JULY 16, 2016
REVEREND DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.’S book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, marks, for some, the end of an era. Published in 1967, King explores the future of the Civil Rights movement, a movement that he regarded at the time as very much an unfinished project. In the opening chapter, he writes:
Overwhelmingly, America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical step are to be taken […] This limited degree of concern is a reflection of an inner conflict which measures cautiously the impact of any change on the status quo.
King goes on to argue that:
the practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites.
This disappointed, perhaps even cynical, version of King is in stark contrast to the “I Have a Dream” King I was taught about as a child. Often, I have heard his work touted as the reason we currently live in a post-racial society. Some even say that his assassination marked the successful end of the Civil Rights movement. And yet, if the Civil Rights movement ended on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, how then do we explain the riots that occurred right after his death? Or the rise of Black Power in the ’70s? Or the current Black liberation struggle that is vividly embodied by #BlackLivesMatter?
The answers to these questions are, of course, complex. That being said, one cannot understand the current movement for Black Lives if one doesn’t understand what took place in this country between King’s murder and the present moment. Enter Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Taylor, an assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, attempts to answer the following questions as they relate to the current struggle for Black liberation in the United States: How did we get here? Where exactly is “here”? And finally, where do we go from here? Forty-nine years after the publication of King’s text, we are still attempting to answer these questions as Black people. Taylor goes through a detailed analysis of the Black political, social, and economic elite in the years since King’s murder. She then studies the current moment and why the struggle for justice has manifested in protests against police brutality, mass incarceration, and the War on Drugs. Finally, she presents, as King does, her vision for what she believes the movement can be and do in the years to come.
How Did We Get Here? The Rise of the Black Elite
The myth that King ended racism on the mall in Washington, DC, that his dream had become our reality, fell apart as I watched the current struggle for Black liberation — and the events that incited it — engulf our nation. Taylor argues that we got to this moment in part because of the rise of the Black political, social, and economic elite, including Oprah, Denzel Washington, athletes, and Black politicians. She notes that, generally speaking, “The success of a relative few African-Americans is upheld as a vindication of the United States’ colorblind ethos and a testament to the transcendence of its racist past.” But a fair portion of responsibility for the chaos of the current moment, she writes, lies with the Black elite itself — too often they have explicitly validated “the political and economic underpinnings of US society while reaffirming the apparent personal defects of those who have not succeeded.” For Taylor, Black politicians have become especially guilty of doing what white politicians had been doing since the inception of this country: emphasizing the personal defects of those who have not succeeded.
No better example of this emphasis exists than in the response of Black politicians to the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014 and 2015. Taylor notes that,
From the president to the mayor of Baltimore, and beyond, Black elected officials use their “insider” positions as African Americans to project to the Black and white public that they have unique capabilities in the event of Black unrest. The utility of Black elected officials lies in their ability, as members of the community, to scold ordinary Black people in ways that white politicians could never get away with.
And she argues that the scolding posture of the Black elite is actually the product of a deeper political agenda, one that has been decades in the making:
[T]he emphasis on local campaigns and elections did show how much the goals of the Black movement had shifted. Its horizons had narrowed from Black liberation to winning electoral majorities in American cities where African Americans lived, as a defensive stance against the conservative trajectory in national politics and ultimately as a more “realistic” and “pragmatic” path.
This pragmatic and realistic path, Taylor argues, is what led political leaders to find the roots of Black inequality inside their communities, instead of critiquing the systems that created the problems in their communities in the first place.
This inward turn could also be called the move toward personal responsibility. This turn wasn’t just ideological; it had pragmatic implications for the governance of majority black cities. For Black politicians, “Focusing on individual failure and lapsed morality — instead of structural inequities — justifies the budget cuts and the shrinking of the public sphere that Black political elites help facilitate.” Taylor argues that the Black elite took the Black community’s attention, along with the rest of the country’s, off of the deep systemic causes of community problems while, at the same time, blaming the victims of these conditions for the conditions they endured. There seems to be something wrong with this picture. She dryly notes that:
There is something disingenuous in focusing on poor and working-class Blacks without any discussion about the ways that the criminal justice system has “disappeared” Black parents from the lives of their children. When Obama talks about absentee Black fathers, he never mentions the disparity in arrests and sentencing that is responsible for the disproportionate number of missing Black men.
But why isn’t the Black elite able to see the consequences of this shift toward a rhetoric of personal responsibility? Taylor explains this in a way that is at once simple and unpopular at the same time: “African Americans […] can harbor racist ideas about other Black people while simultaneously holding antiracist ideas. After all, Black people also live in this racist society and are equally inundated with racist stereotypes.” In this sense, Black elites have been affected by white supremacy in the same ways as whites; they have internalized its arguments about lazy, shiftless Black people and used it as a lens through which they made their policy decisions.
Where Exactly Is “Here”? The Continued Struggle For Justice
Having mapped out the rise of the Black elite in the years since King’s murder, Taylor goes on to explore our current political moment. At the outset, she argues that we must first understand that for the United States, justice never occurs by accident. It is, “not a natural part of the lifecycle of the United States, nor is it a product of evolution; it is always the outcome of struggle.” The Civil Rights movement never ended; it simply transformed to fight the current manifestations of white supremacy affecting Black folks in this country at this moment. We have been told the exact opposite, of course, that with the election of President Obama, we entered into an era of post-raciality. Taylor argues that in fact, “colorblindness and ‘postracial’ politics are vested in false ideas that the United States is a meritocratic society where hard work makes the difference between those who are successful and those who are not.” This insistence on meritocracy, supported by the anecdotal evidence of limited black success championed by both whites and the Black elite, is why we are in this current moment. Instead of dealing with the systemic manifestations of white supremacy, we moved on from the struggle too soon and now we must deal with the latest iteration of systemic racism: police brutality.
For Taylor, Black elites are partially responsible for current iterations of white supremacy: the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and the obvious consequence of these policies, police brutality. The Black elites co-signing of these policies is part of the reason why the first Black president was silent for so long when it came to specific cases of police brutality. In fact, Taylor notes that, the “transformation in Obama’s rhetoric [re: police brutality] is welcome, but none of it would be possible without the rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore or the dogged movement building that has happened in between.” Protest was key in forcing the Black elite, led by President Obama, to at least acknowledge the social and economic consequences of policies they signed off on. The Black elite’s inability to recognize the roots of suffering in their community is compounded by the fact that even though systems have become diversified and more representative (in other words, less white), they still produce racist outcomes. In fact, “the most diverse police forces in American history have not altered more than a century’s worth of violent, racially discriminatory, and unfair policing.” The failure to alter racist policing comes again from our not understanding that the problem of racist outcomes doesn’t fundamentally come from individual personnel, whether they be cops, judges, or district attorneys; the problem lies with policies that disproportionately target communities of color. This is shown by the fact that, as Taylor admits, Blacks are not the only ones negatively affected by these colorblind policies.
If the estimates of the number of Black people killed by police in the last decade are true, then police have also murdered hundreds of Latinos and thousands of white people. Not only does this constitute a crisis, it also establishes an objective basis upon which multiracial movement against police terrorism can be organized. The overwhelming racist nature of American policing obscures the range of its reach, but it is in the interests of anti-police brutality activists to point out the specific and the generalized nature of police terror.
In fact, Taylor argues, “the long-term strength of the movement will depend on its ability to reach large numbers of people by connecting the issue of police violence to the other ways that Black people are oppressed.” This is because, even though the protests of the past six years have changed political rhetoric, they must continue to push for policy changes. Ultimately, Taylor believes, “Protests can do many things, but protests alone cannot end police abuse and the conditions that are used to justify it.”
Where Do We Go From Here? The Future of the Movement
To begin to answer the question of where we go from here, Taylor first looks into the deep past of American history. She reminds the reader that, “one benefit of the North American form of racial slavery to enslavers and the ruling class generally was that it deflected potential class tensions among white men. American freedom for whites was contingent on American slavery for Blacks.” This means that for Taylor, the movement going forward must acknowledge the initial economic reasons plantation owners decided to divide poor whites and poor blacks. For Taylor, the answer to the problem of white supremacy necessitates, finally, the end of capitalism as we know it. This is due to the fact that:
racism, capitalism, and class rule have always been tangled together in such a way that is it impossible to imagine one without the other. Can there be Black liberation in the United States as the country is currently constituted? No. Capitalism is contingent on the absence of freedom and liberation for Black people and anyone else who does not directly benefit from its economic disorder.
Because of the shared economic interests of working-class whites and working-class people of color, Taylor argues that we must articulate a Marxist path forward out of the current political upheaval.
She argues that going forward, solidarity will be the key to the liberation of all people. We have missed this piece because:
In the contest to demonstrate how oppressions differ from one group to the next, we miss how we are connected through oppression — and how those connections should form the basis of solidarity, not a celebration of our lives on the margins.
And yet, this does not mean that a flattening of experiences must occur. In fact, she argues that solidarity “does not mean experiences of whites and people of color are equal,” but rather that “there is a basis for solidarity among white and nonwhite working-class people.” The struggle for Black liberation, in its attempt to shine light on the injustices experienced by Black folks, at the same time uncovers others experiencing similar injustices, who may then be also willing to engage in the struggle for change. In fact, Taylor argues that,
When the Black movement goes into motion, it throws the entire mythology of the United States — freedom, democracy, and endless opportunity — into chaos. For the same reasons the state ruthlessly crushed the last major movement of the Black freedom struggle. The stakes are even higher today because what seemed then like an alternative — greater Black inclusion in the political and economic establishment — has already come and failed.
This is why she believes that ultimately the, “Black Lives Matter movement” must somehow realize its “potential to make deeper connections to and create relationships with organized labor.” For her, this doesn’t mean white folks simply “becoming allies” with black folks in the struggle for liberation. Instead, Taylor argues that while, “there is nothing wrong with being an ally […] it doesn’t quite capture the degree to which Black and white workers are inextricably linked. It’s not as if white workers can simply choose not to ‘ally’ with Black workers to no peril of their own.”
If what Taylor is argues is true, it would require the movement to seek out solidarity with white workers, the same group now aligning itself with Donald Trump. Even though this may seem like an insurmountable task, Taylor still believes that:
solidarity is only possible through relentless struggle to win white workers to antiracism, to expose the lie that Black workers are worse off because they somehow chose to be, and to win the white working class to the understanding that, unless they struggle, they too will continue to live lives of poverty and frustration, even if those lives are somewhat better than the lives led by Black workers.
The lie that she speaks of is exactly the narrative Trump has used to gain the Republican nomination. As social justice writer and educator Tim Wise has noted, Trump has convinced poor white folks that their problem is poor Brown and Black folks, as opposed to the elites (like Trump) who have benefited from the division of these two groups of people.
The question, though, that has to be asked of Taylor’s Marxist vision is this: Who qualifies as a worker? She notes that ours is “a time when many people are trying to find an entry point into anti-police terror activism and desire to be involved,” but that “this particular method of organizing can be difficult to penetrate,” and one wonders who gets to qualify as a worker in her model of a solution forward. Some of the movement’s strongest advocates are white-collar Black professionals who organize after work and on weekends; they don’t fit the typical image of the “working class.” This seems to be the missing link in Taylor’s analysis, for it still leaves open the question of who will people her version of the movement, and where it will go from here.
Ultimately, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is an essential read for anyone following the movement for Black Lives. The text chronicles a portion of history we rarely ever see, while also bringing together data and deep primary source research in a way that lucidly explains the origins of the current moment. Though the Marxist way forward may seem to some to be cliché, if the question of who qualifies as a worker can somehow come to include the group that the Occupy movement was able to envelop as “the 99 percent”, then Taylor’s vision of solidarity may be a feasible way forward, especially in a season in which Black activists are fighting a presidential candidate who embodies the evils of racism, capitalism, and militarism, the traits that King called the United States’s interrelated flaws; flaws that both King and Taylor argue are “rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society.” If this is the case, then the only way forward may be to pull the tree up by its roots and plant again.
Justin Campbell is a college English professor and freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator of an original podcast on the intersections of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class with spirituality/religion entitled embodied. a podcast.