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. The protests were so widespread that Obama was forced to respond, but his reaction proved an enormous disappointment to African Americans. Obama spoke of peace, reconciliation and the need for being constructive. His speech fell on deaf ears. It was clear that Obama didn’t have a solution either to police violence, or to the underlying structural racism that sustains it.
It was against this backdrop–the unmasking of the inherent racism in the political system–that the Black Lives Matter movement emerged. BLM was a reaction against the structural racism that, unfortunately, is as alive and well today as it was before1965 and the abolition of the racist Jim Crow laws that had perpetuated the oppression of Black Americans after the official end to slavery in 1865.
Structural and Intentional Racism
To Taylor, Obama’s inability to tackle the many racist killings head-on is the culmination of a longer historical process stretching back to the 1960s civil rights movement and the militant Black struggle spearheaded by the Black Panther Party. The threat of a Black revolution in the late 1960s prompted the political system and the local capitalist class 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 where all people had the chance to realize themselves. It follows that if many African Americans are presently behind bars it’s only because they have weak characters, commit crimes or do drugs. It’s the history of the “neo-liberal” shift to individualism that has been ongoing since May of 1968, where structural and social problems are distorted into individual challenges. Obama himself was a kind of proof of this development, for how can racism be a problem in the US when the president is Black! This process, whereby social problems are explained through reference to bad personal choices, was part and parcel of a comprehensive assault on the post-war compromise on labour productivity, in which access to welfare and consumer goods was extended to large parts of the white population (and a minority of the Black).
Starting in the early 1970s, however, attempts at social redistribution were drastically scaled back, a process that especially affected the worst-off part of the American population, namely African Americans. They suffered more than any other group from the neoliberal policies that became a constant feature of American politics from Nixon, through Reagan and Clinton, up until today. This, of course, forms the background for BLM and the protests that erupted in 2014; a centuries-old story of enslavement, racism and inequality that is by no means over. The election of Trump is a sad symptom of this.
Liberation and Trump
If Barack Obama’s victory in the 2009 presidential election seemingly constituted a turning point in the history of racist state oppression in the US–occurring, if nothing else, “politically” within the framework of the representative national democracy in which having a Black man as president was certainly a novelty–then the election of Donald J. Trump represents a huge step backwards. Through his entire campaign Trump ranted against the racially oppressed, immigrants, women and every imaginable minority. Even if Trump’s political project often comes across as a circus devoid of substance (he constantly contradicts himself and seems primarily interested in satisfying his own boundless narcissism) his political programme represents a racist, xenophobic nationalism, or what we may term late-capitalist fascism.
The project is to restore America’s beleaguered greatness, to give shape to an authentic national community where the white, heterosexual man is in charge. Trump will make things right, that’s his promise to voters. We’ll forget about the Black resident, lock up even more Black criminals and deport the immigrants. America will be made great–and white–again.
As Taylor points out, the structural contradictions in contemporary America are so great that the conflicts will merely intensify in the future. Trump himself is a case in point. The gloves are off; the frontlines have been drawn, and the counter-revolution is on its way. Taylor claims that BLM is already a genuinely revolutionary movement, and that the revolution is being organized too. Personally I’m not so sure. The destruction of the western labour movement, of Black resistance and of the revolutionary tradition is so complete that it’s not only difficult to formulate a coherent revolutionary critique, but also unclear how exploitation and dominance are tied together. But let’s hope that Taylor is right and that the revolutionary organization is underway. Otherwise, we will have to place our trust in the uprising; in the moment where everything erupts into a spontaneous revolt. We can perhaps paraphrase Luxembourg’s old mantra and say that the US is faced with the choice between Black socialism and barbarism.