In Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s insightful book, historical and contemporary consequences of racism are explored along with the promise of a new potential for Black liberation.
What kind of a movement is Black Lives Matter? Is it a campaign against police violence? A protest movement that wants to revolutionize the USA? An organization fighting for African-American rights and for getting more African Americans to vote or run for public office? Or was it the name of the series of extensive but scattered and disjointed riots that took place in the US in 2014-15 in response to police violence and structural racism? According to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Black Lives Matter is all of the above, but fundamentally it’s a protest movement articulating a pervasive critique of American society’s racial and economic inequalities. As such, BLM is a revolutionary movement or at least a revolutionary movement-to-be. Taylor sees BLM as a reactivation of the most radical part of the Black struggle of the 1960s. BLM forms part of a radical anti-capitalist critique that sees racism as a system that divides the working class and accords white people privileges derived from capitalist production.
In the US, class exploitation and race oppression are intimately interconnected. In contrast to “Afro-pessimists” like Frank B. Wilderson III, who rejects alliances between Blacks and whites and prefers the term “anti-Blackness” to racism, Taylor tries to tie the Black struggle together with what she terms a socialist critique of capitalism. Only as part of a larger societal transformation–that is to say, of a socialist revolution–will it be possible to end the structural racism in the US, argues Taylor. Or as she puts it, “Black liberation is related to the project of human liberation and social change.”
«The threat of a Black revolution in the late 1960s prompted the political system to absorb small groups of Black Americans into the upper class, where they served as “proof” that the US had evolved into a colour-blind society.»
Obama’s Broken Promises
Taylor’s book came out before Trump was elected, but the developments since then have only served to heighten the book’s importance. For a start, it offers an excellent historical overview of American race relations in which BLM is situated in a chain of events running from the late 1960s to Obama’s presidential period when the movement first appeared. The explanation of this paradox–that the most robust Black resistance movement in four decades emerged when there was a Black president for the first time in the country’s history–clearly stems from the Black community’s disillusionment with Obama and with it the realization that changing the system from within is impossible. As Taylor makes clear in her book, the election of Obama carried a promise of change where there would finally be a reckoning with the deep-seated structural racism in the US. The indisputable reality of the latter is starkly illustrated by statistics on wealth, income, housing, education, criminal convictions, incarceration rates and, not least, the number of people killed by the police.
America is not only founded on but still maintains a brutal form of racism that expresses itself through a structural inequality that traps African Americans in poverty or in prison. A systemic change never took place however. Many Black Americans enthusiastically participated in Obama’s campaign, and greater numbers than ever before went to the polls in 2009. The hope was that “Yes, We Can” didn’t merely mean an end to the war in Iraq and the closure of Guantanamo Bay–something Obama never accomplished–but that the slogan stood for something far more ambitious, not the least of which was the development of a genuine social policy that would address and improve the social and economic misery that most Black Americans find themselves in. That hope was never fulfilled. Obama didn’t in any way live up to the promises or to people’s hopes. For, in retrospect, it’s clear that a real reckoning with America’s racism was never part of Obama’s project, nor can it be within the existing framework of America’s national democracy.
The Case of Michael Brown
This became painfully clear in the wake of the protests that erupted after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. Like many Black men before him, the unarmed Brown was fatally shot by the local police. The police subsequently left the body lying in the baking August sun for four hours before removing it. While it was there, they refused his parents’ request to see their dead son. Over the following days the police on several occasions destroyed the temporary memorial that Michael’s parents made at the scene of the shooting.
«In retrospect, it’s clear that a real reckoning with America’s racism was never part of Obama’s project, nor can it be within the existing framework of America’s national democracy.»
The killing and the police’s subsequent conduct angered Ferguson’s African-American residents, who started demonstrating against the local police’s behaviour and against police violence in general. Brown had been merely the latest of a steadily increasing number of unarmed African Americans gunned down by the police in the US. The protests spread quickly and lasted for several months. They took the form of marches, occupations and riots in which shops were looted and cars set on fire.
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