is best understood as the descriptive vocabulary of day-to-day existence, through which people make rough sense of the social reality that they live and create from day to day. It is the language of consciousness that suits the particular way in which people deal with their fellows. It is the interpretation in thought of the social relations through which they constantly create and re-create their collective being, in all the varied forms their collective being may assume: family, clan, tribe, nation, class, party, business enterprise, church, army, club, and so on. As such, ideologies are not delusions but real, as real as the social relations for which they stand … An ideology must be constantly created and verified in social life; if it is not, it dies, even though it may seem to be safely embodied in a form that can be handed down.”

The point is that explanations for Black inequality that blame Black people for their own oppression transforms material causes into subjective causes. The problem is not racial discrimination in the workplace or residential segregation: it is Black irresponsibility, erroneous social mores, and general bad behavior. Ultimately this transformation is not about “race” or even “white supremacy” but about “making sense” of and rationalizing poverty and inequality in ways that absolve the state and capital of any culpability. Race gives meaning to the notion that Black people are inferior because of either culture or biology. It is almost strange to suggest that Black Americans, many of whose lineages as descendants of slaves stretch back to the first two centuries of the be- ginning of the American colonies, have a culture separate and distinct from other Americans. This framework of Black inferiority politically narrates the necessity of austere budgets while sustaining — ideologically at least — the premise of the “American dream.” The Black experience unravels what we are supposed to know to be true about America itself — the land of milk and honey, the land where hard work makes dreams come true. This mythology is not benign: it serves as the United States’ self-declared invitation to intervene militarily and economically around the globe. Consider President Obama’s words in September 2014, when he declared a new war front against the Islamic State in the Middle East. He said, “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead. From Europe to Asia — from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East — we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity. These are values that have guided our nation since its founding.” What an utterly absurd statement — but that, perhaps, is why the US political and economic leadership clings so tightly to the framework of Black inferiority as the central explanation for Black inequality.

Finally, ideologies do not work when they are only imposed from above. The key is widespread acceptance, even by the oppressed them- selves. There are multiple examples of African Americans accepting some aspects of racist ideology while also rejecting other aspects because of their own experiences. At various times, African Americans have also accepted that “culture” and “personal responsibility” are just as important in understanding Black oppression as racism and discrimination are. But the Black freedom struggle has also done much to confront explanations that blame Blacks for their own oppression — including throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. The Black Lives Matter movement has the potential to shift this again, even as “culture of poverty” politics remain as entrenched as ever and Black inequality remains a fact of American life.

Reprinted with permission fromFrom #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberationby Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, published by Haymarket Books, 2016.

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